(Warning: This post features spoilers for the season finale of HBO Max’s limited series “The Staircase”).
And so we’ve reached the bottom of “The Staircase.” But Thursday’s finale hardly tied everything up with neat, definitive explanations. That would be anathema to the HBO Max limited series that challenged viewers to question the facts of the notorious Michael Peterson true-crime case as well as the nature of storytelling. So instead of neatly answered questions, we are left with the unsettling image of Colin Firth, as Peterson, looking straight into the camera, his mouth curling into a subtle smirk. And then the screen goes black.
“The idea of that shot, in the way it was scripted, in the way that it’s performed, is that you’re seeing someone be two things at once,” the show’s creator, Antonio Campos, told TheWrap. “And you’re trying to process that and then it cuts to black. So hopefully you leave that shot not knowing what you just saw, but accepting that. That’s what you’re going to know: is that you’re not going to know.”
Based on Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody-winning docuseries from 2004 (also called “The Staircase”), the limited series is not a straight adaptation. Instead, it’s an exploration of what might have happened to Kathleen Peterson in December 2001: Did her husband, Michael Peterson, murder her? Did she fall on the stairs? Did an owl attack her? The show presents all three scenarios as possibilities, leaving the audience to interpret the facts and decide for themselves. It’s what de Lestrade and his documentary crew do as characters in the series, serving as a “Greek chorus,” as Campos put it, that verbalizes “those debates about Michael Peterson and the evidence that we were all having in our homes or in our heads.”
Though Peterson was convicted of his wife’s murder and served prison time, he has always claimed Kathleen fell on the stairs and did not die by his hand. He eventually took an Alford plea, which allowed him to plead guilty while maintaining his innocence. And that’s where the finale of the limited series finds him: back in the free world, about to move to Paris with his girlfriend Sophie Brunet (played by Juliette Binoche), the editor of the docuseries who fell in love with him while he was incarcerated. (That’s just one of several twists that has made the real story so fascinating to so many people.)
But they break up, and in the final minutes of Episode 8, Firth’s Peterson imagines talking to Kathleen (Toni Collette) by the pool of their former house (the one in which she died) about who he really is and how people can never really know each other. That semi-dream state monologue is intercut with images of the interpretive dance performance his daughter Martha (Odessa Young) is directing that same night. “So you’re watching one of our characters use art to deal with their own trauma and come out on the other side of it while he’s kind of still stuck,” Campos said.
Then we’re back to Peterson alone in his apartment, sitting on his bed, his back to the camera. The camera slowly comes in and circles around him until it stops. Peterson looks up and smirks.
“You can make a decision, you can make a choice about what you think happened that night (of Kathleen’s death), but you’re going to have to accept the fact that you really don’t know,” Campos said. “And so that moment is us trying to leave you with a feeling that is the way that we feel at the end of this thing. Obviously, it’s Colin Firth and he’s a brilliant actor, but to see (him do that) in real time (when we were filming): The camera’s creeping around him and finding his eyes and him making eye contact with us — it’s like, ‘Wait… Did he? Wait…’ You’re trying to decipher it.
“What the script says is: ‘Was that a smirk…or maybe it wasn’t?’” Campos continued. “Either way, what does that tell you? Well, you think he smirked, but what does that tell you, really? Does it mean that he committed murder? I really don’t know. It’s definitely a different way to end a true crime show.” But, he added, “I think the end of the show is exactly what it should be.”