The Staircase: Plot, Cast, and Everything Else We Know

Posted 2022/04/27 8 0

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The Staircase is a miniseries based on the true story surrounding the mysterious death of Kathleen Peterson, whose body was found at the bottom of a staircase in her North Carolina home back in 2001. Her husband, Michael Peterson, a famous novelist, was accused of her murder and subsequently convicted in 2003. The miniseries was produced by and will stream on HBO Max.

One of the miniseries’ creators and writers is American filmmaker Antonio Campos who directed some artsy and critically acclaimed dramatic thrillers such as Simon Killer, Afterschool, and The Devil All the Time. The Staircase is a dramatic take on a docuseries by the same name which premiered back in 2004, just three years after Kathleen’s death and one year after Michael’s conviction. The current instantiation of the story includes the impact of the taping and creation of the docuseries on the Peterson family. While the miniseries is based on a true story, there are bound to be some artistic deviations and embellishments on the truth, but as an audience, we already know how the story ends.

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Let’s first dive into the true story behind the plot and everything we know about The Staircase.

The Real Story

On the night of December 9, 2001, Michael Peterson called in an emergency that he had found his wife at the foot of the stairs in their North Carolina home. He claimed that she had been drinking and had taken a Valium, which may have led to her losing her balance and falling down the stairs. While crime scene investigators determined that the blood splatters may have been consistent with the reported fall, Kathleen Peterson also had several various injuries that such an event could not explain. These extra injuries were consistent instead with physical assault. These facts, coupled with reported marital problems between the couple, made Michael Peterson the prime suspect in his wife’s murder.

During the investigation and trial, it was uncovered that a friend of the Peterson’s, Elizabeth Ratliff, died in an almost identical fashion in Germany in 1985. Her body was then exhumed for a second autopsy connected with the case. While there was no way to link Ratliff’s death to Michael Peterson, the prosecutors did use her strangely similar death as a boilerplate that he used to imitate and fake Kathleen’s death.

In 2003, Michael Peterson was convicted of his wife’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. However, seven years later, after reports of withholding and misrepresentation of evidence emerged, Peterson was released on house arrest for the duration of a retrial. In 2017, his sentence was reduced to 86 months in prison, yet he became a free man since he had already served more than that.

Trailer Breakdown

It is unclear from the trailer how far into this long and complex tale the miniseries follows, but it does give us some clues about what parts of the story will be represented.

The trailer opens with a montage of scenes juxtaposing a family entrenched in happiness and turmoil, scenes of smiling and dancing mixed with scenes of inaudible screaming and crying. Over this montage, we hear the character of Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) say, “I think there are not many families like us.” Then it cuts to a scene of the entire family seated around the dinner table as Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) toasts to “so many better days ahead.” The trailer ironically and dramatically shifts tone as Michael tells an emergency dispatcher that his wife “had an accident” and “she fell down the stairs.”


As the trailer proceeds, we see glimpses of the forensic investigation, including a nod to the doctoring of evidence as an investigator is heard telling an autopsy doctor his murder theory and “make any adjustments you see fit.” We also see the plotline of the French documentarians who created the original The Staircase detailing the events behind the investigation and trial. The trailer further shows the storyline of the similar death, connection, and exhumation of Elizabeth Ratliff.

The trailer hints that the miniseries will not be in a linear timeline and instead will jump back and forth in the narrative of before and after Kathleen’s death. It seems that as evidence is unearthed and revelations in the investigation and trial are made, the audience will also be seeing the facts play out in flashbacks.


Overall, the trailer shows that while this miniseries will focus on the death and subsequent court trial that the Petersons went through, it delves deep into the inner workings and dysfunction of a fractured and untrusting family. Dialogue between the Peterson children is shown in the trailer as they try to make sense of what is happening to them and the doubt some of them start to have about their father’s innocence. One of the daughters is heard telling her sister to “stop questioning everything,” which is met by an adamant repetition of “I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!”

The trailer concludes with more cut scenes of the family in distress, including tense glares, crying, and violent blows. Michael Peterson’s conflicting narration says, “I think there are not many families like us. We’re not perfect, but we stick together. And we love each other.”

The Cast

Colin Firth plays the leading role of Michael Peterson. Since the real Michael Peterson is still alive and his guilt or innocence in his wife’s death is still a mystery, it is natural to assume that Firth may have connected with Peterson before filming. However, according to Deadline, Firth never communicated with his subject. Even though the miniseries is based on a true story, the writers crafted it in a specific way to evoke a particular mood, and Firth felt talking to Peterson might detract from the honesty in his acting of the part as written. “I felt that I wanted to keep my inspiration, my motivation, and the sense of the source material, as much as possible contained within the script and the way it was written,” Firth said.

The miniseries also stars Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson, Rosemarie DeWitt as Candace Hunt Zamperini, Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet, Parker Posey as Freda Black, Sophie Turner as Margaret Ratliff, and Odessa Young as Martha Ratliff.

Release Date

The Staircase is an eight-part miniseries co-produced by HBO Max and Annapurna TV. Parts one, two, and three are all set to premiere on May 5, 2022. Then each following episode will be released weekly, culminating on June 9, 2022.


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