Warning: This post contains spoilers for all eight episodes of HBO Max’s The staircase.
The staircase it took eight episodes to assert his case … but it ultimately left the verdict up to us.
The HBO Max limited series dramatized one of the most notorious true crime cases in recent years: the case of Michael Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife Kathleen in 2001. The case was chronicled in a documentary, also titled The staircase, who followed Michael through his trial, his conviction, and his subsequent release pending a retrial that never took place. However, we never knew for sure whether Michael did it or not, and the script version followed suit, ending up with a picture of a finally free Michael looking into the camera and giving an enigmatic half smile. (Read our latest summary here.)
To our surprise, HBO Max’s The staircase turned out to be just as compelling as the documentary, so we contacted fellow showrunners Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn to help us examine the evidence and answer some of the questions we’re still considering after the finale.
TVLINE | The series ends in an ambiguous tone with no real answer. How did you manage to write an ending to a story that does not have a nice, traditional ending?
CAMPOS | Well, we did not give it a nice, traditional ending. [Laughs] We felt that the end of the show should be more lyrical in a way. You know, throughout the series’ run, we told the audience: Don’t expect the answer, “Did he do it or did he not?” Even if we were to show you whether he did or did not do it, it would still only be what we think, and that we were not interested in. What we were interested in is arriving at an ignorant place and leaving you in that room, but with a lot of answers along the way. There are a lot of bread crumbs along the way to try to understand this family, and to understand Michael, and indeed to better understand what could have happened that night.
COHN | We always talked about how the seventh and eighth episodes would work together to bring the series to an end. Episode 7 had several endings that felt concrete, and it was an emotional ending for many of the women in the series, whether it’s Kathleen or Sophie or Martha or Patty. It was an opportunity for them to say what the audience has hoped they would come to all the time, which is the ability to explicitly express a bit as a dissatisfaction, but also explain their actions. And so with [Episode 7]we felt that we were creating something of an emotional closure for many of our characters, which created a basis for [Episode 8] to be as beautiful and as lyrical and ethereal as it was. So it allowed us to have that ambiguity and still give the audience that kind of saturated feeling: There is something definitive in this.
TVLINE | Speaking of lyrical and ethereal: In the final scene with Michael and Kathleen by the pool, on the night of her death, it’s as if she’s talking to him from the other side of the grave. It’s a kind of conversation they never got to have. What made you add it?
CAMPOS | We always knew it would be part of the ending. We really felt like that was the conclusion on the pool scene. If you notice, every time we go to the pool, the conversation is a little different. And we knew that when we got to the end of the show, we wanted the conversation to happen. Clearly, Michael talked about how he had lied about Kathleen knowing it all those years, in his interview with Jean, but it was not intimate. It was not personal. We felt that the conversation he could have with Kathleen is the personal conversation, the intimate one. It can only happen in his mind in one way and that is where it happens. The show does not tell you exactly where that space is, but it’s really meant to feel like a dream. Michael, he’s in the past, but it’s not the past, because Kathleen talks about things that happen in the present, and she says one thing, but her intonation suggests another feeling. So there are all these ways of interpreting what’s going on, and also all these signs that this is in Michael’s head, and this is a dream, and that there’s something under what we see that is trying to push itself out. .
TVLINE | We also see that although Michael is not guilty of Kathleen’s murder, he is no angel. In the finale, he sends Sophie away, and he admits that he lied about Kathleen in the last interview with Jean. He also gives us that half smile at the very end. What impression did you want the viewers to get away with of Michael as a person, regardless of his guilt or innocence?
COHN | Well, I think [Michael’s lawyer] David Rudolf puts it in a way that is: It is not about innocence or guilt. It’s about your character and your lies, and that those things are actually the things that define someone. It is not necessarily the worst moment of your life that can define you. It is actually the accumulation of the decisions you have made in your life that comes to find you and then comes to shape people’s perception of the worst moment. So I think Michael is who he is and the facts are what they are, but that’s what you bring to your perception of Michael Peterson that actually overshadows you against innocence or guilt. That’s actually not what we’re presenting. It’s what you are, how you interpret the presentation.
CAMPOS | Yes, the whole end of the series is real: What are you projecting on that image? What part of that smile, or strange thing that happens to Michael’s face, do you focus on? And how do you interpret that? And really, that’s it. That’s what we’re projecting on him.
TVLINE | You ended up saying Kathleen’s name was the last word we see before the credits. Was it a way to honor her memory before it disappears into everything else around this case?
CAMPOS | Yes, it was just such a quiet reminder that there was this woman, and whatever you think happened that night, it was tragic. Whatever you think happened, it was violent and sad. We just wanted to let her name be the last thing we feel in this series.
TVLINE | Antonio, you have been working on this project since 2008. What is it like to see it all finally come true?
CAMPOS | Yes, that’s weird. I have not dealt with it completely, but it is really satisfying. It really feels like it took as long as it should take, not just for me to grow as a person and as a filmmaker, but for me to meet people like Maggie and find a partner in this that could help me see this story through, and to meet all the wonderful artists that we have met along the way. So in some ways it’s weird and it’s been such a long journey, but it does not feel like we left anything on the table. We put it all out there and we did the show we want to do and I’m very glad it did not happen ten years ago as a feature. It happened as it should happen now.
TVLINE | Well, if it did, you would have missed out on about half the story!
CAMPOS | Well, that’s the case! [Laughs] This story just kept changing, and it’s like, “Holy s-t, there’s no way this is a movie. This ending has already changed twice in the last two years.”
TVLINE | True crime is such a trend right now, and it feels like this case is like the prototypical true crime story. What do you think is still so fascinating about this case, all these years later? Is it just the fact that we do not have an answer?
COHN | Yes, is it a crime at all?
CAMPOS | Is it a true crime story at all? I mean, that’s why, for us, it was the perfect story to deconstruct the true crime genre because it’s so mysterious. One of my favorite authors is HP Lovecraft, and I love his short stories. But there’s always a moment where the story loses me, and that’s usually when you see the monster, and now you know what the monster looks like. He describes it, and all of a sudden the story dies like. But everything that leads up to it, the mood and the atmosphere, and the excitement and the fear, that’s the most interesting thing. And I think the most interesting true crime stories are the ones where the mystery still lives on. E.g, Zodiac sign is one of my favorite true crime movies, and it’s because, in that case, that movie was very much about obsession. Yes, it’s about this serial killer, but it’s really about the obsession of these characters and those who have been pursuing this for years, and the feeling that they may never know it, but they keep leading. And for us, it was the fact that … again, if it’s not a crime, it’s not unsolved. We’ll just never know. It’s also so interesting because the story over the last almost two decades keeps getting more weird and twisted and there are connections that feel very meaningful but then you follow them and see that they don’t really give anything away. There are just so many layers in the story that it is infinitely fascinating.
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