‘The Staircase’ Builds an Addictive Case of True Crime in Suburban America

As an audience we cannot help but continue to be compelled by the shocking ways American privilege can spiral into bloody crime. A sense of social reassurance is shattered when we learn that even in the best neighborhoods no one can really be trusted. The eight-part HBO Max limited series “The Staircase” dramatizes a true crime case that compels with its unnerving game of personalities and claims. How did Kathleen Peterson die on the night of December 9, 2001? Did she fall down the stairs? Or was she killed by her author husband? It reads like the kind of mystery that could easily become another TV procedural. Under the direction of creator Antonio Campos, “The Staircase” is a richer portrait of unbalanced psyches entangled in a web of multiple schemes.

The narrative opens on Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), a successful author who made his name writing war novels. Living in relative comfort in Durham, North Carolina, Peterson also has a reputation for having lied about being a decorated soldier while running for local office. That December 2001 night becomes the ultimate cataclysm in his life when Kathleen (Toni Collette) is bloodily sprawled at the bottom of a staircase in their lavish home. Peterson insists it was an accident, but the police declare the area a crime scene. Speeding to be next to Peterson are his and Kathleen’s grown children, Martha (Odessa Young), Clayton (Dane DeHaan), Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger), Margaret (Sophie Turner) and Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge). When murder charges are officially filed, Peterson hires attorney David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg). As Rudolf prepares for trial, more and more layers of Peterson’s life unravel, including a secret sex life involving local male escorts. 

“The Staircase” has to be labeled true crime because of genre conventions. But it goes beyond the simple question of if a crime was committed. Campos proves again he’s a filmmaker of versatile skill by taking on this story after 2020’s underrated “The Devil All the Time,” a multigenerational film set in a religiously intense rural America. “The Staircase” is also in many ways about a certain sector of America. Like the novels of Tom Perrotta, it journeys into those suburban neighborhoods where the houses are gorgeous and lawns pristine. People seem to stumble into specific kinds of trouble that are typical of the privileged. Each episode gives us a larger window into the Peterson home and its festering tensions. Kathleen works for a corporation undergoing merger issues, yet her husband expects her to help financially with money for their sons, who tend to get into their own kind of trouble. Clayton had some problem with substance abuse the family refers to in code as “spring break.” Standing in for the audience is a French documentary crew led by Jean-Xavier (Vincent Vermignon), who really did make a documentary on this case, following Peterson around from 2001 until the 2010s.

It can take a shocking event to expose someone’s private life, even to their family. By not giving away too much with each development, Campos retains a strong sense of revelation. Once the cops start snooping around, we learn Peterson was also a closet homosexual who had numerous relationships with men at spas and adult video stores, along with meeting escorts in hotels. The author insists to his astounded family that Kathleen knew about all of this and tolerated it. On top of the question over how Kathleen died, now the children have to process how even your parents can be a mystery. This all contrasts with an opulent environment of social safety. But how safe do you feel emotionally if your house is grand but your life is a lie? Peterson expects fierce loyalty and when a confused Todd does some coke to decompress, he warns him, “you’re my centurion.” Caitlin, who was Kathleen’s daughter from a previous relationship, is the first to question the official story and rebels, fighting to keep her mother’s life insurance from going to Peterson.

The great challenge for the audience is that “The Staircase” never makes it easy for us to choose sides, or even come to a conclusion. Peterson may come across as a liar and adulterer, but plenty of people have unsavory characters but never commit murder. In the third episode there’s another shocking revelation about a previous spouse’s death that shakes our perceptions, yet we still can’t be absolutely sure of how the case will resolve itself. Sincerity is not a trait in this world. Even Rudolf the lawyer cannot know for sure when Peterson is being honest with him. Some episodes open with a flash forward to Peterson in 2017 driving around with who we presume is his new wife, a French woman played enigmatically by the great Juliette Binoche. Maybe it’s best to watch the 2004 French documentary after seeing the HBO Max series. This is the kind of mystery that is best enjoyed when we step into it as blind as the family enveloped by the case.

The Staircase” begins streaming May 5 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on HBO Max.