Caragh Medlicott writes on HBO Max’s dramatisation of the notorious true crime series, The Staircase, asking how its narrative complicates our continual cultural appetite for true murder stories.
In the age of streaming, it’s hard to remember a time when true crime didn’t dominate the small screen. Following on from Netflix’s landmark series Making a Murderer in 2015, audiences’ hunger for real-life horror grew tenfold and streaming services rose to meet the demand – from the rehashing of Ted Bundy deep-dives to a long line up of new original commissions. In recent years, that appetite has been satiated further through dramatisations of the many gnarly cases to spark debate and dissection across social media. The podcasting world’s considerable obsession with murder stories is something stranger, still. In fact, it was the true crime story explored in the first season of Serial which was credited with bringing podcasts to mainstream audiences. Today, search the word “murder” on Spotify and you’ll find a seemingly endless array of shows dedicated to murder cases – almost unanimously examinations of women murdered at the hands of men – credited to both the most recognisable mastheads in the world and friends recording with iPhones in their living room.
That women are the primary consumers of this content is a subject for another day. But as it seems our collective interest in murder cases is starting to wane (from the Tinder Swindler to The Puppet Master, Netflix, at least, has turned its attention onto conmen narratives), and certain quarters reconsider the moral implications of a cultural fascination with femicide (something essayist Alice Bolin terms a “dead girl” obsession), HBO Max have released perhaps the most interesting take on the subject in years. On the surface it’s nothing new, another dramatistion of another hit true crime series, and yet The Staircase has more to say about the spectacle, spin and ethics of the true crime genre than perhaps anything else of its ilk.
Starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette, it recreates the events of an award-winning documentary series made by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade first released in 2004. In a fly-on-the-wall style, the original series followed the tsunamic aftermath in the life and murder trial of Michael Peterson after his wife, Kathleen Peterson, was found dead at the bottom of their staircase. Today, our desensitisation is such that this sounds like standard true crime fodder. The genre has never been especially interested in humanising its victims, instead it’s the twists and turns of the case, the real-life element of “whodunnit?” which holds the attention… that and a macabre fondness for gristle and gore. Still, it would be obtuse to deny the morbid intrigue of the Peterson case. With a sprawling family (children from previous relationships as well as adopted daughters) split by belief in (or disownment) of their father, in addition to a plethora of oddities – from the lack of clarity concerning Kathleen’s cause of death to Michael having found another woman dead at the bottom of a staircase some decades prior – this was the case which bore the true crime docuseries as we know it today.
These many knots and complexities also make it ripe for fictionalisation. That the Petersons were upper-middle class, Kathleen a director of information services at Nortel Networks, and Michael a middling but not entirely unsuccessful fiction author, adds more colour to the story (not to mention a glimmer of schadenfreude – the original series capturing a wealthy family brought to its knees in real-time). The decision not to simply rest on the laurels of a salacious true story is where The Staircase sidesteps the tact taken by similar dramatisations. Audiences come to such miniseries baying for the extra intimacy and hyper-drama which only fiction can afford. Indeed, with a HBO budget and considerable star power fortifying its cast, this approach would surely have borne The Staircase the requisite middling-to-decent critical reception and high viewership figures that showrunners so crave. Instead, it cuts its teeth on a kind of meta-moral queasiness sure to leave more than a few true crime fans squirming in their usually cushy seats of spectatorship.
Prominent throughout the series is the question of voyeurism. With a non-chronological ordering, the audience is batted between a time prior to Kathleen’s death, the time of her death, the murder trial (and documentary-making surrounding it), right through to a spattering of periods which follow Peterson’s imprisonment and ultimate release on an Alford plea in 2017. Where other dramatisations have retold their subject without the inclusion of the documentary makers themselves, here, director Lestrade and producer Denis Poncet become focal points of drama. The viewer is squeezed through various sets of eyes. At times, shots linger on the documentary cameras watching the family only to switch and reveal the empty space we have just been viewing from; it renders the audience a ghostly presence, yet another intruder muscling in to gawp at the unfolding grief two decades on from the real thing. The point is strained further by the inclusion of Sophie Brunet – who we first meet as Michael’s apparent romantic partner in 2017 – until she is revealed to first enter the story as editor of The Staircase (documentary). We watch Brunet become both infatuated with Michael and convinced of his innocence while plastering the walls with footage stills, arguing with Poncet about the curation of scenes in order to present a pro-or-anti-Michael narrative.
Truth is not a stable concept in The Staircase. In fact, in contradiction with the genre, the miniseries seems to hold little interest in what the real truth is. Instead, it’s powered by the question of which truths prevail and who wields it. Who controls the narrative of this story: Michael? Lestrade? Poncet? Brunet? In one key scene, the director, producer and editor gather in a studio while a live orchestra run various compositions of the original documentary’s lugubrious score. As they argue and bicker about how to present the case, about whether Michael is innocent or not, the truth of a woman found battered and bloodied after an apparent prolonged death seems little more than collateral to the collision of artistic egos.
Thus we come to the inherent intelligence and contradiction fuelling this show’s engine. In flashbacks, Kathleen is imbued with humanity by the dexterous acting of Toni Collette, and these scenes are only rendered starker by their contrast with the repeated depiction of her death which is shown over and over. The Staircase mimics life and genre – turning Kathleen into little more than a puppet by which the defence, prosecution, and general public can act out their versions of the truth. She is avatric, a dummy to be cudgelled into the shape of a variety of theories – the only certainty is her ultimate and bloody demise at the bottom of the staircase. It seems to ask of the morals of the world of true crime – an area which reduces victims to entertainment; imagines and reimagines their deaths in order to satisfy a craving for crude investigation and the relishing of conspiracy. Of course, the question The Staircase can’t quite resolve is that of its own existence. It chastises with one hand while dishing out with the other. As blood splatters the wall, the light fading from Kathleen’s eyes time after time, we must sit with an uncomfortable truth: reflect though we might, guilty though we may be… here we are, continuing to gawp and stare.
The Staircase is streaming on Now TV.