On December 9, 2001, Michael Peterson called 911 in a state of absolute panic. He reported that he had just found his wife Kathleen at the bottom of their stairs in their North Carolina home, and the scene was ghastly. Kathleen Peterson was pronounced dead at the scene and authorities immediately became skeptical of Michael’s story that his wife must have fallen after mixing Valium and alcohol. As the investigation progressed, the secret life of Michael Peterson became exposed to public scrutiny as did an amazing coincidence regarding another woman’s death and some truly unusual case details. A French film crew would follow Peterson’s case from right after the indictment and for more than the next decade, producing an amazing, foundational true crime docuseries called “The Staircase” (which can be streamed on Netflix.)
Now, HBO Max has a prestige mini-series of the same name, a passion project for director Antonio Campos (“The Devil All the Time”), who has been working on it for years. While the story is a little overly familiar to anyone with even a remote interest in true crime—this case has been unpacked on pretty much every related podcast and cable series since the words “true crime” had any meaning—this is a very well-done drama, a show that procedurally examines the impact of a trial as it works as a whodunit for a case with no easy answers. It’s about the invasion of privacy through investigations, TV interviews, public judgment, and the general invasiveness of trial prep on everyone who should be going through the grieving process. Campos and company make some structural errors in the writing, but performance, craft, and the overall fascinating nature of this story keep it on the upward trajectory.
“Even when I know he’s telling the truth, it can sound like a lie,” says the fictional version of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon), the director of the original “The Staircase” seen here because that’s how much the docuseries became a part of this story. He’s right. There’s something about Michael Peterson that feels untrustworthy, even if there’s no proof, and Colin Firth nails that uncertain edge, the sense that we shouldn’t trust this guy even if we have yet to see the evidence to prove it, all the way down to his quirky accent. He doesn’t lean too far in either direction. Lesser actors would have overplayed the potentially sinister aspects of the character or gone the other way and leaned into the “wrongfully convicted” melodrama. He’s very good. (Although it would have been fascinating to see the once-attached Harrison Ford in the role). There’s something unsettling about a guy who admitted to lying about having a Purple Heart for an injury in Vietnam when he was running for Mayor. What else has he lied about? Did Kathleen know about his sexual proclivities? No one else knew, and her daughters don’t believe mom did either. Could Michael be lying about everything?
The theory of the state is that Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) found out about her husband’s bisexuality—another thing that he’s not clear on in that he first claims it was merely curiosity but is later alleged to have included actual infidelity—and a fight ensued that led to her death at the end of a fireplace tool. While the family first stands behind Michael, they start to fracture under doubt too. Michael’s adopted daughters from a mother who also happened to have fallen down the stairs, Margaret (Sophie Turner) and Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young), and his sons from a previous marriage, Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan), stand behind their father. But his sister-in-law Candace (Rosemarie DeWitt) and step-daughter Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) eventually split, especially after seeing the autopsy photos. Cullen Moss and Parker Posey play the prosecutors who go after Peterson; Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as Peterson’s no-nonsense attorney. Finally, Juliette Binoche appears in a role that’s not really supposed to be spoiled, but she’s typically phenomenal.
All of this A-list ensemble works to dispel the images of the actual people involved that crime junkies know so well. It’s surprising how quickly the real Peterson and his family fall away, supplanted by these recreations. They’re all excellent, especially Firth, Stuhlbarg, DeJonge, and Binoche. The only thing that holds them back really is the chronological gamesmanship that has become so prevalent in modern mini-series, although that starts to drop away a bit after the first couple of episodes, and the show gets stronger for it. Yes, some things about this story are better served if they don’t play out in order, but the first few episodes feel almost arbitrarily structured, not as if a flashback is feeding something thematically that happened later as much as jumble just for the sake of being artsy.
There’s also a nagging sense that some of “The Staircase” takes too long in this form, although the true story certainly has enough meat on its bones (the docuseries is even longer overall than this 8-hour venture), and the slow pace allows for Campos’ weirdness to bleed through like when he plays “I Can’t Stop Loving You” into a funeral scene or allows the versions of the crime to play out in some of the most disturbing real-time sequences of bloody death that have ever been seen on television. It’s a literal horror movie. And it’s telling that he hands the directorial reins over to horror filmmaker Leigh Janiak (“Fear Street”) for two chapters—this is not for the faint of heart. Although it’s admirable that Campos and company take Kathleen’s death seriously. Whether it was an accident or murder, her death was brutal, and it does the story a disservice to look the other way.
“It’s a love story set in the South where nothing is what it seems,” says the French filmmaker who would make “The Staircase” into true crime series history. He’s not lying. This is a case where all of the pieces don’t fit, no matter what version you believe about what happened that night. It’s about different versions of justice, public judgment, betrayal, and family allegiance. This story really has it all, and Campos clearly gets all of it. His obsession with the case pays off as he turns it into high drama, and high art. [A-]