Psychological Reflections on “The Staircase”

12 psychological, aesthetic, legal, and existential reflections on a murder case

Posted Sep 03, 2018

”The Staircase” is a 13-part documentary, now available on Netflix, produced originally for French TV over two decades, about the 2001 death of the second wife of prosperous Durham, NC, novelist Michael Peterson, on the staircase of their large house while she was home alone with her husband.

The bulk of the series, covering the original trial, comprised eight segments and was released in 2004. Two more were released nearly ten years later, in 2013, when Peterson was released  from prison and a new trial called for, and a final three segments released in 2017 (shown on Netflix in June of this year and now available on demand with the whole series) about the denouement plea agreement, when Peterson was 74 (he was 58 when his wife died).

I. Overall reactions

1. The scope, quality, and penetration of the production is stunning, a tour de force, leaving viewers to ponder, “How did they pull this off?”

2. The lead character, Michael Peterson, whom viewers must originally assume is guilty (how many people fall down the steps of their home and die unbeknownst to their spouse in the same house?), elicits increasing sympathy as a father and long-suffering human being who is mishandled by a crazy legal system over decades, concluding when he is a doting grandfather living, indigent, in a small apartment.

3. The hero of the series is Peterson’s devoted, skilled lawyer, David Rudolph, who endures Peterson’s travails along the entire journey, and who sincerely says he was broken by the original trial and conviction as much as Peterson’s family, and sometimes seemingly more than Peterson himself.

II. Michael Peterson

4. Peterson is seen initially as a privileged seigneur, one who has affairs (with men), who is seemingly guilty of killing his wife without a trace of remorse.

5. As the film proceeds, the viewer is struck by his philosophical steadfastness, his endurance, his ability to inspire utter devotion from his two sons by his first wife, two daughters (sisters) he adopted with her, and his own brothers — the exception unfortunately being the daughter he had with his deceased spouse, whose own two sisters pursue Peterson like hellions to the ends of the earth.

6. One sees Peterson as remarkably open (who not only allows a film crew to follow every step of a legal process that sentences him to life in prison, but cooperates fully with the filmmakers?), and yet as unknowable and perhaps a complete phoney.

7. At no point does Peterson ever deviate from his statement that he loved his wife — which he even told a male escort with whom he negotiated a rendezvous.

III. The Attorney

8. Rudolph works tirelessly, often brilliantly, on the case, which he lost, claiming it broke him — and yet worked equally diligently to secure Peterson’s release almost a decade later, then worked for years to negotiate a plea, at which he personally failed.

9. At no point do viewers glimpse that Rudolph has any personal life — all of his intimate relationships being with his co-workers and Peterson’s family, and most of all with Peterson, all of whose opinions he gracefully and effectively solicits and respects throughout the process.

IV. The Family

10.  The basis of his family’s devotion is never clear — other than Peterson’s endearing, flamboyant personality.

11. In particular, we never know the degree to which his daughters, sons, brothers, and legal representatives question whether Peterson is a liar and a murderer.

12. What the family endures is never a focus of the documentary until, near the end, one of the sisters describes her own existential abyss — which drives home how everything in the documentary centers around Peterson.

It — and he — are completely self-absorbed, yet eerily appealing.

And, oh — Peterson has a long-term affair with one of the producers of the film that lasts for the duration of the filming, about which we are never informed.