Accident or murder? 'The Staircase' is an addictive true-crime series

This intellectually-challenging, real human drama explores the trials novelist Michael Peterson faces after being charged for the murder of his wife

12 August 2018 - 00:00
Michael Peterson, whose court ordeals form part of the Netflix true-crime series 'The Staircase'. He was charged with killing his second wife, Kathleen, in 2001.
Michael Peterson, whose court ordeals form part of the Netflix true-crime series 'The Staircase'. He was charged with killing his second wife, Kathleen, in 2001.
Image: Netflix

On the night of December 9 2001, novelist Michael Peterson and his wife, Kathleen, spent the evening watching the romantic comedy America's Sweetheart and then sipping some wine and chatting about their kids by the pool of their Durham, North Carolina, home.

Kathleen left Michael by the pool and went inside. When Michael returned to the house he found his wife lying, still conscious but badly injured, at the foot of the staircase inside. He called 911 but by the time the ambulance arrived, Kathleen was dead. Shortly after this, the police arrived. They arrested Michael and charged him with the murder of his wife.

The case drew a lot of media attention and the interest of French documentary filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade whose most recent film, Murder on a Sunday Afternoon, the story of the wrongful murder conviction of a 15-year-old African-American boy in Jacksonville, Florida, would win the Academy Award for best documentary in 2002.

Lestrade spent four years covering the Peterson trial, filming thousands of hours of footage of Peterson and his family, his defence team and the trial to produce The Staircase, an eight-episode TV series that first screened in 2005.

In 2011, two additional episodes were added to create The Staircase 2: The Last Chance, which was screened on the Sundance Channel.

Now, Netflix has added a further three episodes to bring the entire saga to the streaming service as a 13-episode, 15-year epic true-crime series. 

While The Staircase is not necessarily a shining example of objective journalism, it certainly serves up a compelling, addictively bingeable, tantalisingly plot-twisted and full-of-surprises examination of the flaws in the US justice system that affect even those wealthy and white enough to theoretically enjoy its supposed benefits.

WATCH | The trailer for The Staircase

As a pioneer of the in-depth, long-game true-crime genre that's enjoyed such recent popularity in the age of "peak TV", Lestrade's enterprise has certainly earned its deserved place. That said, it is easy to see how Kathleen's family's complaints about its bias towards her husband's struggle are difficult to argue with.

However, without giving too much away, there is still a lot to be said for Peterson's version of events and the emotional shockwaves and obvious strains that the whole messy experience has subjected him and his family to.

As anyone who covered the Oscar Pistorius case here can testify, it becomes quickly clear that in such cases, irrespective of the lawyers you hire or the tears you cry in court, the hope that the truth of events will be revealed is one that quickly fades under the cold, clinical stare of the requirements of the law.

Lestrade's aim is not to try to come to a definite conclusion about what might have happened on the night of December 9 2001, but to examine the trial as a separate preformative event in and of itself that takes on its own shape and idiosyncrasies.

As it exerts its heavy toll and makes its painstakingly slow journey towards the achievement of a justice that can never really be as blind as our idealism would like us to believe it is, the series works quietly but potently to break down the assumptions and prejudices of everyone involved.

If your preference is for happy endings, solid truths and satisfying resolutions then there are other true-crime offerings that will give you what you want; but if you prefer long, detailed, carefully executed and intellectually challenging, real human drama, then this is a masterclass.

With plenty to mull over, it raises all-too-pertinent questions about the relationships between individuals and systems and the frail threads that connect them.