‘The Staircase’ & Shaping Subjectivity in ‘Common Sense’ – Episode 4 (Review)

This week’s episode of The Staircase tackles subjective “truth” versus objective “truth,” and how our own subjective and past life experiences color our objectivity (as said in the soft cadence of Juliette Binoche’s voice that narrated the latest episode). The episode is framed through the point of view of her character Sophie Brunet, editor of the documentary and Michael Peterson’s (Colin Firth) future lover. It also gives the viewer an alternative ending to Kathleen’s death that paints a darker side to Michael’s ego. One where the state’s prosecution recounts a tale of passion and anger that drives Michael to inconsequentially kill Kathleen (Toni Collette) after she finds out about the affairs – affairs, plural. 

CHECK OUT: ‘The Staircase’ & The Lies We Hide Episodes 1-3 (Review)

While the first three episodes feel like a sprint, the fourth feels more like the gradual descent down a set of stairs – pun very much intended. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does disorient the radical change in pace for a moment. It also shines a light on how pivotal Firth and Collette are to this series. Without their performances anchoring the importance of why it was made, the series would easily wander off track. All other characters fade into the background when the camera focuses on either of them. You want to spend more time with these two people, pondering and dissecting the marriage’s possible iterations, especially Kathleen’s role within it. 

Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet in The Staircase (COURTESY: HBO)

As I’ve said before, The Staircase’s one true merit is Collette’s interpretation of Kathleen, especially the interpretation of her virtues and flaws. There’s no pedestal for Kathleen, nor should there be. It’d be disingenuous to paint a picture of a woman who was a saint because of the circumstances surrounding her death. Collette straddles the very fine line of giving a real person life on screen without making the audience idolize her simply because we know her fate. This is even more challenging considering she’s been relatively unknown to viewers of the original documentary. And yet, she’s able to easily bounce off Firth’s energy in his uncanny representation of Michal Peterson, filling in the documentary’s gaps in Kathleen’s characterization. In one tense scene with her stepson, Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan), Kathleen is caught off guard when he angrily reveals that they all know her and Michael were cheating on Michael’s first wife Patty Peterson (Trini Alvarado). He essentially accuses Kathleen of faux moral superiority, in yet another a scene that only humanizes rather than incriminates the Petersons. It casts them in a more favorable light than any of their picture-perfect moments as a mixed family.

Again, does Collette’s performance merit the rehashing of a very tragic ending for everyone involved? How invested can we really be in the lives of upper-middle-class white people whose problems seem all the more out of touch now? I guess we can take the pieces that best give some meaning to this series, like its commentary on the criminal justice system and homophobia. Although, the series still doesn’t go in enough on either of these subjects. For better or worse, it chooses instead to focus on the melodramatic inner workings of the family, like that of the spoiled children, who endure the fallout of their father’s trial, but ultimately become irrelevant to their own narrative. 

Patrick Schwarzenegger as Todd Peterson, Odessa Young as Martha Ratliff, Sophie Turner as Margaret Ratliff, and Dane DeHaan as Clayton Peterson in The Staircase (COURTESY: HBO)

In a case that hinges on the running theme of social appearances and the illusion of status, The Staircase is smart enough to keep it at the forefront of the series. Watching the Peterson children fight was the first true sign of a functioning, living, breathing family. Often, the things we try to hide are the actual signs of innocence. Keeping up appearances was the ultimate downfall of someone like Michael Peterson – at least in the trial of public opinion. If anything, The Staircase does shed some light on how far someone will go to cling to the benefits white structures afford them. He stopped at nothing to make sure his legacy and freedom remained intact, even at the cost of his children’s well-being. Only to realize that once you’re labeled as “other” there’s no coming back from it. In the end, what is the truth and what is a lie? Does it even matter at this point?

As the episode stagnates the overall tone of the series thus far, there remains a few things salvageable from this near trainwreck and that’s how far the series wishes to continue its questioning of a biased justice system. Will it also tackle the way sexuality is used as a bargaining chip not just with Michael Peterson but with his daughter, Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young)? Give some sense to an otherwise senseless episode and a mounting hint of an underwhelming last few episodes? I sure hope so. 

Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson & Colin Firth as Michael Peterson in The Staircase (COURTESY: HBO)

Honorable mention of the episode is the second alternative outcome of that night Kathleen was found at the bottom of the staircase. It’s shot with almost no cut sequences. The camera pans out as Kathleen confronts Michael after discovering the escorts. It’s not so much the revelation of Michael’s sexuality that shocks Kathleen but the lack of trust Michael has in her. It’s a highly moving plea from Kathleen as she pounds on his chest “I am your wife.” It’s another crack into the identity that families like the Petersons need in order to feel stable. On the other side is Michael’s response to Kathleen’s threat to his public image by telling him she’s leaving him. In a fit of rage, he aggressively beats her head against the staircase floor after pulling her back. He then panics and attempts to help her but he, us, and Kathleen know his public image matters more than the blood oozing from his wife’s head.

That reenactment will stay with me for a while. More so than any gory horror film, it’s far more frightening to think about what goes on behind the closed doors of grand middle-class suburban homes.

Rating: 7/10

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