The Staircase (2004) and the implications of storytelling


The Staircase is a mesmerising piece of true crime reportage. But how do the storytelling structures that underpin this documentary influence how we respond to it?

What is The Staircase about?

In December 2001 writer Michael Peterson makes a desperate phone call to the emergency services. He says his wife has fallen down the stairs at their home in Durham, North Carolina, and he begs them to hurry.

Businesswoman Kathleen dies before support arrives, but the nature of her injuries convinces police she’s the victim of a brutal attack – and Michael is prime suspect.

By the time the legal wheels are in motion a French film crew is on the scene. Led by director Jean-Xavier de LeStrade, their footage captures the subsequent trial and fall-out in almost real-time.

Almost cinema verite

The Staircase sits at the intersection of storytelling forms that define our times: reality TV, and true crime. In fact, the story burrows into and beyond the conventions of both.

As a documentary, de LeStrade’s series conveys the seemingly unvarnished intimacy of a family in turmoil. We witness key moments and candid conversations as they happen. Reality footage merges with family videos; it’s hard not to feel part of this story, maybe even part the family.

At the same time, real life mimics popular fiction. There are twists, revelations and, at its core, an ambiguous whodunnit. Did Kathleen really fall? Was Michael Peterson really responsible for her death?

The documentary has obvious parallels with The Truman Show. That 1998 fictional drama is about a man who unwittingly broadcasts every moment of his life on-screen. His audience, as a result, adore him.

The result here is hypnotic for lots of reasons, though it’s worth remembering what The Staircase isn’t.

It may be documentary but it isn’t investigative journalism. It doesn’t ask awkward questions or evaluate evidence to find the truth or offer closure. The film crew is there to observe and catalogue events.

They’re invisible in the final edit. We don’t see them interacting with the film’s subjects, and don’t know what part they played in directing the story. We don’t know what footage they excised.

This has since become a flashpoint. Kathleen’s sister Candace accused the film-makers of crafting a biased piece of campaign rhetoric.

The 2021 HBO Max drama of the same name similarly touches on accusations of manipulative editing – as well as a romantic relationship between Michael Peterson and the film’s editor.

Mystery and missing information

As with its fictional counterpart (crime drama), the lure of true crime gives viewers an opportunity for detective work and judgement. It’s like sitting on the jury … with none of the inconvenience.

The series invites us, inevitably, to speculate about Peterson’s guilt or innocence. But is that ever possible with an edited version of events?

The documentary is very detailed, yet leaves much unanswered. For instance, the contradiction of the idyllic marriage and Michael’s infidelity isn’t directly broached until the final (13th) episode, and even then remains enigmatic.

This absence in the story arc is problematic – though from a [fictional] storytelling perspective the mystery is part of the appeal.

Other questions remain ambiguous. How did the team hear about Peterson’s case? When and where did they meet?

Either way it was a lucky break for the film crew. The case they picked up wasn’t stranger than fiction so much as indistinguishable from fiction.

Coincidence may drive this story, yet its revelations of bisexuality, the earlier death, life histories and the cast of supporting characters all mirror the rhythms of fictional storytelling.

The tragedy of the format is that the crew seems to be present at almost every step of the case. Yet the most important question – what happened to Kathleen Peterson – is undocumented except after the fact.

Making an underdog

The Staircase is most effective in revealing the shortcomings of the justice system. Here it’s American justice, though the flaws are universal.

When the Petersons tot up the cost of counsel in an early episode their estimates run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Michael comments that acquittal is skewed to the wealthy (by implication, you have to wonder what justice looks like for those on the wrong side of the cash or colour line).

By the end of the series Peterson is indigent – he can’t afford his own lawyer. Incidentally, this connects with his transformation over the course of the series from wealthy, well-educated writer to frail underdog.

There’s also the possibility that prejudice may have skewered the case. For instance, the inclusion of Michael’s bisexuality and the death of a neighbour (actually his adopted daughters’ birth mother) in a similar fall years earlier.

The subtle message to viewers is that this case is being tried on perception rather than reality.

The prosecution sees the excessive blood, not the science. Others see bisexuality and infidelity as moral failings as serious as murder.

Michael’s commentary about rich defendants and the Black-white dividing line in his home town reinforce this shortsighted conservatism. So does the way a test jury can’t accept one expert witness because of his Chinese accent.

The nail in the coffin – you might expect – is the evidence baked to order by a forensic agent. There’s perjury and mishandled and misplaced evidence, yet this case is never seemingly at risk of being thrown out. Peterson’s guilt is a foregone conclusion in search of evidence.

Contrasting characters

In the end, The Staircase is as concerned with tragedies as it is with trials.

Once accused, Peterson’s route to innocence is impassable. There is no comeback, there’s only the semantic wasteland of the Alford Plea, where he’s both guilty and not guilty, without ever being innocent.

Tragedy falls heavily on the family, too. There’s the burden of grief and threat of losing yet another parent (Michael), as well as in the rift between the two sides of the family.

This is where ‘storytelling’ has its biggest wins. Zooming in to such close range on Michael Peterson inevitably weights the narrative towards him; it locks us into his perspective. The documentary is his elegy; a rehearsal of his life story, philosophy, desert island discs and parenting tips.

Following the trial solely from his vantage point is fascinating, but it also casts him as the protagonist – and by implication the hero, the character in search of resolution.

The grief and rage that drives Kathleen’s sisters and daughter’s need for justice are understandable but explosive. In contrast, Peterson and his kids laugh their way through tribulation. They’re shown at peace and emotional honesty … and it would be easy to interpret that as innocence.

Endless ambiguity

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson delves into the world of online condemnation, where social media is a gladiatorial death pit. You know how it works: someone says or does the wrong thing and the rest of us, from our glass houses, throw stones.

Ronson’s book charts the rocky road back from public disgrace, and the industry that’s grown up around burying negative press.

Whether you see Peterson as victim or manipulative killer, you have to wonder if the series fulfils part of this rehabilitation. Rather than being chained to the crime he’s convicted of, Peterson’s name is appended instead with a question mark.

You can’t read about Peterson online without hearing that he may not have killed his wife. Ultimately, that’s the get-out-of-jail card that the Alford plea attempts to withhold.

The Staircase (2004-2018), directed by Jean-Xavier de LeStrade

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Picture credit: Pixabay