The eponymous staircase that’s central to Netflix’s stunning new thirteen-part crime documentary series can be found at 1810 Cedar Street, in the North Carolina city of Durham. The fifteen steps that comprise the staircase, as we soon discover, provide the literal and metaphorical downfall of the Peterson family. Their extraordinary story tumbling down in front of us, across some twelve hours of what might just be the single greatest piece of long-form documentary making ever created.
While Netflix’s most recent true crime hit Evil Genius affords us a glimpse into a truly bizarre felony, The Staircase is totally different animal. The crime itself is somewhat less sensational and headline-grabbing, but the cumulative effect of witnessing what turns out to be an astonishing legal case is truly staggering. To watch this story unfold from its very beginning in 2001 up until the present day and experience its endless ups and down and developments is, as hackneyed as it may sound, something of a roller coaster – albeit a slow roller coaster that requires dedication, emotional investment and patience in order to really thrill and shock you.
So what actually happened on that staircase? Well, therein lies the rub. It’s the very crux of this entire series…
It was the night of December 9th, 2001. Married couple Michael and Kathleen Peterson were at home, watching a rental video and enjoying a couple of bottles of wine. They decided to sit out by the pool and chat for a while afterwards. The hours ticked away and soon Kathleen, noticing the time, decided to retire, leaving Michael outside alone. She kissed him goodnight and walked into their 9,000 sq. ft. house, climbing the stairs to bed. That was to be the last peace and serenity that house would see for more than fifteen years.
At around 2:40am the local emergency line received a frantic 911 call from a panicked Michael Peterson.
“Please! My wife had an accident… She fell down the stairs. Please come!”
The emergency services arrived quickly but Kathleen had already died at the bottom of the staircase. Slumped and hunched over, her body bruised and her scalp severely lacerated. Blood stains painted the stairs, walls and floor. Author and Vietnam veteran Michael appeared to be utterly beside himself. Police on the scene quickly decided that they were standing in the middle of a potential crime scene. Kathleen, it seemed to them, had been beaten to death. Her husband Michael, their prime suspect.
What follows next is an exhaustive and forensic examination of the complexities of the American legal system. Ultimately, through the prism of Kathleen Peterson’s death, The Staircase shows the severe limitations of current US and state legislation and its various inadequacies. We see how evidence can get skewed, ignored, twisted, forgotten and outright falsified to reach convenient conclusions. The true level of expediency over principle and justice being nothing less than shocking.
That’s not to say that Michael Peterson is innocent of the crime, necessarily. Whether he was responsible for his wife’s murder is an inescapable quandary, but it’s not one that the filmmakers seek to discover. That burden lies with the various government agencies and, ultimately, the prosecution in the case. Instead, the details are laid out for the audience to decide for themselves. Although, as with any documentary, complete impartiality is impossible. Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his crew basically lived in the Peterson residence throughout the case and very few interviews of any real length are carried out with ‘the other side’, be it law enforcement or family that believe Michael to be guilty.
Yet at no point do we feel like we being force-fed a narrative. Netflix’s most successful crime documentary series to date, Making a Murderer, was good television. But as an impartial documentary, it was woeful. A true documentary needs to present the evidence and allow the viewer to decide, not pick a side and force an angle. Doing that while ‘investigating’ a potential miscarriage of justice is not only dangerous, it’s liable to make your irony meter explode.
The Staircase, it’s safe to say, is epic. Charting some 15+ years in a man’s life, it was originally filmed as an eight-part series which aired on the BBC back in 2004. Developments in the case compelled de Lestrade to film two more hours nine years later. Then, last year, Netflix commissioned him to put together two more episodes with a view to releasing all thirteen parts as a sweeping long-form documentary. And boy does it sweep. It’s scope, in the context of the story, is vast.
We won’t go into any real detail as to the court case itself for fear of spoilers. But suffice to say that the twists and turns are almost relentless throughout.
Not only does this documentary series detail the case, the defence and the prosecution (and all its various mismanagement and corruption), it also paints a picture of a man. A flawed man, but an oddly likeable man. An intelligent man. A family man. A family who might just have killed his wife.
Michael Peterson’s musings and pontifications range from the deep and philosophical to the flippant and pretentious. From the considered and wise, to the rambling, arrogant and borderline spiteful. He’s a complicated man and it’s a complicated case. But it’s a complicated life.
Peterson is inescapably central to The Staircase, but he’s only really one of a cast of characters that make the story resonate with the viewer. Perhaps the biggest star – and hero – of the piece is Michael’s sharp-witted defence attorney, the smooth and bearded figure of David Rudolf. His witty and loveable team providing capable support. Then there’s the Peterson family: Michael’s sons, adoptive daughters, brothers and even ex-wife. The grace with which they take each setback and obstacle is truly inspirational and heartening. The love is real.
There are thirteen steps to Netflix’s incredible new true-crime series, The Staircase. All are worth climbing. It can be a steep incline at times, but it’s an ascent that’s well worth making.
Have you watched Netflix’s The Staircase yet? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments below…