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

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Directed by Antonio Campos, HBO Max Original Series “The Staircase” is a fictional presentation of the infamous Michael Peterson trial. An American novelist and ex-marine, Michael Iver Peterson, was convicted of having killed his wife, Kathleen Atwater, at their Forest Hills residence in Durham, North Carolina. However, the case itself was a rather challenging and confusing one, with twists and turns deserving of the many film and television adaptations it had already gotten. What Campos brings fresh to the table in this series is a new depth and perception to the entire chain of events, as he employs fiction rather than the style of a crime documentary. So far, with 3 episodes out, “The Staircase” seems to be a compelling watch, keeping audiences intrigued, especially with the brilliantly convincing performance of Colin Firth as Michael Peterson.


‘The Staircase’ Episode 1: Recap And Ending

Episode 1 begins in February of 2017, when an older Michael Peterson struggles to get back to a new life towards the very end of his stretched court trial. The focus quickly goes back all the way to the midnight of December 9th, 2001, when a panicked Michael called 911 asking for help with his wife, who had accidentally fallen down the stairs but was still breathing. Five minutes later, he called the service again, asking for help more urgently and now mentioning that his wife is not breathing anymore. The emergency services arrived at his house to find his wife, Kathleen, dead, lying at the foot of a staircase, amidst a surprising amount of blood. The terrified husband, when asked by authorities, claims that they had been outside by their pool and then she returned inside; he came in a few minutes later and found her in an unconscious but breathing state and immediately called up the emergency service. The man is soon joined by his son, Todd, and his girlfriend, who were returning home from a Christmas party. Despite the son’s best attempts to calm his father down, the novelist continues to panic until police officials come into the house with a warrant to search and collect evidence, indirectly insinuating that they do not believe him to be as innocent as he claims himself to be.

The narrative of “The Staircase” often goes back to incidents from days prior to the accident, when Kathleen was still alive. The Petersons were a big family with five children from both their past marriages. Kathleen is seen to be a loving and caring mother to all the young adults, which include her own daughter Caitlin, Michael’s sons from his first marriage, Clayton and Todd, and two sisters, Margaret and Martha, who were the children of Michael’s neighbor and had been adopted by him after their parents’ death. The day after the accident, all of the family is informed, and they return home to provide support to the father. Michael’s brother, Bill, and Kathleen’s sisters, Candace and Lori, fly down to Durham too. In an unofficial gathering of the family, Michael reveals that on the evening of December 9th, the couple were celebrating the novelist’s having sold a work to a Hollywood production, and the two were having drinks by their poolside. Todd and his girlfriend had met them before going to their party that night, and the girlfriend remembered Kathleen as being a bit drunk. Michael had come inside the house a few minutes after his wife and had found her lying on the staircase. Although Candace and Lori seem a bit suspicious about their brother-in-law’s actions, especially his inability to directly tell them of their sister’s demise and instead inform their respective husbands, they ultimately support Michael and provide him with support. Sensing that the police might take in Michael as a suspect in a possible homicide case, the novelist and his brother meet with a lawyer renowned for saving guilty defendants.

Meanwhile, the police had already grown suspicious of Michael’s account because of the sheer amount of blood found on the staircase and around Kathleen’s body. After medical examinations are performed on the corpse, things look more sinister as many cuts and bruises are found on her body, along with seven deep lacerations on her scalp, all suggesting that she was possibly beaten to death. But the absence of any murder weapon does not allow them to put the blame on the husband right away, and Michael’s case is instead put in front of a grand jury, which suspects him to have been involved in his wife’s death. Michael Peterson has no option but to listen to his lawyer’s advice and turn himself in at the police station that very evening.


What Exactly Is The Police’s Case Against Michael? What Is Michael’s Version Of The Truth?

At the end of “The Staircase” Episode 1, the District Attorney of Durham County, Jim Hardin, and his assistant, Freda Black, sit down with Candace and Lori, and show them the photographs of the multiple bruises and cuts found on their sister’s body. The EMT who had first checked on Kathleen at her house had reported that her heart had stopped beating quite some time ago, which did not match with Michael’s account either. The medical examiner had reported that the cause of her death had been severe blood loss, but strangely, the DA reports it to have been blunt force trauma. The police now believe that Kathleen had been bludgeoned to death by Michael, who also seemed to have strangled her, as suggested by the fracture of her superior cornu of the left thyroid cartilage. A condom found in their bedroom made the authorities run a rape test as well, but that showed negative results. As a possible motive, the police cite photographs of a naked young man, presumably a stripper or sex worker, hidden on Michael’s personal computer. They believe, as they report to the sisters, that Kathleen had found the pictures that night and had an altercation with her husband, who then murdered her.

Michael Peterson, though, had a certain history with the specific DA and the police force of Durham County. The man’s professional career had begun with service for the US Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, from which he was relieved after getting injured. He had then tried his hand at writing, and had published three novels based on his experiences at war. Much later in the 90s, now settled in Durham, he worked as a columnist for the Herald-Sun newspaper, where he developed himself as a constant harsh critic of the city’s police administration and particularly of the District Attorney, Jim Hardin. In ’99, Michael first entered the realm of politics as he ran in the mayoral election, in the campaign for which he claimed to have earned several distinguished military medals. He had also claimed that he had to leave the army after being injured while in direct action and conflict in Vietnam, but his claims were soon revealed to be false, as he had been injured as a military policeman posted in Japan. This had potentially ruined his campaign overall, but did not dampen his spirits, as Michael now once again ran to be part of the city council of Durham in 2001. When the murder case trial begins in late 2001 or early 2002, Michael is very quick to claim that he is being framed for having criticized the actions of the DA over a number of years. He tries to convince his family and friends that it is all a part of the authorities’ continued corruption. The DA’s words at the end of “The Staircase” Episode 1, falsely claiming that Kathleen had died from a bludgeoning, also suggest this. Episode 1 had earlier shown the medical examiner clearly stating that Kathleen had died from blood loss without any noticeable skull fracture or blunt force trauma, which are usually present in a case of being beaten to death. Then too, she was informed by her superior that the DA personally wanted the case to be given utmost priority, as the prime suspect is, after all, his own political and personal rival.


‘The Staircase’ Episode 2: Recap And Ending

Michael is now in local police custody awaiting bail to be released, while the children spend a tense Christmas at home all by themselves. He tries calling his sisters-in-law multiple times but does not get any response, and realizes that the DA has managed to turn them over against him. He asks Bill to inform his children about his sexuality before they get to know it in some insensible manner from some other source, and the children have mixed responses to the knowledge of their father’s bisexuality. In a few days, his lawyer, David Rudolf, manages to sort out his bail and bring him back home. The whole team of lawyers now set up their base in Michael’s house to plan their actions ahead, trying to dismiss any possible claims from the DA that Michael could have murdered his wife for her insurance money. Around this time, a French documentary team takes an interest in the Michael Peterson case while trying to look for high-profile court cases in the US to make a documentary on the country’s judicial system and contact Rudolf. After having a conversation over the phone, both parties seem pleased to have business with each other, and the crew, headed by director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, comes down to Durham. Meanwhile, Caitlin’s biological father, and the ex-husband of Kathleen, visits the girl and tells her about the photographs in the possession of the DA that suggest something sinister had happened to her. The father takes Caitlin to spend a few days with him at a hotel, and the already present doubt in the girl’s mind starts to grow. She sits down for a TV interview to talk in support of Michael* in the presence of one of Michael’s lawyers, but finally decides against doing it and walks out of the studio. She finally agrees to visit the DA’s office with her father, where she takes a painful look at her mother’s autopsy photographs and gets convinced that her step-father is not being truthful about the night’s incidents. She now stays disconnected from the Peterson family and puts up at her aunt Candace’s place. Michael and his remaining children now have a new visitor instead, as the man’s ex-wife, Patricia, comes to their house, possibly to provide support from her home in Germany.

It is established through sequences from the past that Kathleen was gradually becoming forgetful and was heavily stressed at her workplace at Nortel. Both from her stress regarding an ongoing downsizing at her office and also from her growing age and its effects, Kathleen was seemingly growing tired of her life, as she even confesses to her husband on the night of a fundraiser, 57 days before her death. The fundraiser was part of Michael’s election campaign, where Kathleen too had put in a lot of effort, and had even missed going over to meet Caitlin at her school because of it. Back at present, the State Bureau of Investigation takes over the case and tries to find out the way in which Michael had possibly bludgeoned his wife to death without leaving any marks of it behind. On the other hand, Rudolf brings in a team of experts who go through the crime scene and establish a chain of events to put up in court. Their account involves Kathleen having slipped on the staircase and hitting her head twice on the wall and stairs, and then coughing up blood, which all sums up the ghastly amount of blood and marks found on the scene. They are, however, unable to find any reason for the fractured thyroid cartilage or the lacerations on her skull, and decide to keep it unmentioned in the trial. The episode wraps with a sudden realization by Candice that the murder weapon possibly is a fireplace tool, a blow poke, that she herself had gifted to all her siblings some time back.


What Does Caitlin’s Turning Against The Family Now Mean For Michael?

From the beginning, Michael stresses the importance of staying together with his children quite a few times. He knows that the togetherness and the support brought on by the family are of primary benefit to him, irrespective of whether he is a guilty murderer or a framed victim. This ground already becomes shaky when Candice and Lori move away from the Petersons after seeing their sister’s autopsy photos, and it takes an even bigger blow with the turning of Caitlin. The daughter was already growing a bit suspicious of the events from even before her mother’s death, when her mother was gradually changing from who she used to be. She admits to her biological father that Candice had been calling her up recently trying to turn her against her step-father, and now that Bill has revealed Michael’s bisexuality (which was one of the things Candice kept telling her), she is more drawn towards wanting to know the truth. Although she goes away with her father, she does not readily forget about her step-sisters, as they all seem to share a genuine and loving bond with each other. She tries to convince Margaret and Martha that her mother was not drunk enough to cause a fatal accident that night (which the DA later proves to her through test reports), but when they do not agree to look at things from her same perspective, the bond starts to tremble as well. Finally, when she takes a look at the dreaded photographs, there is no doubt in her head about Michael’s involvement in her mother’s death, also partly because of the way it has been presented to her by Hardin and Freda. She leaves a written note for her sisters at their house before finally leaving, and they read it too while returning to their college, but do not seem to act on it. The turning of Caitlyn will also trigger a financial alarm for Michael, as Caitlyn can now potentially claim her mother’s money, which her husband was banking on to fight his legal battle.


‘The Staircase’ Episode 3: Recap And Ending

The news of the blow poke being the possible murder weapon spreads, and Michael’s house is thoroughly searched for it. SBI officials have now started to test the impact of a strike made with a blow poke on mannequin heads. The documentary team also recorded the DA’s version of events, and Hardin clearly states on camera that he and his team believe the case to be one of homicide. They now start looking into the private life of Michael Peterson, trying to find a possible infidelity angle. They get in touch with the man from the photographs, who claims to have spoken with the novelist over mail and text but had apparently never met him in person. Police informants go out to all bars, gyms and adult entertainment stores frequented by Michael, and get to know of a certain Dennis Rowe, who had mentioned Michael. Dennis, who was earlier seen at Michael’s fundraiser as he was a friend of Lori, is now brought in for questioning by the authorities. Despite admitting to being physically intimate with Michael, the man cleverly denies having his sexuality misused by the authorities to frame a case. Instead of providing more information, he presents a list of other high-profile men he has slept around with, a list that includes a number of Hardin’s supporters and donors. Michael denies any of these claims, though, and he admits to being in contact with male escorts, but denies cheating on his wife. Even in his private space, among his lawyers and brother, Michael says that he did have casual sexual flings with multiple men, but his wife knew about it all and had no problems with it. His words are also supported by Patricia, who accounts for how Michael used to have multiple sexual encounters with both men and women during their marriage, but he was always open and honest about them.

In scenes from the past, Michael is seen to receive phone calls from men who suggest meeting soon for intimate sessions. He and his wife were in disagreement over the amount of money they had to spend to save Michael’s two sons from some crimes they had committed. Todd, the younger son, was also in some financial trouble for which he relied on his parents’ help, and Kathleen was unwilling to spend any more of her money on this matter. When Michael called Patricia to ask for money for the help of their sons, their biological mother seemed to be in some financial distress too. Meanwhile, Kathleen was also troubled by scratching and movement noises that she often heard from her ceiling, fearing some sort of bird or rat infestation. Calling on experts, it was revealed that there were bats in her attic, the removal of which would also be a pricey affair. At present, Rudolf and his team want to include more of the children in public appearances regarding the case, as it would help garner public sympathy and support towards Michael. They decide to get Margaret and Martha in front of a television interview, despite the latter’s discomfort with doing it, and they talk about how Michael and Patricia had adopted them as their own children when their parents had died in Germany. This interview, and its telecast, terribly misfires for Michael, though, as the DA’s office soon receives a phone call about it.

The caller introduces herself as Margaret Blair, the sister of Liz Ratliff, who was the biological mother of Margaret and Martha. The girls’ aunt reveals secrets about her sister’s death in Germany, where Michael and Patricia used to be their neighbors. In a bizarre manner, Liz Ratliff was also apparently found dead in the exact same manner by Michael Peterson at the foot of a staircase. The novelist maintains that it was a coincidence, as he had gone over to Liz’s house to help her with something, like he often used to do after her husband, George’s, death. It was on this night that he found her lying dead from a brain aneurysm. He hands over a file containing her autopsy reports to his lawyer too, who is terribly angry at his client for not having told him this earlier. On the other hand, the SBI also establishes a link between the crime scene and Michael, stating that a blood stain found on the novelist’s pants suggested that he had put heavy strikes on his wife’s head with a blunt weapon while standing close to her head. The DA’s office now tries to put the two together and present a strong case against the husband, but they would need Margaret and Martha’s permission to perform tests on their mother’s dead body in this matter. With Martha herself now having a lot of doubts about their father’s role in both their mother’s eerily similar deaths, Margaret persuades her to sign an official letter accepting the DA’s request to get permission to exhume their mother’s body.  “The Staircase” Episode 3 ends with an opening scene from the first day of the court trial held on July 1, 2003, when the Petersons and the Atwaters face off to start a long legal proceeding.


Was Michael Lying All This While Then?

“The Staircase” very cunningly takes a pause at an important juncture, with the vagueness and strangely matching death of Liz Ratliff introduced around twenty minutes before the end. At this point, Michael’s innocence is really difficult to believe, as the most convincing explanation is that he had first killed Liz and posed it as a staircase accident, and then had followed the same process twenty years later when he wanted to get rid of his current wife. However, the motive behind Liz’s possible murder is left unmentioned, and Michael and Patricia both claim that he did not have any sexual relations with Liz, and that the neighbor was only their very close friend. Nonetheless, there is way too much mystery about Michael’s history while staying in Germany. Liz’s husband, George, too, had died very mysteriously while on some military mission in Panama. All this creates a toll on the daughters, quite obviously, as Martha admits to her sister that she cannot help but have doubts and questions about their stepfather’s true actions. The two are privately questioned by Rudolf about any discrepancies in Michael’s version of the events, but the two were clearly way too young to remember anything substantial, having been merely two and less than a year old, respectively. On the other hand, the revelation of his father’s bisexuality also seems to have a confusing effect on the eldest son, Clayton, who seems to try to explore his own sexuality while snorting cocaine with a male friend. Overall, the Peterson family gradually starts to break down bit by bit from such revelations one after the other.


What To Expect From ‘The Staircase’ Episode 4?

“The Staircase” is highly likely to turn more towards the legal battle side of things, as the courtroom trial already begins at the end of episode 3. It is also likely that more secrets about Michael’s past will be revealed as the court proceedings progress. More scenes from the past are also to be expected, as the series has by now established its style of presenting two timelines frequently. Whether the documentary crew has any role to play in the trial would also be of interest to see, as in the 3rd episode the crew is seen discussing the case, where one believes Michael to be a guilty murderer while the other does not. So far, “The Staircase” has had a very interesting manner of unraveling itself, and it manages to keep viewers interested even though the court case or an onscreen presentation of it is not necessarily something new.


See More: ‘The Staircase’ Episode 4: Recap And Ending, Explained: What Is The Jury’s Verdict On Michael Peterson’s Case?


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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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