The Staircase — HBO Max’s new eight-episode miniseries exploring the life of novelist Michael Peterson and the suspicious death of his wife, Kathleen — is now streaming and it’s an instant classic. The bloody, enigmatic and engrossing show stars big names like Colin Firth, Sophie Turner and Patrick Schwarzenegger. It currently has a whopping score of 95 on CNET sister site Metacritic.
The first three episodes started streaming Thursday, and if you’ve already watched them, you might have questions about how things went down in real life or when we’ll get to don our true crime detective hats again for episode 4. We’re here with answers.
Covered in books, podcasts and in an acclaimed 2004 documentary with the same name, the high-profile 2001 case continues to spark debates and theories. If you haven’t watched episodes 1-3 of The Staircase, take note: There are some spoilers below.
When does episode 4 of The Staircase air?
The first three episodes are available now, and one new episode will drop each Thursday until June 9. That means episode 4 should debut on May 12.
How can I watch the documentary?
The 2004 documentary, also called The Staircase, is streaming on Netflix. Directed by French documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, it originally aired as an eight-episode miniseries, but Netflix added two sequels from the director, as well as three additional follow-ups. Some consider it to be one of the bestout there.
The new HBO Max drama is directed by Antonio Campos, who began work on the project all the way back in 2008. The show is a co-production between HBO Max and Annapurna Television, and it’s written and executive produced by Campos and Maggie Cohn.
How are the show and documentary related?
Interestingly, the shooting of the 2004 Staircase documentary is a part of the narrative in HBO Max’s new show, with actor Vincent Vermignon playing documentary director de Lestrade. We see the crew start to film Peterson in episode 2.
The HBO Max series isn’t based just on material from the documentary. It also draws from books and reports on the case. The dramatized show clearly differs from the doc (for example, we’re getting a lot more of Kathleen Peterson in it), so you’ll want to tune in to both.
What happened in the real-life case?
Forty-eight-year-old business executive Kathleen Peterson died on Dec. 9, 2001. Her husband, novelist Michael Peterson, told 911 operators Kathleen had fallen down stairs in their Durham, North Carolina, home. Still, he was charged with murder before the month was up.
In an autopsy report released in 2002, lead pathologist Deborah Radisch concluded Kathleen’s cause of death was due to “severe concussive injury of the brain caused by multiple blunt force impacts of the head. … The number, severity, locations and orientations of these injuries are inconsistent with a fall down stairs; instead they are indicative of multiple impacts received as a result of a beating.”
The actual trial spanned three months in 2003, making it one of the longest trials ever in North Carolina. Prosecutors maintained Michael beat Kathleen to death, and the defense maintained she accidentally fell to her death down several stairs. Michael’s sex life became public during the trial. For more facts about the case, venture a bit farther down (but be aware: There are spoilers for the show).
Who are the main characters in HBO Max’s The Staircase?
There are a lot of characters in this new version of The Staircase. If you’ve been trying to sort out who’s who in Michael and Kathleen’s big family, you’re not alone.
Let’s start with the kids.
Sophie Turner and Odessa Young star as Margaret and Martha Ratliff, Michael Peterson’s real-life adopted daughters, who took his side after Kathleen’s death. Olivia DeJonge plays Caitlin Atwater, the real-life daughter of Kathleen Peterson and her former husband, Fred Atwater. Caitlin eventually gave evidence on the side of the prosecution.
Patrick Schwarzenegger and Dane DeHaan play Todd and Clayton Peterson, Michael’s real-life sons from his first marriage, to Patricia Peterson.
Rosemarie DeWitt and Maria Dizzia play Kathleen’s real-life sisters, Candace Zamperini and Lori Campbell, and Tim Guinee plays Michael’s brother, Bill.
And of course, Colin Firth is Michael, and Toni Collette is Kathleen on the show.
Big spoilers: Where is Michael Peterson now?
In 2003, a jury found Michael Peterson guilty of murder after a three-month trial, and he received a sentence of life in prison. However, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson (who oversaw the original trial) granted Peterson a new trial in 2011 after he found blood splatter analyst Duane Deaver misled him and the jury. Peterson was released from prison on bond.
Peterson’s official release came in 2017 after he entered an Alford plea, which allowed him to plead guilty while maintaining his innocence. Today, he continues to live in Durham, according to the Raleigh News and Observer.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism