If you didn’t know it was true, you wouldn’t believe it. That’s the abiding sense left by the latest miniseries from HBO Max (shown here on Sky Atlantic), The Staircase. The eight-part drama tells the story of Michael Peterson, whose second wife, Kathleen, died in December 2001. He claimed he found her at the foot of the stairs she had fallen down while drunk and cradled her as he called the emergency services and she breathed her last. The police in Durham, North Carolina, confronted with a body whose head “looked like it exploded” and which seemed to have breathed its last from her quite some time before the call, reckoned he bludgeoned her to death. Peterson was arrested for first degree murder. The subsequent investigation revealed a millefeuille of layers to the man, the family and the story.
If this all sounds familiar, it may be because it has already been the subject of another eight-part miniseries: the 2004 Peabody award-winning documentary of the same name by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. I’m not sure how much anybody who has seen that meticulous piece of work, let alone the five follow-up episodes that appeared in 2013 and 2018, needs what is effectively a dramatization of all the ground covered there. But for those who haven’t, the latter is undoubtedly a hugely compelling who/if/how/whydunnit. For those who have, think of it as a more sophisticated, prestige version of 1984’s Fatal Vision instead of a gutted Gallic thinkpiece and see how you get on.
It opens, briefly, in 2017 with Peterson (Colin Firth) getting smartly dressed and psyching himself up for what appears to be another ordinary day at work. We are then hurled back to the fateful night in December, 16 years ago, as he makes a hysterical 911 call begging for an ambulance. Then we move back again to a few months before, when Michael, Kathleen (Toni Collette) and their children/wards (one from Kathleen’s previous relationship, four from Michael’s) have gathered for a family dinner and college send-off for one of them . There is some bickering among the kids, but basically all is well. The American dream lives.
The drama moves in and out of various timelines – 2017, the months (then weeks, then days, kept careful count of in the corner of the screen) leading up to Kathleen’s death, and the preparation for Peterson’s trial. It skates close to becoming disorientating – particularly when Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) and his documentary team turn up to make their film – but the timeline-hopping generally adds to the growing tension.
And what tension there is. At first the family is united by the horror. But under pressure, cracks form. As evidence against Michael grows – if not probative of murder, then at least of the fact that he is not quite the man they thought he was – the family begins to fracture. Kathleen’s sisters turn against him (Rosemarie DeWitt as one, Candace, is a pure, cold Fury); the children either change allegiance or cling with increasingly blind and furious faith to their belief in the only parent they have left; and their uncle Bill (Tim Guinee) is tested to the very limit as revelations accrue and he is blindsided at every turn. Like Alice, he and the viewer sometimes feel they are being asked to absorb six impossible things before breakfast. It’s here that the core credibility of documentary form is needed – the urge to dismiss some of the twists taken by the case, when you know you’re watching actors acting, is almost overwhelming.
The American legal system comes under dramatic scrutiny, too. We see the lawyers, Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss) and Freda Black (a magnificently flinty Parker Posey), amassing facts but deciding on the best prosecutorial “tricks” with which to present them, and others along the way nudging would-be errant players into position. Like the documentary, it is as much a portrait of how we construct a truth and the impossibility, eleven humans in all their messy complexity get involved, of ever uncovering a single, shining, objective one.
Firth and Collette are, as you might expect, brilliant. The former is slippery and arrogant, putting in a performance that teeters on so many brinks – deeply loving yet coercive with family, paralyzed with grief yet sociopathically detached, self-indulgent yet narcissistic – that you cannot help watching to see if and which way he will fail. Collette is given less to work with, but nevertheless conjures it into an impressive turn as a loving wife periodically placed in impossible situations. We see her navigating rough domestic waters and divided loyalties in a weary, occasionally desperate way many will recognise.
All in all, a staircase well worth climbing.