HBO Max’s ‘The Staircase’ May Be the Truest Crime Series We’ve Got

There is a scene in the second episode of Antonio Campos’s coolly ferocious new mini-series The Staircase (May 5) that haunts everything that comes after. It is a suggestion that the much-publicized 2001 death of wealthy Durham, North Carolina business executive Kathleen Peterson was, as her husband Michael Peterson still insists, an accident. 

We watch as the actor playing Kathleen, Toni Collette, heads back inside the house after a night of gentle carousing with Michael (Colin Firth) by the pool. She puts her wine glass on the kitchen counter, considers checking her email before bed but changes her mind, and begins making her way up the back stairs of her stately mansion. Suddenly, her flip-flop catches, she slips, and is tossed back against the wall, badly hitting her head, a halo of blood swiftly seeping out. She struggles to get up. She tries to call for help. Eventually, she dies. 

It’s as gruesome as anything I’ve seen on screen in quite a long time. For all its quotidian horror—how many times have you taken a stair too quickly after a couple drinks, or had a little wobble when you’re tired or distracted?—and for the simple fact that we have no idea if it actually happened. The jury that convicted Michael of killing his wife didn’t think it did, but the filmmakers of a 2004 French documentary series, also called The Staircase in the U.S., seemed less certain. Michael has since been released from prison after being granted a new trial and submitting an Alford plea. But myriad questions still linger around this sensational case. It’s a mystery that may simply be explained by a terrible, tiny twist of fate, a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere far away. 

Or, Michael killed her. Or something happened in between those two absolutes. It is that intrigue, that certainty tangling with nagging doubt, that has made the Peterson story such an enduring fascination for over 20 years. Campos was one of those fascinated people—he can be seen in courtroom footage in the 2013 continuation of the documentary, attending as a curious spectator. And now he has made this fictionalized version of the saga, a peculiar and probing and damning piece of work that is about the Peterson family but also, I suspect after watching five episodes, about all of us, too. 

Well, those of us who have had our own true-crime obsessions, anyway. The awful scene in the stairway—which is re-created again in a later episode, only as a murder this time—is the most bold, and critical, interrogation of our interest in such things. “Is this what you wanted to see?” Campos seems to ask as Collette thrashes and moans in horrifyingly convincing fashion. There’s a tinge of Michael Haneke’s two Funny Games films in that question, a demand that the audience confront what the violence they are craving actually might look like in the unstylish, unedited, un-dramatically motivated real world. Campos does not take it easy on those viewers, nor on himself, in staging this event with such unblinking clarity.

But as the series goes, its inquiry into the nature of true-crime becomes more searching and, maybe, empathetic. The Staircase is intensely concerned with not just the mystery at hand, but with the mystery of all people, maybe all of life. Campos, who directed six episodes and ran the show with Maggie Cohn, fills the series with small and tantalizing detail. Tiny human moments that his camera seems to ambiently capture may lead to big things—a reveal, a twist, an outburst—down the line, or they may just be hints of personal stories we’ll never see on screen. 

All of these murder stories that we consume in television or film or podcast form are, of course, edited in the pursuit of a thesis, and are thus informed by the tempers and whims and passions of the people doing the editing. To that end, Campos makes the French documentarians who created The Staircase characters in his own Staircase. The fifth episode follows editor Sophie Brunet (an actor we’ve been asked not to name) as she corresponds with Michael, then in prison awaiting appeal, and goes about her work, curating and stitching together the 500 hours of footage collected by director Jean-Xavier Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon). 

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