We all want answers—some semblance of control over our lives. To believe that not everything is left up to some unknown entity that dictates our endings. We all search for answers. Perhaps that’s why true crimes have become such a widespread phenomenon. It is a way of dealing with our own mortality but at a distance—where it’s safer. Where it can’t touch us directly, but we can ponder, for just one morbid second, what if it’s us… next? It’s a fair enough question to ask ourselves, whether or not recreating actual events leads to uncovering nuances of our humanity. Or is it only cheap entertainment? I guess it depends on who you ask.
HBO’s The Staircase makes a case for the former. Starring Colin Firth as the real-life Michael Peterson and Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson, The Staircase is a bold retelling of their real-life case. Found at the bottom of the stairs, Kathleen Peterson’s death triggers a more extensive discussion on homophobia, class, and the American justice system. Inspired by the documentary of the same name, The Staircase harmonizes in time. Most of the series is tightly held together by Firth’s vibrant and eccentric performance as Michael Peterson, down to an eerie recreation of his voice. More importantly, Collette’s Kathleen gives life and humanity to a woman who otherwise remains in the background throughout the documentary. She’s heartbreaking and subtle in her interpretation of Kathleen. No overly theatrical renditions of a woman on the verge of breaking down from the strain of her life.
Shaping people from the tangible world into characters is not easy. They can easily become caricatures of their source material. The Staircase attempts to shed light on the inner workings of these characters. This is crucial to Kathleen Peterson’s characterization more than anyone else, and it’s essential to keep her in the foreground of this narrative. Reimagining or not, Kathleen Peterson was very much alive at one point. After her death, she was no longer an active participant in her own narrative. Not even her own family could speak for her. The series made an honest attempt to give Kathleen some semblance of a voice, and in large part, it’s due to Collette’s performance.
It also allocates humor to the characters that, in their authentic depictions, appear to be parodies all on their own. One of those characters is Freda Black, a former Durham County prosecutor who could easily be confused with Nancy Grace in Peterson’s case. Played by the enigmatic Parker Posey, in a performance that rivals that of Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill on Better Call Saul, Posey, in all fairness, sticks pretty close to the source material. Firth’s Michael Peterson is also creepily similar to the real man. At first, if you close your eyes, you couldn’t differentiate the voices, and it’s only the physical appearance being a little too different that we cannot entirely suspend disbelief that this was not Colin Firth on screen. A proper powerhouse performance by Firth.
Truth and assignations of guilt also become obsolete in the series, something I highly appreciate in a case like this. Does any know the truth? For sure? Michael Peterson and Kathleen Peterson do. One is dead, and the other puts on a persona that makes it hard to see the real Michael Peterson. Across all facets of society, identity becomes the beating heart of this series. Who are we behind closed doors? What do we hide? Why do we feel the need to hide? It’s a compelling portrayal of whiteness at its highs and lows. Of people privileged enough to hide behind their grand homes and iron-clad gates. What happens when those same structures holding people like Michael Peterson come crashing down below him? When he fails to meet the standards of a straight, white, cis-male? The Staircase also showcases how hard it is to see through these structures that white people hide behind. Where do we stand amongst so much uncertainty? Who is afforded the safety of ambiguity, and who isn’t?
Despite the series’s incredible performances and technical work, I’d be remiss not to touch upon a few ethical issues with yet another biopic of a white person’s crime (even alleged). In a time when an A-list actor like Will Smith is being condemned for a single incident involving his wife, while the industry praises accused sexual predators like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, it begs the question: do we need another biopic that humanizes white criminals? With shows like The Dropout, The Girl From Plainville, and The Thing About Pam, just how many shows steaming from convicted white criminals can exist in a social climate like the one today? When levels of incarceration for nonviolent offenses racially disproportionate? It’s a fair question to pose. Do we need a series with an already existing 8 part documentary? Probably not.
That being said, fans of true crime will enjoy the series. It’s a tight writing and acting job that showcases a heavy cast. The first three episodes of the series hit the ground running and feel like a full-body sprint at times. Toni Collette’s facial journey during the interpretive dancing routine is an honorable mention. Kathleen begins to falter amid Michael’s campaign, layoffs at her job, and running a household. You can visibly see Collette’s masterful approach subtly as Kathleen dissociates into the movement of the dancers until her shoulders slump, and not being able to hold in any longer, whispers to Michael, “I’m tired. To the bone-tired.”