It should be impossible to “spoil” a documentary, especially one that’s about a widely publicized murder trial from over a decade ago. The Staircase, which premieres Friday on Netflix, is even more spoiler-proof because all but the last three of its 13 episodes have already been released to much acclaim. So, don’t trouble yourself with avoiding “spoilers” for the series, but if you do so happen to be going into the true crime series blind, you’ll enjoy it more if you don’t do a bunch of extra-curricular research before watching.
That said, some basic knowledge going in can help new viewers get their footing on the series, which is slow-to-start and takes its time — to the show’s benefit. Here are the basics of how the Staircase and the Michael Peterson trial came to be.
The Death of Kathleen Peterson
On December 9, 2001, novelist and Vietnam War veteran Michael Peterson called 911 to report that his wife Kathleen Peterson had suffered an accident. The 48-year-old was lying at the bottom of a staircase in a pool of blood at the couple’s Durham, North Carolina, home. Police suspected that the death was not an accident and arrested Michael Peterson and charged him with Kathleen’s murder.
Michael and Kathleen Peterson raised five children, though none of the kids were theirs together. Peterson had two sons from a pervious marriage to Patricia Sue Peterson. Those boys are named Clayton and Todd. Peterson was also adoptive father of Margaret and Martha Ratliff, whose parents, family friends of the Petersons, died when they were very young. (The way the girls’ birth mother Elizabeth Ratliff died will become an important point in the trail on which The Staircase focuses.) Finally, Kathleen Peterson had a daughter, Caitlin, from a previous marriage.
As the Petersons were gearing up for the trial, French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade came to them wanting to make a documentary about the case. He was granted a truly jaw-dropping amount of access, as he filmed the entire trial from inside the courtroom and was a fly on the wall in the Peterson household and with the defense team throughout the entire thing. (On several occasions we do hear from the prosecution, but the series is mainly from Peterson’s perspective).
Lestrade and his team filmed for 22 months and had way too much great stuff to fit into a 2-hour documentary, which was what HBO had originally signed off on. Instead, he made an 8-episode series, finding a variety of distributors in various countries — in the US, for instance, the series aired in 2005 on the Sundance Channel.
Titled Soupçons (“suspicions” in French), The Staircase was unlike anything that had come before it, and not just because of the amazing story Lestrade captured. This was, remember, back in the early 2000s, well before the true-crime craze we’re currently experiencing with the success of Making a Murderer or The Keepers and even Serial before that. The Staircase is essentially the ancestor of modern true-crime, as prior to this most of the genre was Nancy Grace-esque stuff or exploitative, short reenactments.
The first eight episodes of The Staircase make up the original series, but in 2012, corresponding with developments in the Peterson case, Lestrade returned to shoot two more episodes updating the story. The last three episodes — the “new” ones making their wide debut on Netflix — capture the conclusion of this epic, tragic tale.
Don’t Google Anything Else
Seriously, this is really all you need to know going into The Staircase, which is an extremely in-depth and thorough series. You’ll be tempted to Google “owl theory” or “how did she really die” or “what was the verdict?” But don’t.
Look for additional information after you’ve finished the show, sure. But, Lestrade’s true-crime documentary series is an amazing drama, and if you by chance don’t already know how the story ends, let The Staircase be the thing that tells you. You can’t “spoil” real-life, but you’ll get more out of the story if a 13-hour documentary series unfolds it before you than if you’re just reading an aggregation of a Wikipedia article.
The Staircase hits Netflix on June 8.