The Staircase



The Staircase is a fascinating  HBO television series is based on a “True Crime” or “True Accident.”  Added to that, there was a documentary made about the case as it unfolded and this series presents that documentary as part of the story. I should mention there is also an earlier Netflix series based on the same story which I have not seen yet.


It arose as the result of a woman dying at the bottom of a staircase in the home she shared with her second husband a novelist. Did he kill her or did she fall accidentally? That is the question.  The event happened in Durham North Carolina in 2001.


According to Doreen St. Felix of the television  critic of the New Yorker magazine,


“Antonio Campos, who adapted the original documentary as a scripted series for HBO, treats the staircase as a metaphor. His version, a baroque drama that reimagines not only the tragedy of the Peterson family but also the filming of de Lestrade’s documentary, depicts the transfigurative process by which facts are stacked and elevated to narrative. The resulting staircase is Escherian.”


By that I think she means to refer to a staircase which is based on the illusion of  a staircase where not matter where one starts or which direction one walks one ends up at the place one started. How can that be?  Look at the illusion:



I found parts of the series maddening. Particularly the extreme use of flashbacks.  I had a very difficult time following them. Often, I did not understand whether the scene was before or after the central murder. Sort of like such an Escherian  staircase. I was constantly disoriented. But perhaps that was the plan. Like the illusion. It just can’t be. Can it?

Sometimes a flashback or flash forward came early in an episode and seemed to give away the mystery.  It was maddening until I realized there was more to be revealed. Truth is always murky, even when it seems clear!  Sometimes that is exactly when it is most murky.

This film tackles the very difficult subject of whether or not a wife was murdered by her husband or accidentally fell down the staircase in her home.  And where does justice fit into this exploration for truth. It really is a very interesting mystery.

As a French journalist Sophie, said in the series,

“Justice is no more than a construct. No more than a game.  A game that shapes the outcome a man’s life.”

This film exemplifies the truth of a statement made by Michael Peterson, the protagonist—“a lie cannot set you free.” That is a profound truth. And it is a hard truth as this television series shows.  One of the ironies of that  statement is that is was made by an admitted liar. Yet peculiarly, the liar seems entirely  unwilling to lie to get out of jail. How is that possible? Can such a person nonetheless be a telling the truth?



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