‘The Staircase’ Episode 5: Recap And Ending, Explained: Is Michael Peterson Able To Get Out Of Prison?


“The Staircase” Episode 4 presented Michael Peterson’s long trial and the subsequent verdict of the jury against him, which led to his being given a life imprisonment sentence with no chance of parole. Episode 5 now actually seems to take a breather from the crime drama tone that prevailed over the previous episodes, and it settles entirely on relations between the family and also on Michael’s newest and perhaps most ardent supporter, Sophie Brunet. The documentary team’s own internal disagreements over the making of the final show are highlighted, along with Michael’s own fearful and desperate days in prison.

‘The Staircase’ Episode 5 Recap And Ending

The episode begins in April of 2004, when Michael has already served six months in prison after the verdict. The novelist has a hard time in prison, as sticking to himself is not really an option for him. Because of his high-profile and public case, almost every prisoner recognizes who he is and does not miss a chance to call out to him as “staircase.” Michael himself stays rather calm, but it seems that he has already been attacked by a fellow prisoner, with visible cut marks on his face. One of the prisoners, calling himself Big Ray, takes a particular interest in Michael and is almost sympathetic to him at times. Ray reveals that Michael’s attacker in prison had done so because the man had been next in line for the single-occupancy prison cell and had waited five years for it, when Michael had suddenly been put up in it by the police since he was famous. It is also through Ray that Michael quickly learns that it is almost impossible to stay by himself in prison, and he would have to join some group for his own safety. Ray introduces him to the leader of one such group, which promises him protection from his assailant and his own group, in exchange for fifty stamps every week.

Meanwhile, the defense team headed by David Rudolf now prepares an appeal against the court’s verdict. Rudolf bases the appeal on claims that the way in which Michael’s computer had been snooped into and searched by the police was unlawful and unconstitutional as they did not yet have the legal permission required to do so. If this claim stands, then all emails, photographs, and other major evidence could be challenged, and Michael could be released from prison, at least for the time being.

Michael’s brother and children struggle to keep up with the lawyers’ fees and soon have to auction off household items in order to raise money. They put up the house for sale as well, with Michael hoping that it would bring in a few million, as the property does deserve such a valuation. But he is instead informed by his sons that the house is struggling to even reach a million because of its horrid past that is affecting its valuation. Clayton and Todd visit their father in prison, but the latter is still quite dismissive of his eldest son, and instead asks Todd to keep paying for the things he buys inside prison to keep himself sane, like food, writing materials, and stamps. Todd, who now lives in Mexico running a real-estate business with a friend, gets drunk one weekend and falters on the promise of sending money to his father’s account in prison. Michael is now unable to buy the stamps with which he buys his safety from his attackers, and has to call Clayton for help. Visiting him again, Clayton now reveals that his fiancée is pregnant, meaning that Michael is about to become a grandfather soon. Michael can only hope that he is released from prison before that. Margaret has now moved into a new apartment in Los Angeles, where she works as an entry-level admin; she does keep in touch with her family, though, visiting the Peterson house before the items auction and has phone-call conversations with her step-brothers. Martha, too, stays away from Durham and has a job of her own, but she is seen quitting it out of sheer frustration. Out of all the children who still remain associated with Michael, Martha is seen as the most affected, as she shows signs of depression and possible marijuana addiction. She hardly takes any calls on her cellphone and possibly only talks to the brothers when Margaret is also on the line.

“The Staircase” Episode 5 also focuses much on Sophie Brunet and the impact that editing courtroom footage has had on her. She spends hours going over the videos and very meticulously edits them into episodes for the TV show. Soon, the crew itself has a rift in it with regards to their perception of Michael’s actions in the case, as the producer of the show, Denis Poncet, is unhappy with how the episodes have been edited, particularly with respect to what all has been kept and what has been removed. He is also wary of Sophie’s evident liking for Michael, and asks his director, Jean-Xavier, to exclude her from the team immediately. The director turns down any such idea, though, as he feels Sophie has done a good job. The main disagreement is over the treatment of Michael, which Denis believes does not portray the man in the same light in which the court found him guilty of murdering his wife. The fact of Kathleen’s thyroid cartilage being found fractured is left out by Sophie in the documentary, who claims that it was nothing substantial to give time to in the series, but Denis vehemently wants it included. He instead wants a particular scene that shows Michael having a heartfelt conversation with Clayton removed. Sophie insists that the particular scene brings much-required balance to the whole show by helping viewers understand Michael better, and the director agrees with her too. Finally, the show was released at a private screening to much public appreciation. With Sophie still in the team and present at the place, Jean-Xavier admits to her that he believes she has provided the real soul to the work. All this time, Sophie had been in touch with Michael, as she kept writing him letters and sending him books, and she provided some peace and hope to the man inside prison.

Ultimately, Michael’s appeal against the court verdict is rejected by a three-judge panel, who do agree with some of the defense’s claims of judicial mistakes in the case, but the rejection is on the grounds that none of these mistakes had any effect on the jury’s mind while they made their decision. This would inadvertently mean that the appeal would now be presented at the North Carolina Supreme Court for one final try to acquit the man, but Rudolf warns a devastated Michael that it might take years to achieve. Sophie now sends over DVDs of the entire documentary to Margaret’s Los Angeles residence. While the daughter watches them, Michael’s neighbor in Durham, an attorney named Larry Pollard, takes a look at Kathleen’s autopsy photographs. Sophie then visits Michael in prison, and the two seem equally happy at finally seeing each other.

Does Michael’s Attitude Towards The Case Change After The Prison Sentence Begins?

What episode 5 of “The Staircase,” comparatively one with fewer factual details than the previous ones, builds up is Michael’s initial hope of being acquitted of the crimes, his desperate wait for his lawyers to present the appeal in his favor, and then ultimately the crushing despair that slowly starts to set in his mind once the appeal is rejected. Since the beginning of his prison time, Michael has remained in control of his situation and kids as much as he can be. The only change is when he is beaten up by a fellow prisoner, which shakes him up quite badly, and the man gets terrified of being alone during lunch and in the yard. He gets help in this matter from Ray, and it seems that Michael’s ability to spin a charming effect on some people remains intact, as Ray continues to grow friendly with him. When Michael had to spend an entire day without his group’s protection because Clayton had forgotten to send him money, he had asked Ray for help, and the man had stepped up and promised him protection in case he was attacked. This perhaps further confirms the idea that Ray either believes him to be innocent or that he is charmed by the man and sympathizes with him, at least to some extent. Around this time, the two men sit together at lunch, and Ray remarks how incredibly calm Michael is in his situation, for he himself had been very unsettled when he had lost. Michael responds by asking him, “Lost what?” The fact that any judicial system would more often than not rule against convicted prisoners in any appeal had still not established itself in Michael’s mind. He kept believing that he would soon be freed from captivity when his lawyers filed the appeal. His own attitude towards the case does not change a bit, as in, he still maintains that Kathleen died by falling down the stairs after being drunk. However, he soon receives news of the appeal’s rejection, and that too in the worst way possible—he watches it on the news playing on the prison television. Rudolf calls him up later too, and Michael struggles to gulp down the idea that he now has to wait for years, possibly, before the Supreme Court again listens to his defense appeal. When Sophie finally comes to meet him, the grief and despair may take a turn, and it is perhaps with this newfound connection that Michael is about to spend the next long years in prison.

What To Expect From ‘The Staircase’ Episode 6?

Michael and Sophie’s loving relationship might be developed next in the show, if it is given enough time, that is. There is plenty of crime thriller drama to get back to, though, with Durham attorney Larry Pollard, who is seen studying the autopsy photos at the end of Episode 5 of “The Staircase.” Larry then looks up at the claws of a bird statue he has in his office, which suggests what is about to come soon—the owl theory that has been later presented. How Margaret reacts after watching the documentary and also what the overall audience perception of the documentary series is, remain interesting points to expect from the upcoming episodes.

See More: ‘The Staircase’ Episode 6: Recap And Ending, Explained: How Does The “Owl-Theory” Affect Michael’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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