[Editor’s note: The following story contains spoilers for the end of “The Staircase.”]
Maybe he didn’t push her, but oh, he pushed her.
That’s more or less the takeaway from the final episodes of HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” which exploded a wobbly real-life murder case into a fascination of true-crime-ish television.
Is Antonio Campos’ drama series true crime at all if there maybe wasn’t even a crime truly committed? Across eight episodes, writer/director Campos and writer/producer/co-showrunner Maggie Cohn reopened the Pandora’s box of the Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) case, in which a well-liked Durham, North Carolina novelist and would-be local politico was accused, convicted, and then cleared of the killing of his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette). Peterson became a free man after eight years in prison in 2017, escaping a life of incarceration through a legal loophole known as the Alford plea, which reduced his charge to manslaughter. By pleading guilty, he was able to walk away with time served.
The series, as Cohn explained to IndieWire in an interview, is all about ambiguity and being comfortable with not knowing the truth. Various figures affected by the real-life events, however, have spoken out against the series. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Sophie Brunet, the director and the editor of the original French documentary miniseries on which Campos and Cohn’s show is based, have denounced this series as a work of garbled fiction.
Brunet, played by a marvelously unhinged Juliette Binoche, is seen in the series starting up a romantic relationship with Michael while he’s imprisoned. But the real-life Brunet, along with de Lestrade, insists that the relationship didn’t start so early on, and that her editing on the documentary wasn’t in any way twisted by their romance. Ever the self-promoter, Peterson has done the talk show circuit saying he will not watch the HBO Max series because of its irreverence to the facts, as he sees it.
IndieWire spoke with Cohn about these accusations and some of the finale’s big leaps — including depicting a much-debated plausibility that Kathleen actually knew about her husband’s bisexuality, despite his eventual confession that she never in fact did. The show’s very last moments handle this with an eerie sleight of hand, the sound cutting out on Kathleen’s voice as she shouts at Michael, “Why didn’t you tell me?” and smash cut to him alone, by the pool, in his truth. Or lack of it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
IndieWire: You’ve spoken about building Kathleen out of an absence. She’s not present in the documentary, obviously, but clearly, you saw that she could be a compelling character. She gets this big catharsis moment at the end of Episode 7, blowing the bats out of the attic.
Maggie Cohn: We knew Episode 7 was going to be that catharsis not only for Kathleen. The exorcism of these bats is a metaphor for their relationship, just festering and not dealt with. But also for [their daughters] Sophie, Martha, and Patty. It was an opportunity for these women to speak to their experiences in a way that we hadn’t heard before.
There was this moment where Toni Collette, as Kathleen, is standing in the shower and it doesn’t turn on. It was written to screen, and she was doing it, but it was more like this internal moment for her. It has to be expelled, she has to get it out of her. That was important. “I’ve reached my limit, and I’m going to take care of this problem myself.” It was about keeping that momentum up even though we’re filming at the restaurant on one set on a soundstage, and then another set on a soundstage, and then we’re cutting outside to Colin [Firth], and making sure those things continue to communicate with each other. It was scripted that way, but you never know if it’s going to work out unless you’re strategic about the energy in that moment.
The foundation that we set in 7 allowed Episode 8, our final episode, to be slightly more ethereal and ambiguous, while creating that feeling of making people feel OK with the unknown. That’s unsettling to give into, that we don’t have all the answers about this and about many things in life. But that has to be somewhat OK.
The show reaches the conclusion that Kathleen must’ve known about Michael’s bisexuality through access to his emails. This is a possibility that his defense disputed at the time. How did you get there?
In the first episode of the documentary, Michael talks about how Kathleen knew about that. She knew about the diversity of his sexual interest. It wasn’t something they would joke about or talk about. It’s not like an everyday topic of conversation. But it wasn’t a secret. In future episodes of the documentary, Michael reveals that they never had a single conversation about it. When I heard that, I thought that’s a very interesting character arc in terms of plot. She knew, and then she didn’t know. We get the reveal about her not knowing once he decides to plead guilty to her death because of the Alford plea, which is guilty-not-guilty, basically. It allows you to straddle innocence and guilt. When you think about that ambiguity, oh my god, it’s literally built into our justice system.
Antonio and I always felt the same way of “you don’t get to say what she knew,” because we don’t know everything fully about a person. I can relate to the idea that there’s something you desperately want to communicate about yourself to the world, but you’re not quite sure how to do it, and that people do pick up on it, and sense you don’t know how to talk about it. I wanted to make sure that we had a sense that Kathleen had agency over this, that it wasn’t just something that was “happening” to her. It was something she was participating in. When she says “that could’ve been our secret” and “why didn’t you tell me?” it’s more about “why don’t you trust our relationship enough to survive?” It was important for the final word about whether or not she knew not to be entirely from Michael’s perspective.
We can’t speak to whether or not she knew or didn’t know, but if you live with somebody long enough, you get a sense of them.
Courtesy of HBO Max
Michael Peterson has said he doesn’t plan to watch the series due to what he feels are muddling of the facts. This is a work of imagination, so what was the biggest creative stretch for you? Was there a moment where you felt like, OK, we are taking a big risk and moving away from the facts here?
The entire thing felt like a risk. The idea that this is being categorized, as was the documentary, as part of the “true crime” genre, right? But we don’t know if a crime occurred, so what is this really about? That’s what the risk was. We had concurrent timelines, we had the multiple depictions, [as a way of] slowly letting you become, as a viewer, comfortable with the idea that this is just a story and that we can never fully know anything. When Michael says, “At the end of the day, will you ever fully know anyone?” That’s the risk we were taking, hope that people who are more familiar with and fans of the true-crime genre are willing to go on that ride with us. The basis of a true-crime show is that there’s a crime, and that’s actually what we’re interrogating here.
The documentary filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and the editor Sophie Brunet, played by Juliette Binoche, have both spoken out against the series, especially for the way they feel it blurs the timeline of Sophie’s relationship with Michael. Brunet has stressed that her relationship with Michael began much later than depicted in the show and that her editing wasn’t compromised because of him. What’s your response to these accusations of inaccurate storytelling?
It’s very much a TV show inspired by this night. The show is about multiple perspectives and being like, everyone has the right to their own perspective, and it doesn’t make anyone fully right and it doesn’t make anyone fully wrong. It’s a bit meta.
Since the series includes the behind-the-scenes of the documentary, there could, I suppose, be even another show about the making of this show. It could keep going.
Oh, please no. I’m tired.
“The Staircase” is streaming now on HBO Max.