Thursday, May 5, 2022

REVIEW: 'The Staircase' - The Peterson Family Is Thrown Into Grief and Turmoil Following Kathleen's Tragic Death in '911'

HBO Max's The Staircase - Episode 1.01 "911"

December 2001. When businesswoman and beloved mother Kathleen Peterson is found dead after reportedly falling down a flight of stairs, the unusually bloody scene leads police to focus their attention on her husband, author and aspiring local politician Michael Peterson. But while the Peterson's blended family rallies around their patriarch, the investigation quickly zeroes in on Michael's secret life, calling the couple's seemingly picture-perfect marriage into question.

"911" was written by Antonio Campos and directed by Antonio Campos

In December 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Her husband, Michael, continually insists that she fell. As the police and prosecutors examine the evidence, they see the potential for homicide. They want to determine that as the case. Michael sees it as overzealous prosecution targeting him for what he has written about the department. He is best known as a writer. Some of his novels have been bought by Hollywood. He is more easily recognized for his columns in the local paper. That established enough of a platform for him to consider running as a legitimate candidate for political office. He aspired for mayor right away. He saw that as the top job with the most responsibility. He failed in that campaign. He embarked on a new one for city council. That too wields a lot of power. He was given the freedom to examine the system that makes up his world in North Carolina. Everything was so peaceful in his neighborhood. He and Kathleen were happy. They were celebrating the accomplishments of all five of their children. The action pointedly showcases the entire family together for a dinner in the months before this tragedy. The storytelling starts with the death though. That's the only place it could. That's the moment that forever shaped the lives of this family. Michael makes several 911 calls. The first is to declare that Kathleen is still breathing and needs an ambulance. The second is to complain that the first responders haven't arrived yet and she has stopped breathing. He's not a medical expert. He's simply an entitled man who wants things to happen quickly. The paramedics responded as quickly as they could. The 911 operator wanted as many details from Michael as possible. He wasn't that forthcoming. He was just demanding. He's entitled to that mentality because the love of his life is bleeding out in front of him. The medical examiner wants to initially list the cause of death as loss of blood. She can't definitively say that it was homicide. The injuries aren't consistent with a typical murder caused by blunt force trauma. The narrative has already taken shape though. Everyone sees the amount of blood at the bottom of the staircase. No one believes that could have naturally occurred. And so, everyone pursues the evidence to prove their side of the cause. Michael is completely shocked by what has happened. He relies on others to tell the tragic news to the family. He needs support as he is the one who didn't hear anything. She didn't cry out for help. Instead, she died in his arms. He couldn't bear that. That's one side of the story. Elsewhere, it's easy to plant him as someone who went into a blind rage and killed her after she discovered his sex work career.

The family is meant to rally together once the indictment comes down. Michael and his brother Bill know that he needs a lawyer. However, they want someone to advocate for his innocence. He didn't kill his wife. Hiring David Rudolf may only make him look guilty. That's the reputation the guy has. He cuts deals for those who committed these heinous crimes. He's good at what he does. Everything escalates to such a degree that Michael has to hire a man like David. He understands how the system works. It's all about perception. The prosecutors have their story. David has his. The truth should meet somewhere in the middle. And yet, this story is one told by whomever convinces the most people to believe them. It's all about the showmanship of depicting this crime. The truth may never truly be known. This case lingers over Michael's life. It still defines him sixteen years later where he lingers over the thought of Kathleen even though he has moved on. That may just be the expected pattern for him to follow. Kathleen isn't the biological mother to everyone in this blended family. Todd clarifies that throughout the opening sequence. She is his stepmother. He refers to her by her name. This family is strong together. They are united. However, the optics determine what the outcome will be. The direction tries to keep everything ambiguous. It wants to create a realistic explanation for every side. That's the truth of the matter. It wants to offer that shared perspective. It wants to get into the mindset of every person caught up in this case. That includes a lot of people. They are all doing their best to cope. People create stories believing it will benefit themselves. Everything ultimately must pivot back to the central staircase. It was seen as slippery long before the fateful night in question. That too creates the possibility of this being nothing more than an accident. Michael still has to surrender himself to the police. That's devastating to the family. Meanwhile, Kathleen's sisters are the first family members targeted by the prosecutors to sway them to their argument. They reveal Michael's secret life. Michael was taunted by what the police found too. He knows he's being targeted with a vengeance. He amplifies that noise even further. It's all a battle to control the narrative. Everyone is vying for that attention. All of this is done with the benefit of hindsight. The story can possibly be told to completion. It also takes years to arrive at that point. It's a gradual evolution. As such, each action is deliberate and personal even though it all happens much too slowly. People are asked to live in the grief. They have to sit in it. It consumes them, which then makes it shocking when that space is invaded by people also trying to do their jobs to arrive at the truth. It's all complicated and messy. That's human even amongst the tragedy.