True crime has become a defining genre on television these days, moving away from the world of documentary and into prestigious narrative filmmaking. In the wake of successful true crime docs like “The Jinx,” HBO is presenting a big, splashy, star-studded look at a case that has captivated audiences for over a decade. The latest is the A-list HBO Max recreation of the Michael Peterson case that French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade documented in his 2004 miniseries “The Staircase.”
Despite its critical success, “The Staircase” didn’t quite reach the levels of national zeitgeist that “The Jinx”, “Making a Murderer” or “Serial” have in years since. But its fingerprints are all over those shows, not just in terms of access to the accused, but also in the attention to forensic detail, novelistic approach to storytelling, and a central suspect whose guilt or innocence continues to divide viewers. Now, it’s considered one of the best true crime documentaries out there.
We’re detailing everything you need to know about the case, Lestrade’s docuseries, and the upcoming narrative series to make you an expert before showtime.
1. What is “The Staircase” about?
Per the official logline, “The Staircase” explores the life of Michael Peterson, his sprawling North Carolina family, and the suspicious death of his wife. Kathleen was found in the Peterson’s Durham, North Carolina, mansion at the bottom of the staircase on December 9, 2001.
2. How did the real case unfold?
The Peterson family looked to be picture perfect, but Kathleen’s death unleashed a dark underbelly. There were accusations that Michael Peterson hadn’t won the numerous military medals he claimed to have. His story on where he was when Kathleen presumably fell down the stairs changed. Prosecutors argued Michael bludgeoned his wife to death; he claimed she fell after consuming alcohol and Valium. However, an autopsy concluded Kathleen died from multiple injuries, including blows to the back of her head with a blunt object.
Kathleen Peterson’s daughter and sister initially sided with Michael, but after the results of Kathleen’s autopsy were released they withdrew from him and believed Kathleen was murdered. Forensic teams for both the prosecution and defense presented just as much evidence that Michael had committed the crime as that he hadn’t. Information about Michael Peterson’s personal life soon came out, including allegations that he was either gay or bisexual and that, plus a $1.5 million dollar life insurance policy, were leading the couple towards divorce.
It was also revealed that a family friend, Elizabeth Ratliff who knew Michael Peterson when he lived in Germany, had died nearly 20 years earlier in a startlingly similar way. She too was found at the bottom of a staircase, with Peterson being the only person present at the time of her death. At the time her death was ruled an accident, but during the trial for Kathleen’s death, Ratliff’s body was exhumed and a second autopsy performed. That, along with new witness statements, caused the medical examiner to overturn the previous findings and rule Ratliff’s death a homicide. Peterson was never charged with her death.
He was convicted, however, of his wife’s murder in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison. Michael served several years before his conviction was overturned. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to the killing with a manslaughter charge and walked free with time served.
3. Who stars in “The Staircase”?
The crime series stars Colin Firth and Toni Collette as well as Michael Stuhlbarg, Juliette Binoche, Dane DeHaan, Olivia DeJonge, Rosemarie DeWitt, Tim Guinee, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner, Vincent Vermignon, Odessa Young, and Parker Posey. The series is directed by Antonio Campos who helmed the equally dark and based-on-a-true-story feature film, “Christine.”
4. What is the documentary of the same name about and is it involved?
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s documentary of the same name was released in 2004 and was incredibly thorough.
The director and his team were granted complete access to Peterson’s defense team shortly after Kathleen’s death and had amassed over 600 hours of footage by the time of the trial’s completion, filming testimonies, the trial, and even how his defense team built a case to maintain his innocence.
Following Peterson’s conviction, they even interviewed the jury who sentenced him. De Lestrade would go on to produce a 2013 sequel film detailing Peterson’s fight for a retrial. The original documentary won a Peabody Award in 2005, with later episodic installments updated throughout revelations in the Peterson case. The entire documentary is available to stream via Netflix.
There’s a heavy belief the documentary will be a part of the HBO Max series, especially considering Vincent Vermignon is playing a character named Jean-Xavier. So we know the director of the doc will be represented in some way.
5. How many episodes are there?
“The Staircase” consists of eight episodes.
6. Where can I watch “The Staircase?”
You can watch “The Staircase” on HBO Max.
“The Staircase” premieres three episodes Thursday, May 5 on HBO Max. New episodes will be released weekly.