The Staircase 🤬 Series Review


Written by Thelonia

The Staircase is considered the granddaddy of all true crime documentaries. The original 2004 documentary (8 episodes long) centered around the murder of Kathleen Peterson and her husband Michael's defense strategy during his 2004 trial for her murder (on the title Staircase). The series came back for 2 episodes in 2012 to cover Michael's efforts at getting a retrial (minimal spoilers), and was recently picked up by Netflix, who also produced 3 new episodes (filmed in 2018) which brought the entire series of 13 episodes to Netflix, where it could be consumed in one go by a whole new market who perhaps missed the original series.

Really, if you like true crime documentaries, or know anything about this case, you will probably just wind up yelling at the tv screen for approximately 90% of The Staircase's run-time.

On the night of December 9th, 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found by her husband Michael at the foot of their back staircase. She was still breathing, he said on the 911 call, pleading the 911 operator to send help. By the time the paramedics arrived, she was dead.

Of course, that's Michael's version of events. We will never know Kathleen's. The Staircase bases its entire existence on the question of what actually happened, veering between revelations about secrets Michael may have been keeping from Kathleen to blood splatter analysis of all kinds (of course, this doesn't age particularly well now that blood splatter evidence isn't admissible in court regardless of what either side says it does).

Perhaps the bigger point of the whole thing, and certainly what struck me throughout the entire series, is the difference when the defense has resources. After so many stories of poor marginalized people convicted because no one was willing to go for bat for them, it's striking to see a case where the person accused of the crime has the money for a good lawyer, experts, and a team of people to go through every piece of evidence, looking for cracks in the prosecution's case.

There are a few things that stick out to me as a viewer and as something that seems to be controversial with other viewers as well: (minor Spoiler here) as Michael is revealed to have had sexual relationships with men while married to Kathleen, a large emphasis is placed on this on two terms: that he was having affairs (he doesn't like that word) and that it was with men. While I can agree that the emphasis placed on the gender of the people he was involved with was definitely rooted in some homophobia, I can't say like some people are that it's irrelevant to the case. More than whatever Michael's sexual orientation is, this evidence is important because of the complication it adds to the Peterson's marriage. That Kathleen knew and was okay with it is something we only hear from Michael, so it's really up in the air. (And based on some of his comments in the last episode, I think it's very unclear as to how much she ever knew).

There is also a discrepancy in my opinion in Peterson's timeline. The blood was dry when the paramedics arrived, but Michael said she was still alive when he'd called 911 earlier. Now, that could be explained with him being frazzled by finding his wife's body, but he makes a large show of telling the cameras later on that she died in his arms, and that it was something that would stick with him forever. He could be aggrandizing his role to create more pathos, but if that's the case, he's making himself look worse. Either he's lying to make himself look better or he's lying because he had something to do with it, and it's not in his best interest to lie about this.

The whole Germany case is an added spanner in the works of the machine. When Michael and his first wife lived in Germany, one of their friends, Liz Ratliff, died by falling down the staircase. Michael was one of the first people to see her the morning she was discovered. He later adopted her two daughters. The whole affair's relevancy is iffy in a lot of ways but it comes down to two things: if you think he's guilty, this story is either the first time he's attacked someone in this manner, or the place where he observed what someone who fell down the stairs looks like, or he is literally the most unlucky man in the world.

It also complicates the Owl theory, because if it was an owl, then did it fly to Germany 15 years earlier and then back to the states?

To explain the Owl thing, if you have heard of the case before watching the documentary, it's likely to be about 1. The Owl did it (I am sorry to report the documentary literally never mentions the owl theory) or 2. that the woman who edited it, Sophie Brunet, literally fell in love with Michael Peterson and was involved with him for 15 years (a relationship which ended in 2017, a month after he entered an Alford plea, which is a fun detail).

These two things are not mentioned in the documentary: the director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade stated that Brunet's feelings never got involved, but it's definitely a nagging detail, and also said that the Owl theory was never mentioned because it was never used in trial. I can sort of understand that for the first 8 episodes but I do think it should have at least been mentioned in the most recent Netflix episodes, which otherwise drag quite a bit and could definitely use a little injection of interest, like, a whole new theory involving an indoor bird attack.

The Staircase is one of the most divisive true crime series I've ever seen. Those who believe in Michael Peterson's innocence see a completely different thing than those who believe in his guilt. Once more, like other true crime series (like Making a Murderer) the final verdict is perhaps not whether or not the subject is guilty or not but that there was not enough evidence to decide one way or the other in court, though there is a lot of information on the Peterson case that never even gets mentioned in the series, making the whole thing feel a little like homework, where if you're actually invested you need to do your own research to get all the facts, which isn't necessarily the best viewing experience. However, if you're interested in true crime and seeing the originator of a lot of documentary tropes, definitely check it out, but maybe carve out some googling time afterwards if you're inclined that way.

The Staircase is available to watch on Netflix.

(also, watch Trial and Error):

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