HBO Max’s new original series, The Staircase, just recently the first three episodes, and we are already hooked. The story follows a true crime case of Michael Peterson, a guy who was accused and convicted of the murder of his wife, Kathleen, back in 2001. Peterson always retained his innocence and was recently released from prison.
Many folks believe him, while others think there’s just too much evidence, and circumstances that point away from his claims of an “accident” happening to Kathleen. There’s a 14-years-in-the-making documentary series on Netflix, also called The Staircase (2004-2018), following Michael’s trial for over a decade.
The show takes an unbiased approach to the case, exploring all options and theories, while the cast – so far- delivers on the characters perfectly – especially Colin Firth, who plays Michael. The first three episodes gave us a lot to digest, so let’s break down each episode individually and compare it to the real-life case. I’ll do a breakdown of every episode as they premiere.
The Staircase (2022) Episode 1 Breakdown
We start off with a 911 call. Michael Peterson calls 911, saying his wife, Kathleen, had an accident, fell down the stairs, and is barely alive. He gives them the address and then ends the call. A few minutes later, he calls again, asking where the ambulance is, and that Kathleen had stopped breathing. Seemingly in total shock, he hangs up again, and the police arrive.
Meanwhile, his son, Todd Peterson, comes home from a party and sees tons of police, and learns about what allegedly happened. As the cops investigate the scene, Michael breaks down in tears and falls on the floor, hugging Kathleen’s bloody, lifeless bloody. This might be significant later, but let’s put a pin on that scene for now.
He goes to the sink and tries to wash off some blood, but after the detectives rule the scene a homicide, he’s instructed not to do it. The cops forbid Michael, Todd, and Todd’s girlfriend to leave the premises until the forensic team does what they do.
It takes time, of course, and Michael sits on his computer, doing something. It could also be important later, so let’s put a pin in that as well.
The episode cuts to a flashback of a family dinner a few months prior to Kathleen’s death. We see everyone from the household at once, and it’s a big, complicated family. We have Kathleen, Michael, Todd, and Clayton Peterson. Todd and Clayton are Michael’s sons from his first marriage with Patricia Peterson.
There are also Margaret and Martha Ratliff, Michael’s step-daughters who he adopted after their mother, and Michael’s close friend, Elizabeth Ratliff, died of an alleged brain aneurysm in Germany when the girls were still babies. Their father was a soldier who also died on duty.
Finally, there’s Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen’s daughter from her first marriage with Fred Atwater. We see this idyllic family, having dinner, and enjoying each other’s company. However, it’s not really clear how idyllic things actually are, as we already see some tension and hiccups.
For instance, we learn that Clayton had some issues and incidents with the law recently, but it’s not explicitly said what it was. Kathleen’s company is in financial trouble, while Michael’s book doesn’t make that much money.
Also, he’s trying out politics for the second time after failing a couple of years prior. He failed because he lied about some of his war accolades, and some other things to make himself look better. It’s safe to say, there was an undertone there that was a bit grim.
We’re back in the present day now, and Michael had already called Uncle Bill, his brother, who happens to be a lawyer. The initial assessment of the forensics is that Kathleen died of blunt force trauma, caused by a long and hollow object, hard enough to cause major lacerations, but not heavy enough to cause skull fractures. It’ll be important later, so I’ll put another pin here.
As they move Kathleen’s body, we can see there’s an enormous amount of blood everywhere around her – under her body, the stairs, and the walls. And, underneath her body, there were paper tissues, as if somebody tried to clean the blood.
Potentially, it was Michael, as he claimed that Kathleen was still breathing when he found her. So, he was in panic mode and tried to do what he can to help – at least to clean her blood. We’ll probably get back to that later, though, as nothing more was said about the tissues and towels.
The next day, when Michael was supposed to call Kathleen’s sisters to tell them what happened, he contacts their husbands instead, claiming he just can’t tell them himself. We also learn more about Kathleen’s situation at work, and the company’s financial troubles, cutting some people, etc. Moreover, she had a big life insurance policy – let’s pin that again.
The autopsy shows that Kathleen didn’t die for at least an hour. She had seven major lacerations on the head, and 35 cuts and bruises over her body in total, including some on her hands, neck, and face. Mike claims he was outside by the pool when Kathleen went inside, as they were having a nice evening by the pool with some wine.
He was in shorts, despite the fact that it was December. Things are looking worse, and worse for Michael, and it’s not getting better as we go along. The cops come back for another search and confiscate Peterson’s computer. Remember – the one he was on during the night of Kathleen’s death.
Afterward, the police indict him, but Michael posts bail and hires Dave Rudolph and his lawyer team. The kids are on Michael’s side, but Kathleen’s sisters don’t believe his story.
What Happened In Real Life?
As far as I could see, the series does a great job of following the real-life case. It even explores some theories that the documentary series didn’t touch upon. Of course, some situations and dialogues are probably made up for dramatic purposes – like the dinner the family had together – but the core of the story remains true.
The initial 911 calls were so trustworthy that I wasn’t sure if they reenacted them, or used the real 911 calls Michael has made. And, throughout the series, I have to highlight what a mind-blowing job Colin Firth is doing as Michael. His voice, tone, gestures, behavior, accent – Firth nailed it to perfection. If you heard Peterson speak, it’s eerie how Firth can sound just like him.
When the police arrived, they did asses that Kathleen was likely killed with a long, hollow weapon, and Michael did sit on his computer for a while while they were there. There was an incredible amount of blood, and wounds that are very consistent with defensive wounds.
Kathleen’s business troubles, life insurance policy, and Michael’s political aspirations also were true, just like the fact that he was indicted, then released on bail. Kathleen’s sisters didn’t trust him, especially after talking to Jim Hardin, the District Attorney. Michael’s kids were by his side and spoke about how loving he was towards Kathleen – at least at that point.
As for the bail, Michael posted it by using Kathleen’s life insurance to pay for it. He also hired the expensive attorney team, led by David Rudolph, which would eventually cost Michael around half a million bucks.
The Staircase (2022) Episode 2 Breakdown
At the beginning of Episode 2, we see Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Denis Poncet, two Oscar-winning documentary makers who took interest in Peterson’s case. We also learn a bit more about Germany, Liz Ratliff’s death, and how Michael adopted Margaret and Martha.
Meanwhile, Caitlin Atwater is the first child to cast doubt on Michael’s story, calling it “pointless.” We see him at the gym, giving… odd looks to other men there. The stuff about his sexuality surfaces, revealing that Peterson was bisexual, and had sex with men before and during his marriage with Kathleen – mostly gay soldiers.
He also had tons of emails, photos, and porn of said men on the computer that the police confiscated. Michael claimed Kathleen knew about all of it, but I’m not too sold on that, seeing that she ended her first marriage because of her husband’s affair with another woman. I doubt she’d be okay with Michael sleeping with several men.
Uncle Bill tells the kids about Mike’s sexuality, and while some defend him, others aren’t that convinced Kathleen knew. We see a flash-forward into 2017 and see Duane – one of the forensics – working at a gas station. Also, Michael enters a car with another woman – which will later be revealed as one of the documentary producers who Michael had a relationship with.
Meanwhile, Michael’s team gets several experts to the crime scene, including Harold Lee, to try and figure out a theory on what happened to Kathleen. They suggest an accident, but a fall down a few stairs doesn’t match that many severe injuries, so they suggest it was two falls – the initial fall where she bashed her head, and then another fall, slipping up on blood.
Some injuries are left out, as well as some evidence that’s not yet revealed, but I bet will be later in the series. They also determine that, if Michael was at the pool, and Kathleen was screaming for help from the house, he couldn’t hear her. They do it with some really bad reenactment of a woman screaming “help me.”
Now, we’re back with a flashback to before Kathleen died. She keeps hearing noise coming from the attic or the roof. On another occasion, we can hear owls screeching in front of the Peterson house. Believe it or not, it’ll be important later, so put a pin on this one, too.
We see how Kathleen supposedly died according to Michael’s defense’s theory – all with the two falls, and everything. Of course, it doesn’t address the other injuries but seems rather plausible. Except that the autopsy suggested that Kathleen was dying for at least an hour, while their theory happened in no more than 10-20 minutes in total.
Also, had Michael sat out by the pool in a t-shirt and shorts for an hour, or more, in December – he’d likely freeze. There were also defensive wounds on Kathleen’s hands and face, along with multiple bruises, and broken thyroid cartilage, suggesting she was likely strangled.
Caitlin talked to her aunts and the prosecution, and immediately after seeing Kathleen’s autopsy photos, she switches sides, leaving Mike’s side and believing that her mother’s death couldn’t possibly be an accident. Also, we hear about Clayton’s “summer thing” and hearing how he should lay low and remove himself from the spotlight.
Michael, in all that chaos, seems to enjoy the spotlight, as he eagerly accepts to have documentary cameras around him 24/7. He even talks to them about the details of the case. Meanwhile, Michael’s first wife, Patty, arrives at his home as a sign of support.
Finally, in the last scene of the episode, we see Kathleen’s sister realize that the long, hollow object the prosecution is searching for could be a blow poke she gifted the Petersons for Christmas. She had the same one and used it at her place in Episode 1, whereas we saw the Petersons without it in the same episode.
What Happened In Real Life?
Again, the show does a nice job of keeping track of the real case. Well, apart from some situations, like Michael running into Duane, working at a store. The French duo really did make the documentary and followed Michael and his defense team throughout the entire trial.
The scene where he speaks to them about the night when Kathleen died is almost an exact reenactment of the scenes from the documentary. The gay photos, calls, and emails all happened, too, as well as Michael using Kathleen’s insurance money. On top of that, Michael and Kathleen had some debt as well.
All that opens up several potential motives. Financial woes are the first, when you combine the debt, the insurance policy, and the fact that Kathleen’s company was a wreck and that she could’ve gotten the boot at any moment.
And, if that wasn’t the trigger, then perhaps she went to Michael’s office to prepare stuff for a conference call she had the next morning, saw some photos or emails, confronted Michael about it, and ended up the way she did. Those are all speculations, of course – just like the speculations the defense team gave on their theory.
The blow poke from the Peterson residence indeed wasn’t found at the time and was considered to be the murder weapon by the prosecution throughout the trial. Kathleen’s sister was actually the one who pointed it out to Jim Hardin and his team.
As for Clayton’s legal issues we keep hearing about all the time, the series did not yet reveal what it is, so I won’t reveal it yet, either. For now, just know that it did happen and that it was serious – enough for Michael to not want Clayton in the courtroom with the rest of his kids. You can look it up right now if you want, but I’m sure it’ll be explained soon.
The Staircase Episode 3 Breakdown
We open Episode 3 with Duane’s experiments in the lab, trying to reenact the crime scene with a blow poke to match the theory suggested by the prosecution. It looks a bit silly but will play a major role later for both the prosecution and the defense.
Also, Hardin and the prosecution found a guy who was supposed to be in a gay relationship with Michael or at least met him at some point. However, Mr. Wolgamott says they talked a lot online, but Peterson always reiterated that he’s happily married. And, despite having arranged a meeting, they never met in the end.
Hardin seeks another potential lover of Michaels who’s willing to testify to having sexual relations with Michael. It would destroy Mike’s story about the happy, blossoming, idyllic marriage he tried to portray. However, nobody can testify to actually having sex with him, only to exchanging calls and messages – possibly images.
Eventually, they find David Rowe, a man who claimed to have sex with Michael numerous times and is willing to testify to that. However, he gives them a list of other influential men from Durham county he had sex with, and for political reasons, they opt not to have Rowe testify.
He points them to a mechanic called Tyrone Lacour, saying he might’ve had similar relations to Mike, but Lacour refuses to testify to that. Later, Lacour calls Rowe and threatens him, which was quite important in the real-life case. In the series, we see that Tyrone and Michael had relations in a film store, after which Michael immediately had relations with Kathleen.
Afterward, Mike still claims that Kathleen knew about his gay sexual relations, and says they were never affairs – just sex. However, it all fell into the background after Michael got Margaret and Martha to do an interview for the news. Margaret Blair, Liz Ratliff’s sister, and their aunt couldn’t stay silent anymore, so she calls the news to reveal a huge thing.
There was more to Elizabeth Ratliff’s death than Michael ever revealed to anybody. Yes, her cause of death was determined to be a brain aneurysm. However, it was not revealed so far that she was also found at the bottom of a staircase, in a pool of blood.
Of course, his lawyers know that it’s just too big of a coincidence for the prosecution not to react to it. The girls believe Michael, but Martha becomes suspicious of him. The case gets even worse for Michael after Duane calls Hardin to tell him that they successfully reenacted the scene in experiments with a blow poke.
Nevertheless, the defense is confident they can tackle anything that the prosecution has so far. In the final moments of the episode, Margaret and Martha agree to have their biological mother’s body exhumed and analyzed again to try and find any evidence of foul play. The trial begins on July the 1st, 2003, and now, we wait for Episode 4.
What Happened In Real Life?
All the gay affairs were quite accurately depicted, although we haven’t really heard much about Tyler Lacour in The Staircase documentary on Netflix – it was one of those things casually left out of the documentary. I wonder if it was because they found it irrelevant, or because Mike dated one of the producers. I’m being mean, but I genuinely wonder.
The other guys – Brian Wolgamott, and David Rowe – actually had the same role in real life. Wolgamott testified in court later but said he never met with Mike in person, whereas Rowe was never subpoenaed to testify. Instead, he wrote a verified statement where he revealed everything about his relations to Peterson – it didn’t hold the same weight in court, though.
As for Tyler Lacour’s threats to David Rowe, he, unfortunately, owned up to those threats. Rowe was found dead; brutally murdered, and Lacour was later convicted of his murder.
Now, Liz Ratliff’s death is anything but just a coincidental case that Mike would forget to mention. Along with the brain aneurysm, Liz was found at the bottom of a staircase, in a pool of blood, in an upside-down position, with numerous heavy lacerations on her head, and additional wounds on her body not consistent with a staircase fall.
Also, Michael was there on the scene in both cases, immediately calling it an accident. I’m not pointing any fingers, but if I found somebody I love in a huge pool of blood, I probably wouldn’t think it was an accident – especially if it happens twice.
Anyway, Elizabeth was exhumed over twenty years after her death, and Duane really did claim to have his experiments prove the blow poke was the murder weapon. It’s not that simple, though, but the episode ended here, so this is where I’ll stop, too, until the next episode.
I want to point out that the show – believe it or not – does a way, way better job of being unbiased than the Netflix documentary. There are so many factors and layers to this case that it’s almost impossible to definitively say, without any reasonable doubt, that Michael is guilty or innocent – at least in court’s standard.
I can’t say for sure, since we’ve only seen three episodes, but it seems that the show was made not to find the bottom truth, or suggest what that truth is, but to present all the evidence, all theories, and all sides of this case that entranced the audiences for decades. I can’t wait to see what they got for the next episode.