‘The Staircase’ Miniseries Review: Murder Tearing a Family Apart

The Staircase

The Staircase miniseries, created by Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn, is a mesmerizing crime drama based on the true-crime docu-series of the same name directed by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (performed in the series by Vincent Vermignon).

On December 9th, 2001, Kathleen Peterson (Toni Colette) was found dead at the bottom of her home’s main staircase in Durham, NC. The police, prosecutors, and some of Kathleen’s family believe her husband, charismatic crime novelist Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), bludgeoned her to death. Most of Michael’s family band together to support him. A French filmmaking team documents Michael’s journey through the United States Justice System. Will the filmmakers get too sucked into the novelist’s orbit to produce an unbiased docu-series?

The crime drama creators bring Kathleen to the center of her murder through flashbacks. Firth exhibits his true mastery as an actor while inhabiting Michael Peterson while The Staircase grapples with the complexities of a blended American family and the justice system. The miniseries is worth a watch for true crime enthusiasts even if they haven’t seen a single episode of the docu-series.

Humanizing the Kathleen Peterson

The Staircase’s creative team humanizes Kathleen by revealing her personality through flashbacks. Multiple sequences make clear that Kathleen loves her three daughters, Caitlin Atwar (Olivia DeJonge), Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner), and Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young). She is truly dedicated to both her biological and adopted daughters. Michael and Kathleen’s marriage contains cracks, but they still have fun together. The miniseries show Kathleen’s stressful though accomplished work life. The executive works hard to balance her domestic duties and high-level job, which leaves her utterly exhausted.

Kathleen’s actions prove her to be a profoundly empathic and generous spirit. The immediate aftermath of her death reveals how she was greatly loved by everybody, from her stepson Todd Peterson (Patrick Schwarzenegger) to her sister Candance Hunt Zamperini (Rosemarie DeWitt). Even those family members and friends who side with Michael mourn Kathleen’s death. There are times when Michael appears to be devasted by her passing.

Nobody can pretend that a beloved human being didn’t die. Crime dramas based on real murders should honor the victims, which The Staircase does successfully. The casting of Toni Collette as Kathleen guaranteed an award-winning performance.

Colin Firth Inhabiting Michael Peterson

All the actors in The Staircase bring their characters to life in a truly emotionally powerful way, but Firth steals every scene. The famous British actor has one of the trickiest roles because most of the audience has witnessed ten docu-series episodes centered around the charming Michael, who has a distinctive voice. Firth invokes Michael’s unique accent without sounding like a caricature of the novelist. The actor naturally utilizes some of Michael’s gestures without seeming forced. Firth’s genuine charisma enables him to inhabit Michael’s public charming persona.

But Firth can also capture Michael when his mask drops. He can quickly switch from a sweet family man to a controlling father. He also brings a sense of vulnerability to the role. Michael can’t neatly fit into this miniseries’s protagonist or antagonist box. The novelist is somewhere in the middle, neither the hero nor the story’s villain.

The Blended Family

The Peterson-Ratliff-Atwater clan seems like the perfect modern American family in many ways. These two parents have successfully blended their children to form a new family. “911?” contains a sequence showing the family having dinner together. Michael notes that while their family is not perfect, they “always stick together.” There is a sense that it’s the Peterson-Ratliff-Atwater clan against the world. Nobody shares internal conflicts outside the immediate family.

There are all supremely close to one another and have even established traditions. Kathleen and Michael share sage advice with their adult children, who celebrate their whole family. Several family members toast Martha, starting her first year at college. All three daughters are established to be very close. After Kathleen dies, Margaret, Caitlin, and Martha sleep in the same bed. Biological siblings Todd and Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan) stay strong for their little sisters.

Though quickly, the series shows fractures in their happy family facade. Flashbacks reveal that Kathleen and Clayton don’t enjoy each other’s company because of the young man’s past legal problems. Caitlin struggles to deal with the holes in her stepfather’s story about how Kathleen died. Michael adopted Margaret and Martha when they were toddlers, so they feel a sense of loyalty to him that gets in the way of their bond with the suspicious Caitlin.

Kathleen and Michael’s relationship appears toxic because of his secrets and her essentially financially supporting the whole family by herself. Michael’s irrational temper dampens his ability to form close bonds with all his children. Once the miniseries digs below the surface level, it’s clear that Michael Peterson’s secretive cruel behavior poisoned this blended family.

Troubling Justice System

The Staircase miniseries doesn’t paint the representatives of the justice system as angels either. Prosecutors Freda Black (Parker Poser) and Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss) hate Michael even before he murders his wife. Flashforwards in the miniseries imply that some of their expert witnesses didn’t do everything by the book. David and Freda rely on faulty evidence to make their case, not digging too deeply because they decided he was guilty before any investigation. The prosecutors use horrific imagery to manipulate Kathleen’s biological family to turn on Michael before having all the facts. Neither Michael nor the prosecutors are depicted as the “white hats” of the story.

Last Thoughts on The Staircase Miniseries

This review is based on the first five episodes of The Staircase miniseries. True crime fans will love this engaging limited series that explores all aspects of the docu-series, including turning the camera on the French documentary team.

On May 5th, watch the first, second, and third episodes of The Staircase on HBO MAX. If you have not seen the docu-series with the same title, perhaps check out all thirteen episodes on Netflix before the fictionalized story airs! Those who enjoy mystery may want to consider waiting to watch the docu-series until later. 

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  1. Great review, Paloma, of something I have been anxious to watch. I have not watched the docu-series yet and was torn as to whether or not I should. Either way, I cannot watch this.