The Staircase is an HBO series based on the real-life story of the death of Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) and the subsequent trial of her husband Michael Peterson (Colin Firth). Before you commit to the viewing time be forewarned that this series will play in the shadowy crevices of your brain. The film brings out the fears and uncertainties of relationships and the strength of their bonds. Your mind will be mulling over the hour-long episode well into the following day.
Full disclosure, I’m a fan of Toni Collette; and Colin Firth for that matter. They do not disappoint. But there are far more producing and editing tricks done with this story which leave the audience in a persistent state of questioning. The splicing of events as members of the family review and question past occurrences reminds of us of the complexities of kith and kin. Timelines with a six-year distance between them are run simultaneously. The overlay of the documentary being filmed and produced in real-time creates a window upon the world effect. (Here’s the link to the documentary.)
There are several interesting collisions between the intended use of the justice system and economic incentives. One is pretty typical. An agency authorized to review forensic material for jury trials is not operating at an arm’s length from the prosecuting office. An outside organization proves the bureau both fails to report pertinent information as well as distorts its level of experience. Another ho-hum, let’s protect our buddies, incident occurs when a homosexual lover threatens to provide a complete list of his liaisons should he be called upon to testify. Something about the word systemic comes to mind in the ability of the district attorney to waive away this witness.
But the more intriguing, or perhaps nefarious, turn of events occurs amongst the kids. Of the five college-age children in the Peterson household only one, Caitlin, was Kathleen’s biological offspring. She is also the only child who broke with the others in their unwavering support of Michael’s innocence. After testifying against her step-father she successfully sues him for claims to a large insurance settlement and other assets. It seems like a jury should receive some sort of incentive disclosure eventhough this may seem cynical.
This series will remind you that life is complicated. But you may not be satisfied that you have been given any answers.