‘The Staircase’ Ending, Explained: Did Michael Peterson Actually Kill His Wife, Kathleen?


With the release of episode 8, HBO’s drama series based on true crime, “The Staircase,” comes to an inconclusive end. This inconclusiveness, though, is not at all a negative criticism of the show, as the case itself was marked with such a lack of clarity. In this sense, “The Staircase” does succeed in keeping the original spirit of the case intact, and also adds its own dramatic layers and perspectives to it. Overall, if the entire season is to be looked at together, “The Staircase” is undoubtedly an intense, provocative, and thoroughly enjoyable fiction based on unresolved reality.

‘The Staircase’ Episode 8: Recap Summary

Episode 8 begins with Michael Peterson sitting down for a personal interview with Jean Xavier alone in 2017, just before applying for the Alford plea. Although Jean records the interview, what it contains is not immediately revealed by the show, as it keeps it away for a more dramatic presentation. Episode 7 had ended with Michael’s children, now all grown up and having families of their own, returning to Durham for their father’s retrial hearing. Now, we get to witness the procedures of this hearing as family from both sides, Michael’s children in support of the defense, and Kathleen’s sisters in support of the prosecution, all gather in court. Candace, Kathleen’s sister, who had been vocally against Michael from the initial days of the trial, now makes a heartfelt plea in the manner of a statement. She emphasizes the cruelty of Michael in beating his loving and caring wife to death, as she believes, ten years ago, and requests the judge to immediately dismiss the retrial hearing. However, owing to the findings of investigators about the corruption of the SBI only a few months back, the judge turned down such a request and opened the hearing for a retrial of the case. David Rudolf then lays out all the new evidence they have found, one after the other, and also presents his witnesses for the testimony, in the form of Evelyn Ivins and other investigators of the Project for Actual Innocence. Evelyn presents her findings about the SBI’s major flaws in conducting investigations in North Carolina and their terrible malpractices in hiding evidence that would make the prosecution’s case weak. Direct mention of SBI’s Duane Deaver is, of course, made, as the man had directly lied in Michael’s court trial, under the oath of the court. Looking into all the evidence, the ruling judge decides that Deaver’s false and biased testimony had indeed had a severe effect on the jury’s decision, and therefore, the verdict of life imprisonment was now very questionable. Much to the joy and relief of Rudolf, Michael, and all his supporters, the court rules for a retrial of the case and orders the novelist to be released from prison immediately. A 10pm curfew is still to be maintained by the man, though, as he is tagged with a police tracking device on his leg as per usual regulation.

This approval of a retrial is soon celebrated by the whole family, including all of the Peterson children, Michael’s brother Bill, David Rudolf, Michael’s first wife, Patricia, and the newest member introduced to the family, his current lover and ex-editor of the documentary show, Sophie Brunet. The theme of family remains important in this final episode, too, as changing dynamics and relations are stressed on. Todd, who was once the man in control in stark contrast to his elder brother Clayton, now finds himself on the completely opposite end, as he seems aimless and lost in life, and also searching for constant validation from his father. Clayton, on the other hand, now heads his own family and seems a changed man, with a visible sense of confidence and clarity about him. Patricia decides to return and settle in Durham in 2011, in order to help Michael and the children, and she provides happy and much-needed company to Todd. The Ratliff sisters, Margaret and Martha, also get back to being close to each other once again, now accepting the differences between them with regards to their thought-processes. Scenes from the past show how Michael and Kathleen spent their last couple of days together in 2001. Just a day before Kathleen’s death, Michael had written to her words of assurance to try and fix their flailing marriage, and the man had also fulfilled this promise with his actions. By now, Kathleen had grown tired of her professional worries and instead decided to abandon those thoughts completely and focus on herself, taking a break. This match of similar temperaments once again sparked the buried romance between the couple, and they also visited a party at a friend’s place that evening. Throughout that evening, the two spent a very loving and romantic time together, which then carried over to the next evening, as they spent time drinking wine and watching a rented film at their house. Todd had also visited the couple that evening, hours before everything about the Petersons turned upside down.

Finally, in February of 2017, Michael Peterson put in an Alford plea to the court, a month before his retrial was to be held. This plea was based on the defense’s understanding that, in the event of a retrial, the jury would once again find Michael guilty of the crime, based on the evidence presented by the prosecution. Instead, Michael pleads guilty to a charge of manslaughter, which is less culpable than murder, trying to reduce the prison sentence he was originally given. Much to the disappointment of Candace and other family members of Kathleen, Michael was granted this plea and was given a prison sentence of 86 months, a time he had already served previously. The man was therefore allowed to walk free, with no extra time to be spent in jail. While Candace and her sister have to settle for trying to get over the incident and try to get back to their normal lives, not everything goes smoothly with Michael either. Sophie and Michael had planned for a long time to leave Durham and settle together in Paris when the novelist would finally be allowed to live somewhere else. Now, after the case officially ended in 2017, Sophie was excited to carry out their plan, but Michael expressed a strong change of heart. With him now unsure of whether he even ever loved Sophie, the two end their relationship instantly. As Sophie returns to Paris to help Jean-Xavier edit the new episodes of their documentary, Michael Peterson stays back in Durham to spend the rest of his life, and still lives there at present.

What Had Michael Revealed In His Interview With Jean-Xavier?

Since the documentary on the case was first shot and subsequently released, Michael had made himself a new friend in Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, one who he felt would always listen to him, if not support all his actions. In 2017, before the Alford plea, Michael calls upon this close friend to seemingly reveal something worrying, something that he had carried within himself for a very long time and was acknowledging for the first time to anybody. When Sophie returns to Paris at the end to look at the new footage, she gets to finally see the interview, and the audience, too, is now given the same opportunity. Michael initially talks about his childhood days, the time when he first discovered an intense sexual attraction towards male bodies, along with females. A young teenager at the time, he had started to explore this attraction with another boy from his softball team, and Michael’s father had caught them in the act one day. This triggered a pathetic reaction from the father, as he brutally hit Michael for his actions, to the extent of getting the young boy a black eye. From then on, Michael admits, he had learned that his sexuality was something to always keep hidden from the public. The man now shockingly reveals that, in contrast to whatever he had said before, Kathleen had no idea about his bisexuality and about his many casual hook-ups with men all over Durham.

Understandably, Sophie is shocked beyond her wits after watching the video, and the effect on viewers is also quite similar. Throughout the trial, Michael defended the potential motive presented by Jim Hardin regarding his sexuality, saying that his wife had known all about his experimentations and was in complete support of it. He had also made these claims in private conversations, to Rudolf and to Bill. Michael’s claim was supported by his ex-wife Patricia, saying that she had always known about his secrets during their marriage. However, the way in which Michael presents and words his confession in the video suggests that he had always hidden his sexuality from everyone around him. This was visibly felt throughout the season in a number of instances when some of his children, notably the sons and also Martha, even in the last episode, tried to speak to their father about this subject. Michael would always find a way to slink away and avoid that conversation, either by changing the subject or sternly turning down such a discussion. Added to the nature of Patricia that has been established, that of a submissive, devoted, and soft-spoken woman, it might be that she too had lied about the matter, only to blindly support her ex-husband. Such a revelation could potentially be of tremendous concern, as it had been an important part of his defense throughout. However, the matter was never taken to court, as by this time, the man had already pleaded guilty, and the case was already over. Where it had a lasting effect was in the relationship between him and Sophie, as the woman was now completely convinced that Michael was full of lies.

‘The Staircase’ Ending Explained: Did Michael Actually Kill His Wife?

Very much like the original documentary series, HBO’s dramatic retelling of the Michael Peterson case takes no side and intends to leave viewers with all the facts and occurrences to formulate their own truths. It is to be remembered that “The Staircase” is not just about the court trial and what happened to Michael, but also about the various interpretations of truth. The inclusion of the documentary crew and its various characters in the narrative of the show can be looked at as just following the objective truth of what all happened and who all were present at the time. But, a much more interesting perspective is that “The Staircase” also tries to present how the documentary team led by Jean-Xavier perceived the truth and the choices they made with regards to this matter. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, Sophie Brunet, and most others who worked on the original documentary, though, have voiced their disappointment about how they have been portrayed in the series. They claim that creator and director Antonio Campos has taken too much creative liberty to dramatize whatever happened during that time. The major fallout between Sophie and Jean-Xavier and the producer of the show, Denis, over how Sophie wanted to edit out videos that suggested Michael’s possible guilt becomes a very important strain in one of the episodes. This, however, and quite a few such matters actually never happened, according to the original makers.

Being a self-admitted passion project for Antonio Campos, this adaptation of the Michael Peterson trial and also Jean-Xavier’s original documentary maintains the same undecidedness with regards to what had actually happened on the night of December 9th, 2001. “The Staircase” tips one way or the other multiple times throughout its 8 episodes, with revelations from both sides presented with dramatic effect. But whether Michael had actually killed Kathleen remains unsolved. “The Staircase” ends with a retelling of the events of that night, as Michael pours wine while Kathleen receives a phone call from her colleague. Incidentally, she has to use her husband’s computer, and he easily agrees to it when she asks. This retelling then quickly turns into a reimagining, as Kathleen, now lying beside her husband by the pool, starts talking about the present and about their children, all grown up. Here in his imagined conversation, Michael says something that can be seen as the crux of the entire incident, as he says, “It wasn’t a lie. It just wasn’t the whole thing.” Among all the other details and claims that Michael had made about the case, none were probably lies, but that does not necessarily ascertain that he always presented the whole truth. Whatever Michael Peterson decided to keep restricted inside his own mind, if anything at all, remains inside that very head and could never come out into the public. Not through a long-drawn court trial, not through a detailed and praiseworthy documentary series, and definitely not through a fictional dramatic retelling of the incident. The very last scene of “The Staircase” episode 8 shows Michael arranging pictures of all his children on his bedside table, and noticeably also one of Kathleen. The man, sitting on his bed, is seen in a close-up as his face seems to gradually move into a sly smile before again returning to one without any distinct emotion. More than the obvious inconclusiveness that the show tries to present here, this scene drives home the brilliant performance of Colin Firth in the lead role. Of course, there is a sense that Michael Peterson still has something hidden within his head that we do not know. But whether that something is about the murder/accident of his wife and/or his neighbor’s wife in Germany, we can truly never say.

“The Staircase” also does not make any mention of Michael’s children in real life at present. As is last seen through events of around 2017, Clayton leads a happy family life with his wife and daughters, and Todd lives with his mother, Patricia. Margaret seems to be involved in films and documentaries of her own. Martha works professionally as a dance artist and trainer. All four of them keep in contact with each other, but by the end, they are all burned out by their father’s case. On the day of the Alford plea in 2017, none of the four children were present in court or even with their father afterwards. Despite having the freedom to go anywhere in the world, Michael Peterson never left Durham. He keeps denying claims that he killed Kathleen Atwater, and maintains that her death was an accident, even to this day in recent interviews after the show’s release.

See More: ‘The Staircase’ Episode 1, 2 & 3 Recap And Ending, Explained: Is It Based On A True Story?

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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