There’s a certain amount of obsession inherent in any story about criminal prosecution. When judge, jury, and both sides of a particular case are all paying microscopic attention to each successive details of a mysterious set of circumstance, it’s easy to get lost in those particulars. For projects that look at real-life ambiguities like this — be they films, series, podcasts, or the written word — parsing through piles of alternate explanations is one way to grab an audience’s attention.
Trying to see what everyone else might be missing is an enticing part of that prospect. What “The Staircase” has done over three separate iterations (most recently in three new installments on Netflix) is to track a journey from that initial spark of fascination with “the truth” to something more universal. Framing this particular crime in a new way has meant changing with each successive break in the case at its core.
For its most recent chapters, “The Staircase” reenters the orbit of Michael Peterson, the author initially convicted of murder for the December 2001 death of his wife Kathleen. As procedural motions develop while Peterson is still under house arrest, these three new episodes are more concerned with logistics and legitimacy than an overriding pursuit of one definitive statement of what happened the night in question. Given the sheer amount of footage that went into this project (director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade told IndieWire that the final count was 1,335 hours) the fact that these three most recent “Staircase” episodes zero in on Peterson’s family even more than the original run shows that it has something else in its mind.
The vaunted “owl theory” that permeated through online forums and even garnered a mention from Lestrade himself in a first-person Daily Beast column in 2013, makes no glaring appearance here. Defense attorney David Rudolf makes passing mention of it, but it’s a single, minor reference that a different show would give over a significant chunk of an episode decrypting. (For those curious, Netflix does have a supplemental YouTube crash course here.)
But that’s never been what “The Staircase” is about. The original episodes did take great care to set up the details of the crime so that what transpired in the courtroom had necessary context. But even in the way that blood splatter analysis or crime scene forensic testimony played out, the series’ greater concern became the effect that information had on the central individuals rather than puzzling out that December 2001 night as something to be solved.
That approach only got a stronger emphasis in the 2013 revisiting, looking at how Duane Dever’s reverse-engineered claims may have held undue influence over the original guilty verdict. The question became less about Peterson’s guilt than an examination of how one person’s testimony (or in this case, possible malpractice) could mean the difference between a life spent in prison or in relative freedom.
Instead of a lengthy reexamining of a crime scene dutifully laid out by prosecutors and the defense team over the original 8-hour run, the running idea that takes more weight is a more psychological one. There’s a lengthy set of discussions surrounding Peterson’s potential Alford plea, the legal technicality that would allow him to assert guilt as a formality and maintain a claim of innocence. Navigating the semantics of specific terminology makes for a more compelling philosophical consideration. Against the backdrop of a case that’s lept from the courtroom into the global consciousness, “The Staircase” looks at how someone under international scrutiny confronts a circumstance where freedom is offered as a condition.
As Lestrade has said in multiple interviews, including one with IndieWire, establishing innocence is not the goal of “The Staircase.” The series is not some grand explainer that unlocks the mystery of Peterson’s culpability. Lestrade operates under the premise that we will never know and can never know. To try to put forth some comprehensive explanation is not only futile in this case, it’s counterproductive.
Regardless of its initial goals, “The Staircase” ends up examining the frailty at the center of individuals and systems alike. Whether that’s in a lawyer who’s reticent to return to a trial that was a high-profile failure, a daughter talking about how much life has changed while her father is incarcerated, or the story of a man still trying to embrace a part of himself that he never wanted public.
“I’m not an investigator, I’m not a detective, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a prosecutor, I’m not a judge. I’m just a filmmaker and that’s enough,” Lestrade told IndieWire.
That’s not a platitude or an abdication of responsibility. That bears out in the work that Lestrade has put forth. “The Staircase” is a seminal true-crime text not because it’s uncovered some piece of smoking gun evidence or unraveled some unknowable mystery. It’s because it embraced the idea that there were more relevant questions within its control.
Introduced as “The Final Interview,” the last formal on-camera conversation Lestrade had with Peterson never brings in a discussion of what happened that night. Instead, Lestrade was far concerned with a different kind of honesty, of encouraging Peterson to talk about his life before being an accused criminal.
“I knew that was the last time I could have a chance. I wanted him to be totally sincere about his life and his sexual life. To me, that was the key of the character. It took me nearly 15 years to get to that point, for him to accept and to tell that. I was much more focused on trying to discover that guilt that he had on his shoulder. To me, that was much more about his bisexuality. In a way, he never really accepted it. For me, that was much more important to talk about. It was a very special moment,” Lestrade said.
It’s illustrative that particularly in these final retrial moments, there’s an added emphasis that the justice system did not need to find him innocent, merely not guilty. There’s a legal burden of proof, but “The Staircase” stays consistent in not taking it upon itself to convict or exonerate Peterson either. It’s a portrait, but it’s not a crime scene photo.
It all culminates in one farewell moment that doesn’t pass judgment one way or the other. Seeing Peterson listen to the Leonard Cohen song “Everybody Knows,” that title can conjure up thoughts of guilt or innocence depending on your pre-existing thoughts. That footage, which Lestrade says was filmed on the night of the final trial, was another kind of final statement from both Peterson and the man who tasked himself with telling his story.
“That’s Michael Peterson. It’s totally him. I knew that was the end of the series, the last shot. It was like a gift. It was wonderful. It’s amazing because he decided how to finish the series in his own way,” Lestrade said.
As definitive as that final moment was for Lestrade from the perspective of a filmmaker, there’s just as much still to unpack for viewers in the questions the rest of the series asks of the people watching. If “The Staircase” is a puzzle, it’s one that still works no matter how you decide to arrange the pieces.
“The Staircase” is available to stream on Netflix.