“It shook the foundations of my belief in the justice system. In human beings. In my judgement. In my sense of reality.”
Documentaries aren’t known for their sequels. Project Nim 2: Electric Boogaloo and Man on Wire: Wire Harder aren’t in development at major Hollywood studios. The Staircase, though, is a rare exception that not only proves documentary follow-ups are possible, but also that they can be utterly essential viewing.
The series first began back in 2004, when director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade decided to follow the court case of Michael Peterson, a novelist whose wife was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their North Carolina home. With no one else present in the house, he was promptly accused of her murder, a charge that led to a 16-year judicial battle.
The notion of following a single legal case for 13 episodes might seem like overkill – indeed, Making a Murderer only spanned 10. But The Staircase’s vice-like grip stems exactly from the sheer length of time we spend going over and over Peterson’s case: by the time you’re halfway through, you’re firmly at the stage of playing armchair detective, but by the time you’re at the end, you’re feeling every new twist and turn with the same mix of surprise and weariness. This is exhausting, exhaustive documentary filmmaking, in the best possible way.
Peterson, naturally, declares his innocence to the police, but it soon becomes apparent that things aren’t that clear. Katherine, he maintained, had been drinking and therefore must have slipped down the stairs by accident. If that was the case, why was her blood alcohol level so low? Her head, we discover, had seven lacerations on it, causing significant blood loos, which the prosecution argue could only have come from being bludgeoned, perhaps with the poker missing from the fireplace. With Peterson regularly writing articles in the local newspapers criticising the police, though, how can we be sure they’re not just looking to put him away? One theory even posits that a passing owl had something to do with it.
The investigation that unfolds is compellingly meticulous, as we see experts set up microphones around the house and play tape recordings from various locations in an attempt to work out how much Peterson could hear from the swimming pool outside, where he said he was at the time of death. We even see forensic expert Dr. Lee drink ketchup and spit it out to prove that the blood splatter at the scene of the death could have been made by someone coughing while falling.
Peterson’s defence is anchored by lawyer David Rudolf, whose attention to detail makes him an instantly likeable figure. He’s crinkled in the way that hard-working people can be, weighed down by the responsibility of his client’s freedom. And, crucially for us, he’s entirely honest, speaking to the camera – and to Peterson – without dressing anything up and with a sincere concern for his ward’s well-being. Their running joke about Peterson not being as tall as him is as endearing as his loyalty – particularly when compared to Kathleen’s sisters, who decide they will not stand by Michael and side with the prosecution’s theories.
Is that because of the life insurance payout Kathleen’s death triggered? Or because of the revelations about their marriage that come completely out of the blue? Perhaps they just believe the police when they say that the injuries their sister sustained were inconsistent with a supposed accident.
It’s painful to see such family rifts play out in close quarters, just as its heart-warming to see Michael’s children stick with their dad through thick and thin. And there are certainly lots of both, as the case chugs along slowly from faulty evidence and claims of mistrials to appeals on both sides of the jury box. The legal back and forth is irresistibly complex, even reaching the suggestion of a guilty plea that would simultaneously not be a guilty plea, but what makes it all work is the emotional weight that builds up with every fresh challenge.
We see Peterson visibly age over the 16 years that his trial spans, transforming into an almost entirely different man – and Rudolf, too, becomes so exhausted that another lawyer, Mary Jude Darrow, joins the team. Darrow, of course, doesn’t hold a candle to Rudolf, but that’s not because she’s less of an attorney, but because of the irrefutable impact such lengthy shared screen-time with him has, upon both Michael and us.
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who previously made 2001’s Oscar-winning true crime documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning, is a natural at assembling wrongly convicted cases into watchable drama, but it’s his level of access that repeatedly pays off in The Staircase. We see almost every moment of Peterson’s battle, even to the point where, in 2011, he goes back to his subject and picks up the threads again. For Netflix, he pulls off the same trick a second time, once again returning for a final three chapters in the saga – essentially turning this season into a three-part epic. Over the course of the trilogy, the thrill of the opening episodes slowly matures into a moving tale of resilience and perseverance; the closing installments are utterly heart-wrenching, when we hear the latest development in his case.
It’s an approach that’s not dissimilar to Netflix’s own original dramas, which are increasingly based off existing shows from decades ago, and de Lestrade manages to maintain not only the same visual style and tone (aided by an unintrusive soundtrack) but also the same familiarity and intimacy with the Petersons. We get to know Michael so well, and so candidly, that when we see him looking dazed in a courtroom, we can tell he’s not faking it. It’s an exercise in cumulative tension, the kind of TV that grips at your insides more than your nerve-endings. Gnawing away, most of all, is the tragic feeling of Michael Peterson not being able to trust the justice system – one quiet shot sees him standing in porch looking out on a leafy garden, his body silhouetted in a darkness that he can’t quite shake off. Clear your schedule for the next 13 hours – you’re gonna need them.
The Staircase is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.