As HBO’s hit limited series The Staircase comes to a close, it is time to take a look back and assess what we just witnessed. The story follows author Michael Peterson (portrayed by Colin Firth) who finds his wife, Kathleen (Toni Collette) dead at the bottom of the staircase in their Durham, NC home in 2001.
The critically acclaimed documentary of the same name came out in 2004 a few years after the trial and is now available to stream on Netflix, while this fictionalized version tells the tale of The Staircase through flashbacks to the Petersons’ lives before the murder, the night of the murder, the times leading up to the trial, the trial, and beyond. It has been quite a ride, so before we discuss how it ended, let’s look at how we got here.
Michael Peterson and his wife Kathleen were first married in 1997. Their blended family included Michael’s two sons from his first marriage, Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan) and Todd Peterson (Patrick Schwarzenegger), Kathleen’s daughter from her first marriage, Caitlin Atwater (Olivia DeJonge), and Michael’s two adopted daughters, Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner) and Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young). Michael and his ex-wife, Patty (Trini Alvarado), had become the legal guardians of Margaret and Martha after both of their parents died. Clayton has been in some trouble in the past, but has since been trying to turn his life around. Todd, who has always been the responsible one, starts to unravel under the pressure of the trial.
After Kathleen’s death, her two sisters, Candace (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Lori (Maria Dizzia) firmly believe Michael at first, but quickly switch sides, along with Caitlin, and stand with the prosecution. Bill Peterson (Tim Guinee), Michael’s brother, is his biggest ally and works with the lawyers and the family to try and keep everything in order while it feels like chaos. Michael is convinced that the DA is on a witch hunt since Michael had written critical columns on the DA in the past. Michael had also been caught in a lie in the press when he claimed he won a Purple Heart in Vietnam when he had not.
Meanwhile, in France, two filmmakers are searching for their next project. When producer Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) and director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) come across the Peterson story, they wonder if there is a story there. The filmmakers, with Michael’s permission, are granted 24/7 access to document the entire process from prepping for the trial, the trial itself, and after the jury verdict is announced. Editor Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche) finds herself so entranced with Peterson she begins reaching out to him via letters to prison. When they meet, they fall in love, and she leads the charge on the Owl Theory. (We’ll get back to that.)
Peterson has to hire a high-powered defense team for his trial. He hires David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose price tag is as big as his reputation. Rudolf is highly skeptical of the documentary crew following their every move but eventually has to relent. On the prosecution side, Durham County District Attorney Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss) and Assistant District Attorney, Freda Black (Parker Posey) take on the case.
The DA’s case focuses mainly on Michael Peterson’s lifestyle. He was an out bisexual man who had continuous affairs with men outside his marriage. DA Hardin and ADA Black really hammer home that they found it difficult to believe that Kathleen knew anything about this, alleging that upon discovery of photos and messages on his computer, it led to a confrontation that ended in Michael brutally beating Kathleen to death at the bottom of the staircase. The medical examiner rules that the cause of death was blunt force trauma. However, there are no skull fractures, which is practically impossible.
The DA contracts the SBI (North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation) to recreate the scene and figure out exactly how the murder took place. Their lead analyst, Duane Deaver (Myke Holmes) leads the charge in recreating the scene to prove the prosecution’s case. The prosecution also discovers that back when Michael and Patty lived in Germany, Michael found ANOTHER woman at the bottom of a staircase – Elizabeth Ratliff, the biological mother of Margaret and Martha. Meanwhile, Michael’s defense attorneys hire their own blood spatter experts, who testify that the blood patterns are just not consistent with a brutal strike to the head. There is also an alternate theory put forth by Peterson’s neighbor Larry (Joel McKinnon Miller) that Kathleen was viciously attacked by an owl. Sophie is skeptical hearing about this theory at first, but soon leans in and pushes for a re-examination of the body. For exhumation, she has to receive permission from Caitlin, who vehemently denies her request.
The jury finds Michael guilty and sentences him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Michael is having a rough time in prison. His only respite is his new relationship with Sophie, the documentary editor, and her letters. His appeal is rejected, but the documentary is a huge hit and renews interest in his case. The Innocence Project gets involved and approaches Freda Black, now working at a dry cleaner, for information. She agrees to help them and tips them off that the SBI is very corrupt and should be looked into. The SBI, the organization that recreated the crime scene, is placed under investigation for unethical practices, which opens up another opportunity for an appeal in Michael’s case.
The final episode of the series is told through three time periods – 2001, the day before Kathleen’s death, 2011, the night before Michael’s retrial, and 2017, when Michael is contemplating the Alford plea.
In 2001, Kathleen calls Candace to apologize for their argument over Thanksgiving and Michael notices a bunch of owls above their home. Inside, he and Kathleen have quite a makeup session after their own argument the night before at dinner. Together, they go to the Durham Herald Christmas Ball. Kathleen even has a brief run-in with Freda Black. (We do not know if this is factual or just a dramatized coincidence.) On the night of her death, Todd pops by and sees Michael and Kathleen watching a movie and having a lovely evening together.
In 2011, a retrial hearing was granted after Duane Deaver, the analyst that had given the damning evidence against Michael at the first trial, finds himself under investigation. As Todd tries to explain social media followers to Clay and Martha finally comes out to Margaret, the family tries desperately to maintain a sense of normalcy. The family gathers in the courtroom for the retrial hearing. Candace makes an impassioned plea for a dismissal, but the judge overrules her. Rudolf calls witnesses including the lead investigator from The Innocence Project and manages to convince the judge that Deaver lied about his qualifications on the stand. A retrial is granted, and Michael is released from prison and sentenced to house arrest with an ankle bracelet.
The family is ecstatic but quickly learns that not everybody is thrilled and accepting of his release, with public scrutiny at an all-time high. Michael struggles with life outside of prison and sees his children are struggling as well. Todd, who used to be the responsible son, now seems to be falling apart as Clay, who used to be the irresponsible one, has fallen into the role of caretaker. Their mom, Patty, decides to relocate back to NC to be near Michael and the boys.
In 2017, Michael is contemplating taking the Alford plea, in which he would have to plead guilty to the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter for a reduced sentence, but he could not be retried. He also has the option of pleading not guilty and again facing a new trial in front of a jury. At the hearing for the Alford plea, the courtroom is noticeably less full. The prosecution calls Kathleen’s sister Candace to the stand, and she tears Michael a new one… again. Michael ultimately takes the Alford plea, which involves the defendant acknowledging there is enough evidence to find him guilty of charges while also maintaining innocence, and is sentenced to time already served. His children, who all decided not to attend the hearing, see the news break on television but decide to keep their distance to try and maintain normalcy in their own lives.
Ultimately, Michael decides not to move to Paris in order to start a new life elsewhere with Sophie, and their relationship ends. Later, Jean-Xavier shows Sophie the latest footage of his chat with Michael, where he explains his bisexuality. In the footage, Michael also admits Kathleen never knew about his affairs with men or that he was bisexual. However, he maintains adamantly that Kathleen’s death was an accident. But if he lied about something that big… what else did he lie about? Jean and Sophie do not know what to think anymore. Do any of us?