The Staircase, which ‘dropped’ on Netflix today (Friday 8th June) may feel familiar. It has things in common with the services’ other true crime juggernauts like Making a Murderer and The Keepers. In truth, The Staircase predates those and should perhaps be credited for kick-starting our obsession with the genre. The documentary from French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade debuted on network television in the US in 2005 and often appears on lists like “10 documentaries you must see”. Now thanks to Netflix all of us with a subscription and gobble the original 10 episodes down and wash them down with three brand new episodes, made for Netflix that bring the story up to present day.
It chronicles the years of legal travails that followed the death of the telecom executive Kathleen Peterson, who met her end in late 2001 at the bottom of a set of stairs in her well-appointed home in Durham, N.C. Her novelist husband, Michael Peterson, was charged with her murder.
The opening episode sees Peterson calmly relay the details of his wife’s final evening. He says he was out by their pool when he heard screams from inside the house. We hear his frantic 911 call as he tells the operator to “come quick” as his wife has fallen down the stairs and she’s barely conscious. When the police arrive (we see the footage of the scene) they immediately pick holes in Peterson’s story. The sheer amount of blood isn’t consistent with the fall he claims his wife suffered. He’s quickly the prime suspect in her murder.
When you first meet Peterson and his children they appear a perfectly happy and close family. It’s not until the lead detective starts to delve into their convoluted links things start to feel off. When you couple that with Michael’s self-assured demeanour it’s clear there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
The access afforded to Lestrade is quite something. We see Peterson preparing for the trial with his legal team, the police interviews with Peterson’s children and candid interviews with the suspect himself. Peterson’s children are unwavering in their belief that their father is innocent, insisting several times that he would never hurt Kathleen.
Only Kathleen’s daughter from a previous marriage testifies for the prosecution and then there are Kathleen’s devoted sisters who are convinced she was killed. The whole documentary is dealt with a sensitivity but doesn’t shy away from the more gruesome aspects of the death we’re here to see solved. There are suggestions that Peterson may have been bisexual and one policeman says of Peterson, “he never for one second believed he wouldn’t get away with it”.
He’s certainly a difficult personality to pin down, he’s hard to root for as he barely shows emotion for the wife he speaks so fondly of at the start of the series. It’s a twisty and turning saga that rivals any drama. The story is compelling and it’s clear why it is so acclaimed. So do yourself a massive favour either this weekend or during that big football tournament we’re all going to have endure soon, and lose yourself in The Staircase.
All 13 episodes of The Staircase are available now on Netflix worldwide.