The following contains spoilers for The Staircase (2022) finale, “America’s Sweetheart or: Time Over Time” (written by Antonio Campos and Aja Gabel, and directed by Antonio Campos).
“America’s Sweetheart or: Time Over Time” is an over-bloated final episode that details the events of Michael Peterson’s (Colin Firth) Alford plea. Michael had wanted to avoid submitting an Alford plea because he has always maintained his innocence. The Alford plea is not an admission of guilt. It states that the defendant is presumed to be innocent, but acknowledges that the evidence against them could persuade a jury to find them guilty. Michael’s plea is ultimately accepted by the court and he is sentenced to time served and freed.
As The Staircase (2022) comes to a close, it seems like as good a time as any to reevaluate our society’s obsession with true crime. The Staircase (2022) is by no means the only sensationalized account of a terrible crime, but it feels like a breaking point. Not only has the show twisted reality to create a more dramatic and salacious telling of events, it has done so solely for the sake of creating entertainment. Perhaps it’s because this series’ style and format so closely follow its docuseries predecessor that it feels exploitative in a way that sets it apart from other true crime adaptations.
There’s a slippery slope when it comes to turning a real family’s trauma into “must-see TV.” Sometimes these adaptations or documentaries can be used to bring injustices to light or put a spotlight on stories that can have a positive impact on society at large. That’s exactly what the original docuseries set out to do. The real Jean-Xavier was interested in telling the story of Michael Peterson because he wanted to expose the shortcomings of the American judicial system, but what does The Staircase (2022) want to prove?
Originally, the show was praised for its attempt to center Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) at the center of the story of her death. It was an attempt to give space to a woman whose life was cut short and allow her to be more than just a memory. As the season progressed, Kathleen was only trotted out to reenact different theories about the manner of her death. From a strictly narrative point of view, these scenes were important. It was essential to show that there was potential validity in a variety of theories and cast further doubt on the information that was laid out by the District Attorney in court.
However, when you put those scenes in the context of a real person and a real family, how can they be seen as anything other than purely exploitative? It’s hard not to think about the Peterson children, who could very well be watching this series in their own homes, forced to relive their mother’s death time and again. Given the fact that the rest of the scenes involving Kathleen are focused on her difficulties at work, it feels insincere to focus the bulk of Kathleen’s screen time on her death.
And what to make of the Peterson children and their realization that the father who cared for them might not be the man they thought he was? This limited series should have focused on how their lives were fundamentally altered by their mother’s death. Some of them don’t speak to each other anymore, and none of them showed up to support Michael during his final court hearing. The audience has seen Martha (Odessa Young) realize she’s queer, Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) struggle with drinking, and Clayton (Dane Dehaan) cheat on his wife. None of these huge life events were given the space to breathe.
The episode ends with Michael alone in his house. His kids aren’t taking his calls, the documentary team has left, and Sophie (Juliette Binoche) has returned to Paris without him. Michael is sitting on his bed as the camera slowly moves from his back to focus on his face. For the final minute of the episode, Michael and the audience are simply staring at one another. The faintest glimpse of a smile crosses his face before the screen cuts to black.
This final moment could have been poignant, because Michael is judging the audience for watching a miniseries that dramatizes and puts his life under a microscope. The true crime genre has reached the point where a reckoning is due. Are we all okay with being complicit in knowing that the lives of genuine people are distilled for the sake of content? There are screenwriters and podcast hosts scouring cold case files for the next The Staircase (2022). At what point does this end? Is there a way to tell an unbiased fictional account about circumstances such as these?
Whatever the answer to those questions may be, it’s safe to say that The Staircase (2022) is not an example of what good can come of these types of stories. Viewers will discuss the acting talent involved, and it’s no surprise that the product was compulsively watchable to those unfamiliar with the case. Surely Collette and Firth will receive nominations come award season, but The Staircase (2022)’s greater worth is still subject for debate.