Perhaps it’s a true testament to Colin Firth’s portrayal of Michael Peterson. I found him so utterly unappealing and arrogant that I couldn’t believe Juliette Binoche’s Sophie could be even remotely interested in him. And yet, it made sense for them. Sophie sends him Proust in prison, and he responds in flowery words of the novelist he so claims to be. I find myself oscillating between loathing Michael Peterson and pitying him, a luxury that extends to rich white men of his standing even in the confines of a prison cell. Men like him are afforded a complete picture of their flaws and virtues. White and rich. And yet, it’s still not enough to save Michael Peterson.
‘The Beating Heart’ is The Staircase’s most convoluted episode yet. It lost its way with a stagnant and lackluster Sophie and Michael arc that promised to shed light on Michael Peterson. Yet, all it did was raise more questions. More questions the series is a little hesitant to dwell on or uncover. Primarily, what was Michael’s relationship with Kathleen (Toni Collette) like? Every moment spent away from the small flashbacks we got with Collette’s Kathleen, we stray further away from the main (and most engaging) plot of the series. Or perhaps my expectations of what should be explored through this voyeuristic kind of recreation got in the way.
Either way, this particular episode, tame in comparison to the others, meandered down the narrative choice of exploring Michael Peterson’s life in prison. It’s a little hard to sympathize with someone like Michael Peterson. Especially that of other inmates at the prison. The majority of the incarcerated population is African American men. This is something Peterson himself points out in the original documentary. He empathizes, while on trial, that if he hadn’t had the funds and privilege his status afforded him, he probably wouldn’t have had an even remote chance at a fair trial. This is why it’s so surprising the series didn’t utilize the space to explore that particular part of the original canon.
Instead, we spend an episode watching a struggling Michael Peterson navigate the hostile ecosystem of prison, proving that the only way to survive is to have money to barter with other inmates. It’s also yet another episode of Michael Peterson pitting his sons against each other like we’re in an episode of The Real Housewives. I will say that the prison scene where they’re both fighting over who will make the weekly deposits in their father’s prison account took me back to spending some time with the Roy family. I guess everyone wants that kiss from daddy.
The sixth episode doesn’t hold much promise either. We move into the more conspiratorial theory of this case that blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. ‘Red in Tooth and Claw’ tackles the infamous “owl theory” in the Peterson case. The one that plagued social media when the original documentary first premiered. According to Peterson’s neighbor, Larry Pollard (played by Joel McKinnon Miller on The Staircase) believes Kathleen was attacked by a barred owl, common to the area the Petersons live in. Pollard suggests that due to the barred owl’s instinct of protection, Kathleen was dive-bombed in the head by one, which then caused her to be disoriented and fall down the stairs.
In 2009, a reexamination of the evidence seemed to back the idea up. Kathleen was found to have had a tiny feather and a sliver of wood from a tree limb caught up in a clump of hair in her hand that the roots from her head had pulled out. I will concede some level of truth to this theory. It could have happened. However, the show’s attempt at representing this theory was not convincing. At all. It felt almost too fantastical. Not even Juliette Binoche’s stoic and cavalier French attitude could interpret it any other way, less it appear like a parody.
Perhaps it had to do with the overall pacing of the series at this point. The Peterson children’s struggles come a little too late into the series. It’s become increasingly hard to sympathize with a one-dimensional interpretation of these kids. Never allowing each one more than one minute of screen time with Collette’s Kathleen and only giving time to an incredibly hostile relationship they had with Michael, the show never meets us halfway when it comes to the Peterson children. They fade into the background when Firth, Collette, and Binoche come on screen, and when those acting titans leave the scene, you only want them back.
The Staircase began with great gusto. A promising deviation from the influx of biopics that failed almost from the start. It’s disappointing that The Staircase didn’t fully commit to these last two episodes. What is now an 8 episode series could’ve just as quickly been a 4 episode run. What could’ve been a more robust series dissecting the pitfalls of a broken justice system or idle further in the relationship between Kathleen and Michael, these last two episodes floundered in senseless filler. From the small love-struck montage of Binoche’s Sophie with Firth’s Michael backdropped to Francoise Hardy’s ‘Comment te dire adieu,’ to the Hardy Boys-esque investigation that took Sophie to find the bird feathers, The Staircase seems to suffer a midway point identity crisis.