Streaming Crime Thriller Is A Chilling True Story That Starts With A Bang

By Charlene Badasie | Updated

  • The Staircase dramatizes the famous murder of Kathleen Peterson by her husband, Michael.
  • The Staircase stars Toni Collete and Colin Firth.
  • The Staircase is the follow-up to a documentary of the same name.
  • As with the documentary, The Staircase doesn’t pick a side.

The 2022 biographical crime drama The Staircase is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Created by Antonio Campos, the eight-episode series is based on the 2004 true crime documentary series of the same name by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. It stars Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, a writer found guilty of killing his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette), who was found dead in their home at the bottom of the stairs.

The Staircase Starts With A Death And Spirals From There

The Staircase begins in December 2001, in Durham, North Carolina, when Michael Peterson makes a distressing 911 call. He tells the operator that he found his wife dead at the foot of their staircase. However, local law enforcement is perplexed by the nature of her injuries and, suspecting foul play, charges Michael with Kathleen’s murder.

A Accomplished Cast

Michael breaks the news to his family, which includes his brother Bill (Tim Guinee), sons Clayton (Dane DeHaan) and Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) from a previous marriage, Caitlin Atwater (Olivia DeJonge), Kathleen’s daughter from her prior marriage, and adopted daughters Margaret (Sophie Turner) and Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young).

A Family At War

Michael hires defense attorney David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg) to prepare for the legal battle. But the situation worsens when explicit material found in Michael’s possession is used as a motive for Kathleen’s death. This revelation fractures the support of Kathleen’s sisters, Candace and Lori, who turn against Michael as they become convinced of his guilt.

The Staircase Dramatizes The Famous Documentary

French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) starts working on a documentary about Michael’s case as the dynamics within the family become more complex. Conflicting theories about the staircase arise, with some suggesting that Kathleen became intoxicated and fell. Meanwhile, doubts about Michael’s honesty escalate, especially for Caitlin, who also becomes convinced of his guilt.

Digs Deep Into All Aspects Of The Case

Subsequent episodes of The Staircase chronicle Michael Peterson’s trial, with a detailed look at the legal proceedings, arguments presented by the prosecution and the defense, and the complex dynamics within the Peterson family. It delves into the forensic evidence, legal strategies, and the personal lives of those involved.

An Inconclusive Ending

Michael Peterson maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings. However, like the documentary, The Staircase does not explicitly take a stance on his guilt or innocence, leaving viewers to form their own opinions based on the presented evidence. The series ends with Michael accepting an Alford plea in February 2017.

An Alford is entered when there is enough evidence to convict, but the defendant maintains innocence. The judge sentences Michael Peterson to 86 months in prison, with credit for time served. As Peterson had already spent 98.5 months in custody, he avoided additional prison time.

Critics Love It, Audiences Are Indifferent

The Staircase premiered on HBO Max in May 2022 to positive reviews from critics who praised Colin Firth’s portrayal of Michael Peterson. The series currently holds a 92 percent approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with critics commending the series for bringing a fresh perspective to the well-known case. It also holds a 58 percent audience score.

Controversy Over The Staircase

While The Staircase earned praise, it also stirred controversy among the original documentary team, with creator Jean-Xavier de Lestrade expressing discomfort over what he perceived as betrayal. Lestrade, his team, and Michael Peterson raised concerns about misrepresentation, editorial choices, and factual inaccuracies.