What kind of guy engages a documentarian to cover his trial for the murder of his wife?
A number of critics and people I know personally seem to be obsessed with The Staircase, three new episodes of which are now streaming on Netflix. (The original 10, from 2004, comprise one of the pioneers of the “true crime” glut arguably reaching criminal proportions on a vast number of networks, platforms and podcasts.)
Here’s where I question my mental alacrity, my critical faculties and my taste, redden in shame at the realization that I must just not get it, feebly stammer that the emperor’s clothes are indeed exquisite, and turn to camera for a Deadpool-style “What the shit?!” Honestly: If you find this painfully elaborated true crime epic gripping, you are in enthusiastic, if flawed, company.
The case itself is bonkers. Novelist Michael Peterson calls 911 in hysterics, claiming he’s come in from a late-night meditation in a poolside chaise to find his wife in a puddle of blood at the bottom of the stairs. He claims she’s breathing but unconscious. When medics arrive, Kathleen’s dead. The autopsy is apparently not made to order for an accidental fall diagnosis and ultimately, Peterson’s accused of bludgeoning her and pushing her down the stairs. There’s no clear motive. His kids, first wife, and other family members don’t think there’s any way he could have, or reason why he would have, murdered his wife. Others are less convinced. What does a gay escort have to do with it? Why are they exhuming the biological mother of his two adopted daughters who also, as it turns out, was found at the bottom of a staircase almost 20 years previously? Gee, is it possible the expert witness analyzing “blood spatter” for the prosecution is actually talking out of his ass or that the ADA is on a jury-tampering rampage playing off some weirdness around the fact that the happily married Peterson sometimes had sex with dudes?
And through it all, Peterson chuckles, puffs on a jaunty pipe, shrugs, pontificates, and generally acts like he’s doing his taxes rather than being tried for the premeditated homicide of his wife. Miraculously, we do not follow the beleaguered defendant to the powder room when he needs to drop a deuce, but other than that, if he’s there, you’re there. This is not “archival footage,” folks. This is real-time video. Taken deliberately as a man prepares to defend himself against the accusation that he bludgeoned his spouse with a fireplace poker and then threw her down the stairs. It’s the family dinner table, the courtroom, the trial prep team, witness coaches, focus groups, the FedEx guy… OK, I don’t think there’s the FedEx guy. But after 13 hours of true crime cinema verité I don’t really remember, to be honest.
It’s quickly apparent that we will never know what really happened to Kathleen Peterson; the story here is whether Mike will be deemed innocent or guilty by that jury. Since most of this footage is old and the incident occurred in the early 2000s, I think I am not committing spoilerism when I note that in spite of genuinely inconclusive evidence he is convicted and sentenced to life in prison and that he’s in there for seven years before anything changes.
I have a family member who loves this… well, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade calls it “a film by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade,” so let’s go with “film.” I asked her: “So, do you think he did it?”
“Occam’s Razor says ‘duh,’ but it’s hard to be sure. I appreciate how open the director left it.”
De Lestrade has said in interviews that his aim was never to establish Peterson’s guilt or innocence, but to study the justice system—that he still has no idea if Peterson killed his wife or not. He notes, and I agree, that Peterson doesn’t exactly seem guilty, but he doesn’t exactly seem innocent either. Here’s how he seems: Blank. He laughs a lot. He seems to be aware that human beings “love” their children. That they have humor and anger, thoughts and opinions, passions and fears. He seems to understand what grief is. But he doesn’t quite seem to experience them. He seems, to this viewer, and apparently to a North Carolina jury, to be a sociopath; someone devoid of conscience, very low on normative human emotional response, and essentially internally empty. That doesn’t mean he is; I’m just saying it’s how he comes across. Sociopaths aren’t all murderers, not by a long shot—but people who kill in cold blood are almost by definition “B-cluster” personalities. There are sociopaths who are aware they are not “normal” and sociopaths who are staunch believers that it’s absolutely everyone else who is abnormal. What is Michael Peterson? I don’t know. Maybe innocent, maybe guilty, maybe disordered and maybe just odd. But it’s not my bailiwick, just as it was not de Lestrade’s, to make a diagnosis. So here’s where we come up against it.
The Staircase is widely regarded as a touchstone piece of true crime documentary filmmaking. Many, maybe most, people seem to think it’s a work of genius. I strongly considered sticking a fork in my eye at least eight times while the footage rolled… and rolled, and rolled, and rolled. As an investigation into the vicissitudes of the American justice system the series offers some interesting, and depressing, insights. You might be highly aware of this, but in case you’re not: Criminal defense lawyers aren’t hired to care whether their clients are innocent. They are only hired to create enough doubt to disable a jury. Prosecutors also don’t care if you’re innocent or not; they only care about inflaming a jury beyond its ability to sustain a capacity for reasonable doubt. The justice system doesn’t give a shit what really happened to Kathleen Peterson, and that’s the truth. And that’s worth making a docuseries about. Definitely.
But humans are interested in narrative, and character, and plot. So we cannot help but view Peterson as a protagonist in this story. We can’t help expecting the unraveling of a murder mystery or the search for the truth or some form of resolution, and we don’t get that. Which is not a flaw in the design of the series in and of itself. It’s just that he takes up so much space that the series becomes about him, not about “the justice system.” And Peterson is irritating. He’s creepy. He’s arrogant. He’s distracting and boring. And he’s on camera for what seems like the entirety of the 15-plus years over which The Staircase takes place. Which brings me back to my first question. Your wife’s dead. You find yourself accused of her murder. You have a large number of children, an extended family, a career, a lot of odd complications: in short, a life. So it’s pretty traumatizing, especially if you didn’t actually do it but, in reality, even if you did, to be scrutinized and picked over, and gawked at and judged not only in a court of law but in the court of public opinion. Yet you court this by bringing a documentary filmmaker into your house, your car, your courtroom, your prison cell; into the lives of your children, into the life of your extended family, into every cobwebbed freaky corner of your world.
Who does that? Because it’s a very weird choice.
What watching The Staircase really brought home for me was an uncomfortable feeling I noticed when I was recently given the dubious pleasure of screening Evil Genius for this publication. Our culture’s preoccupation with the true crime genre might have gone too far. For a gifted documentarian to decide to create a searing indictment of American criminal justice is not a bad idea and there are many ways to go about that. I’m not convinced that’s what we are handed here. This series comes across as pulled back, dispassionate and journalistic on its surface but there is a whiff of prurience at its heart that I have the weird feeling is instilled in it by its own subject, a man who seems to be more than aware that this film is a marketing tool for him. And when I sit with that for a minute I start to wonder if a pandering, obsessive-compulsive feedback loop around criminality and abnormal psychology and spin doctoring and corruption is a good idea.
I don’t have an answer to that as I sit here, but I can tell you I would like those hours back.
The Staircase is now streaming on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.