True crime and courtroom drama aficionados might already be familiar with the comprehensive, landmark documentary The Staircase, and if they aren’t, they should get acquainted with it immediately. Originally produced for French television and aired in North America on Sundance Channel and ABC (albeit in a greatly reduced form on the latter network) in 2004, Oscar winning filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s rigorous look at a sensationalized, twisty murder trial from the perspective of the defense, remained for years a high water mark for true crime narratives that few had been able to match. But even after the original eight episodes were filmed, edited, and aired, the case in question continued and two more episodes were produced in 2013 to document a lengthy appeals process. And now, in 2018, with three additional, all new episodes produced for Netflix (which has the entirety of the series available to stream), things seem to have come to a tenuous conclusion that offers little closure for the parties involved.
In December of 2001 in the affluent Chapel Hill section of Durham, North Carolina, Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of the back staircase in the home she shared with her husband, Michael Peterson, a bestselling novelist who drew upon his experiences in the military during Vietnam for inspiration. Michael and his lead counsel, David Rudolf, contended that Kathleen’s death was a tragic accident caused by too much to drink and extreme circumstance. But the sheer amount of blood found at the crime scene and contusions found on Kathleen’s head were enough for local authorities to arrest Michael and charge him with first-degree murder. The sixteen year long judicial proceedings that followed would be marred by long kept personal secrets coming to light, shocking revelations about a previous incident involving Michael that were eerily similar to Kathleen’s death, rampant mismanagement on the part of the prosecution and their analytical team, and profound anguish for Michael and Kathleen’s respective families over the lack of closure.
The trial of Michael Peterson and the ensuing fallout is something that could easily be read about online or in any number of publications, but The Staircase works best and most thoughtfully if viewers know as little as possible about the case when going in, placing them in the shoes of a potentially unspoken jury member. The first four episodes of Lestrade’s work move at a lightning fast pace, each opening with a “holy shit” revelation about Michael and the case in the weeks leading up to his trial, firmly establishing a groundwork for everything that follows, but never fully preparing the viewer for the countless eleventh hour revelations and twists that naturally arose from the case. Episodes four through eight rarely leave the courtroom, with Lestrade gaining unprecedented access to the trial, Michael’s family members, Rudolf’s legal team, and to Peterson himself.
What’s curiously absent from The Staircase, however, is input from Kathleen’s family and the prosecutors working on behalf of the State of North Carolina. While this omission initially feels off putting, by episodes nine and ten Lestrade’s change in direction and his overall thesis will make perfect sense. Initially starting out with access to both sides of the case, after about the fifth episode or so, the only access to the prosecution becomes limited, mostly relegated to courtroom proceedings or footage that the filmmaker has sourced from other journalistic outlets.
What emerges almost immediately from The Staircase are two things. First, that Michael Peterson is an eloquently spoken, but slippery customer who’s clearly bottling up a lot more than he’s letting on regardless of his guilt, innocence or culpability. Second, is that The Staircase has been constructed as a detailed, profound look at judicial due process and how prosecutors might be compelled to cut corners if they believe a case to be less than a slam-dunk victory. We’re never fully convinced of Michael Peterson’s innocence. Although Lestrade heavily sides with the defendant in later episodes – aside from a memorable courtroom blow-up from one of Kathleen’s sisters in the final installment that basically says that Lestrade or anyone watching his film is complicit in her sister’s death – there’s a sense that reasonable doubt works both ways.
Michael Peterson is not easily likable, but he might not be an evil person. He seems like a loving family man when around his son and adopted daughters, but he’s willing to callously talk about Kathleen’s understandably distraught family members like their feelings aren’t valid. Similarly, Kathleen’s family has become overcome with rage that’s only compounded by a prosecution team that fails them at every turn by employing less than reputable science. Rudolf is an exceptional lawyer, and watching him gradually become burnt out by the case makes him the closest thing The Staircase has to a real protagonist, but we’re never sure just how much he knows about Michael and what he’s not letting us in on. By the end of The Staircase, regardless of the confounding, open ended “resolution” to everything, one won’t be any closer to understanding what happened on that December night, and that’s part of the point.
The Peterson case has so much going on within the margins and outside of the frame that Lestrade can’t cover it all, even with hours of screen time and years of preparation at his disposal, which makes it disappointing that in the most recently produced episodes, the filmmaker leans far too heavily on lengthy interviews with Michael to pad things out unnecessarily with restatements of things that are already known or heavily inferred.
The Staircase functions best as a documentary looking intently on the shortcomings of the American legal system, and how things can become so convoluted and messy that both victims and the accused will never find justice, closure, or peace. Few looks inside a murder trial have been granted this much access to a delicate, incendiary subject, and the results are one of the most rigorous, enthralling, and purposefully confounding documentaries in television history. If you claim to love courtroom dramas and true crime narratives, you haven’t seen it all until you’ve seen The Staircase.
All thirteen episodes of The Staircase are now available for streaming on Netflix.
Check out the trailer for The Staircase: