fact or fiction?

The Staircase Uncovers New Questions Within Tired True-Crime Theories

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Netflix and HBO Max

For more than 20 years, the question of who or what caused the death of Kathleen Peterson on December 9, 2001, has gripped true-crime followers. Was it her husband Michael, whom the prosecution targeted for his bisexuality and pattern of lies? Was it an intruder who was never found — human or avian? Did Kathleen simply slip down the stairs?

No single theory has ever fully emerged as an agreed-upon-by-all truth, but that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from exploring what happened that night. French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase documentary began as 8 episodes that premiered in 2004, grew to 10 in 2011, and finally ended with 13 after a commission from Netflix (the full series has streamed there since 2018). Because de Lestrade was embedded within Peterson’s family and his defense team, The Staircase has served as the definitive behind-the-scenes look at the case for years and is the source material for HBO Max’s fictionalized miniseries The Staircase, which premiered on May 5.

Antonio Campos’s eight-episode adaptation of The Staircase combines a portrait of the Peterson family, led by Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Collette as Kathleen, with a depiction of the work done by de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) and his creative partners, including producer Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) and editor Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche). Some scenes are practically shot-for-shot redos of what we already saw on Netflix, like Parker Posey’s meme-worthy line delivery of “Filth. Pure filth!” as her assistant district attorney Freda Black describes Michael’s cache of gay porn. And some elements, like the depiction of a burgeoning relationship between Sophie and Michael while she’s editing The Staircase and he’s in prison, haven’t pleased de Lestrade.

But where this version of The Staircase deviates most compellingly from that version of The Staircase is through its re-creations of what might have happened to Kathleen that night. Campos grabs the freedom afforded by fiction to craft flashbacks presenting how each of these theories could have played out. In doing so, The Staircase rearranges the disconnected evidence — the gory photos of Kathleen’s body lying at the bottom of the stairs; the autopsy images of the seven gashes on the back of her head — to challenge whatever preconceived notions we might already have about Michael’s guilt or innocence. Similar to how the documentary provided another layer to Michael by showing him in unguarded moments with his brother, children, and lawyers, this crime drama builds upon what we think we already know by turning abstract explanations into immersive scenarios.

So which theories do the two The Staircase series cover? How do they differ, and what do the re-creations provide? Let’s review.

From left: Photo: NetflixPhoto: Netflix
From top: Photo: NetflixPhoto: Netflix


Michael killed Kathleen via blow poke

Whose theory? The prosecution team and Kathleen’s family
Covered in which series? Both Netflix’s The Staircase and HBO Max’s The Staircase 
Re-created by HBO Max’s The Staircase? No

This is the prevailing theory that the prosecution team, led by Durham County district attorney James Hardin Jr. and ADA Black, used in court against Michael. Perhaps Kathleen found out about Michael’s bisexuality and sexual rendezvous with men, perhaps Michael wanted her life-insurance payout, and perhaps Kathleen confronted Michael about his infidelity and he attacked her to both cover his double life and cash out on her death. Both versions of The Staircase thoroughly cover this suggestion. The Netflix docuseries explains how the theory was inspired by Kathleen’s sister Candace Zamperini, who realized that the blow poke she gifted to her sister was missing from the Peterson home, and the medical examiner, who wondered what kind of tool would cause gashes and slashes on the scalp but not a brain injury. That first version of The Staircase also includes interviews with Hardin and Black about their certainty that the missing blow poke was the murder weapon; clips from the in-court testimony of North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation analyst Duane Deaver, who says that he was able to re-create the scene’s blood-splatter patterns with a blow poke; and the eventual discovery of the blow poke in the Peterson garage by Michael’s son Clayton.

HBO Max’s The Staircase goes over all this, too, but interestingly, it does not re-create Michael attacking Kathleen with the fireplace tool. Is this because Deaver was eventually revealed to be lying about his work and using shoddy experimental techniques, evidence Michael’s lawyer David Rudolf used in 2011 to secure his client’s release and a new trial? Perhaps that’s why Campos refuses to honor the theory with a re-creation — because it’s arguable whether the science actually holds up. By not including it, The Staircase essentially diminishes its validity.

Photo: Netflix


Kathleen fell on her own

Whose theory? The defense team and Michael’s family
Covered in which series? Both Netflix’s The Staircase and HBO Max’s The Staircase 
Re-created by HBO Max’s The Staircase? Yes

Yes, there was an extreme amount of blood surrounding Kathleen’s body, splattered all over the walls, and spilled on the floor of the Peterson family home. But according to Michael, that was all there when he found Kathleen at the bottom of the stairs. They had been drinking wine and Kathleen had taken some pills, Michael says, so perhaps she slipped and fell, and his team uses that theory for his defense. They test whether Michael could have heard calls for help from the pool — he couldn’t, the distance was too far — and they call expert witnesses like Dr. Henry Lee to describe how the blood splatter could have been caused by a series of falls rather than an attack.

Both versions of The Staircase include this theory, but HBO Max’s version takes it a step further by depicting the everyday danger of the stairs in the premiere episode, “911” — daughter Martha, played by Odessa Young, slips while running up them — and presenting an actual re-creation of December 9 in the second episode, “Chiroptera.” It is an agonizingly macabre, jarringly sudden scene that demands a physically committed performance from Collette, who we see try to go upstairs, fall downward and into the molding with a thud, woozily attempt to stand up, fall again, hit her head a second time, and then cough up and gag on her own blood. The scene is believable and horrible to sit through, like a repudiation of our consuming this woman’s death as entertainment. As the first re-creation, it sets the tone for The Staircase’s experimentation while also chastising us a bit, and that combination is an effectively sobering one.

Photo: HBO Max


Michael and Kathleen fought, but her death was an accident

Whose theory? Campos’s, arguably
Covered in which series? HBO Max’s The Staircase 
Re-created by HBO Max’s The Staircase? Yes

This theory, which combines elements of both the prosecution’s and defense’s explanations, exists within the HBO Max miniseries but not the Netflix docuseries, and perhaps that means it is most in line with what Campos might actually believe. Michael has refused for decades to acknowledge any involvement in Kathleen’s death and in the docuseries discusses how his choice to deliver an Alford plea for voluntary manslaughter in 2017 was borne out of wanting the ordeal to be over rather than admitting any genuine guilt. A theory that involves Michael attacking Kathleen spontaneously, even without any preplanned intention of harm, seems unlikely to be something he would agree with or admit to — but The Staircase gives it credibility via another believable re-creation.

The assault takes place in the fourth episode, “Common Sense,” directly after a scene in which Michael is in the family home alone, looking at the staircase that has been marked off with plastic sheeting, and immediately before the jury provides their verdict on Michael’s innocence or guilt. It starts off similar to the “Kathleen fell on her own ” explanation, with Kathleen leaving Michael beside the pool after some wine to go upstairs and do some work. This time, she makes it all the way up successfully, but after logging onto the family computer, she discovers Michael’s emails to other men and his account on a gay-escort website. She confronts him: “I always knew, I think. Somewhere, underneath … The men, the men, the men!” Michael’s denials only make her more frantic and frustrated, but when Kathleen says she’s going to leave him, that in turn makes Michael angry — and in the heat of their argument, he shoves her down the stairs and then slams her head. When Kathleen starts to twitch and seize, he becomes repentant and revisionist (“It’s okay, it’s okay, you tripped”), but Campos doesn’t let us off the hook or forgive Michael. He slowly zooms in on Kathleen’s body and positions Michael as standing by while his wife dies.

The scene is unshakably powerful both for how it incorporates elements of Michael’s established personality (his tendency to lie to cover himself; his seemingly genuine, if complicated, love for Kathleen) and again for its plausibility. A fight that got out of hand in a location of the home that we’ve already seen to be dangerous makes sense and combines disparate elements of standalone theories that don’t quite stand on their own. A lot of viewers might be convinced by this one; I certainly was.

Photo: HBO Max


An owl did it

Whose theory? Peterson neighbor and family friend Larry Pollard
Covered in which series? Both Netflix’s The Staircase (briefly) and HBO Max’s The Staircase 
Re-created by HBO Max’s The Staircase? Yes

This one is for the very devoted true-crime fans. As reported by various outlets, including this in-depth story published by the bird-devoted environmental nonprofit Audubon, the Petersons’ neighbor and family friend Larry Pollard began speaking about the possibility of an owl culprit in late 2009. He believed that the seven scalp wounds on Kathleen, which were deep but not forceful enough to cause a skull fracture or brain contusions, were caused by an owl’s talons — a theory supported by three small owl feathers found on Kathleen and noted in the autopsy report. The explanation got some coverage on Dateline when the newsmagazine tackled the case. But The Staircase documentary doesn’t really focus on this theory, only noting it in passing: “Can I say a hundred percent that it wasn’t some raptor who flew down and inflicted those scalp wounds?” Michael’s lawyer David poses as a theory in “Chapter 12: Between Anger and Despair.”

HBO Max’s The Staircase, meanwhile, integrates this theory from the beginning. In “911,” we see a pine needle collected from Kathleen’s body during the autopsy, and the series introduces an overhead threat via bats nesting in the Petersons’ attic in “Chiroptera.” (In a moment of foreshadowing, Kathleen is so spooked by them that she falls down the attic stairs.) And when the fifth episode, “The Beating Heart,” ends with Pollard (Joel McKinnon Miller) reviewing the scalp wounds in Kathleen’s autopsy photos and turning to look at the taxidermied bird in his office, it becomes clear that Campos is going to pay more attention to this theory than de Lestrade did.

Photo: HBO Max

The owl theory gets a fair bit of attention in sixth episode “Red in Tooth and Claw” (honestly, the title alone was a clue). Sophie, sneaking kisses with Michael as she visits him in prison in spring 2006, moves into a committed investigative role after Michael loses another appeal. She finally calls back Larry and agrees to hear out his theory, and although she’s first bemused by his philosophizing about how “disorder, entropy, is natural,” she quickly goes all in on his suggestion that a barred owl attacked Kathleen for trespassing in the animal’s territory during mating season. Michael, Margaret, and Clayton don’t buy the idea at first when Sophie shares it during a prison visit, but Sophie becomes so convinced after comparing the owl’s talons with the wounds on Kathleen’s scalp in the autopsy photos that she calls de Lestrade and asks him to include the theory in their documentary. We then see why the theory didn’t make it into Netflix’s The Staircase: de Lestrade didn’t agree; medical examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch (Susan Pourfar) shrugs off whether any feathers were found on the body; and Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) refuses to give Sophie permission to exhume her mother.

But while Sophie is making her appeal to Caitlin, we get the episode’s re-creation, which is once again fairly convincing. The owl’s attack on Kathleen as she takes out the Christmas reindeer decorations is sudden and shocking, and the bird seems genuinely humongous and malicious as it slashes at her head and gets tangled in her hair. Director Leigh Janiak maintains a wide shot so we can watch the owl practically throw Kathleen around before releasing her with a wet thunk noise, but then pushes closer as we watch her walk in, smear blood on the front door, call for Michael — which he can’t hear, as established by the audio tests done by Michael’s defense team — and then fall backwards down the stairs from what seems like blood loss. There has been much said online about the owl theory and it was covered in one of the Dateline episodes about this case, but the swiftness and gruesomeness of this re-creation really brings the idea to life. Why have we anthropomorphized owls as cute and cuddly? They are terrifying. Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was right!

Photo: HBO Max


Former Michael Peterson hookup Tyrone Lacour did it

Whose theory? Durham medical examiner Dr. Radisch (sort of) and Sophie Brunet’s before disproven by an alibi
Covered in which series? HBO Max’s The Staircase 
Re-created by HBO Max’s The Staircase? Yes

This theory requires some recall: Remember in “The Great Dissembler,” the third episode of HBO Max’s The Staircase, when Dennis Rowe (Morgan Henard), a friend of Kathleen’s, told police after her death that he had slept with Michael, and provided a list of other men with whom Michael had slept? Michael has an outsize, exaggerated reaction to the suggestion that he and Rowe were sleeping together, and director de Lestrade includes that response in his Netflix documentary but leaves the matter there. HBO Max’s adaptation goes one step further by including a scene where Michael goes into a sex shop and has sex with the mechanic who Rowe also knew, Tyrone Lacour (Donny Boaz). Those interactions are revisited in seventh episode “Seek and Ye Shall,” in which Rowe ends up beaten to death in his own home by Lacour wielding a heavy flashlight and leaving wounds similar to Kathleen’s: deep scratches but no skull fracture. The situation is unusual enough that Durham medical examiner Dr. Radisch leaks the autopsy photos to Sophie via email, and then leaves the physical file out on her desk when Sophie stops by. If Lacour killed one ex-lover, why not another?

But The Staircase doesn’t give us a re-creation of the possibility that Lacour surprised Kathleen at the Peterson home and killed her because, like the blow-poke theory, there just isn’t enough evidence. We see the beating that Lacour inflicted upon Rowe as the episode’s opening scene, set to ironic snippets of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” but we don’t get a Kathleen-focused re-creation because there’s a very easy rejection of this theory: Lacour was in jail, Detective Art Holland (Cory Scott Allen) explains to Sophie. There’s no way he could have hurt Kathleen that night, and so this theory serves another purpose: revealing to Sophie that Michael doesn’t do honesty very well. When Michael bumbles his way through, “I lied about Dennis. I don’t know Tyrone, at least I don’t think I do … Sure, it’s possible,” it’s obvious that this dude has a recurring problem with telling the truth. With one episode to go, this likely isn’t the last we’ll see of that tendency.

Photo: HBO


Michael Peterson is guilty of being an asshole

Whose theory? Everyone’s, basically.
Covered in which series? Both Netflix’s The Staircase and HBO Max’s The Staircase 
Recreated by HBO Max’s The Staircase? Yes

Here we are at The Staircase series finale “America’s Sweetheart or: Time Over Time,” and we’re arguably no closer to knowing what really happened the night Kathleen Peterson fell down the stairs to her death. The recreations presented in the HBO Max miniseries’ eight episodes do create various believable theories (maybe Kathleen simply fell on her own, maybe an owl did it, maybe Michael did it) while also refusing to explore discredited ones (death by blow poke, death by intruder), but this final installment doesn’t introduce any new explanations. Instead, what the miniseries finale does is jump between 2011 and 2017 to focus nearly solely on Michael and his manipulations, which can be summed up in two lines of dialogue.

The first is “Kathleen died the day she met him,” from Kathleen’s sister Lori (Maria Dizzia), who mostly seems wrung out after Michael pleads guilty via Alford plea; this is a kind of closure, even if it’s highly imperfect for Kathleen’s relatives, who believe he should remain in prison. And perhaps Sophie ends up in that camp too by the end of the episode, given that she has spent years of her life loving Michael, caring for his children, and trying to prove his innocence — only to be unceremoniously dumped when Michael gets out of prison. He lied to her about his sexual attraction to men and about wanting to live with her in Paris, and he admits both to her in an argument the night before they’re scheduled to leave for France together. That fight sets up the second revealing line of dialogue, this one from Sophie: “He lied about everything, everything!” she says to a commiserating Jean-Xavier. Perhaps this failed romance explains the lack of the editor’s presence in the final episodes of Netflix’s The Staircase documentary. It’s hard to say how much fictionalization Campos is injecting here, but Binoche’s heartbroken performance is very effective.

“America’s Sweetheart or: Time Over Time” doesn’t include any Kathleen-focused recreations, but its depiction of how Michael attempts to turn his own children against each other, uses Sophie for his own benefit, and imagines a ghostly Kathleen as a chastising, resentful figure all speak to some amount of guilt. Whether that contrition is caused by his involvement in Kathleen’s death is unclear, but Michael’s asshole-ishness and chronic lying, dramatized in HBO Max’s miniseries and captured in Netflix’s documentary, seem pretty unassailable.


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The Staircase Asks New Questions of Old True-Crime Theories