The first 12 episodes of Netflix’s true-crime documentary The Staircase all end the same way. After an especially haunting or lingering bit of footage, the end credits — a montage of old photographs of the Peterson family in happier times set to somber string music — begin to roll. The thirteenth and final episode unexpectedly changes this formula, scoring the credits with a different song and ending with an intriguing, thematically loaded post-credits scene.
This post contains “spoilers” for The Staircase.
At the end of The Staircase, Michael Peterson is a free man, having made an Alford plea before the court. He doesn’t admit guilt for the murder of his wife Kathleen Peterson, but it’s technically a guilty plea. Now an old man after serving eight years in prison, he opts not to go through the agony of a second trial and instead lets the plea, and his time previously served, put an end to the saga.
After the credits end, there’s a little more footage. It’s Peterson — exactly when or where is unclear — reading the last line of Romeo and Juliet:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
“But I think the real line is, ‘all are punish’d,’” Peterson says, the last line of the entire series. He’s referring to a little earlier in the scene, when the same prince who delivers Romeo and Juliet’s final line notes that Capulet and Montague alike have been hurt by the tragic events of the play.
It an interesting juxtaposition when considering the lead-up, which is equally somber. The last scenes before the credits show Peterson, in his home without an upcoming court date looming over his head, putting on a song for the French documentary team that’s been filming his story for a decade. It’s Leonard Cohen’s 1988 track “Everybody Knows,” and Peterson says it’s his favorite song. The camera lingers on Peterson as he wordlessly listens to the music, and then the credits roll as Cohen’s raspy voice replace the usual string music.
That this is the song Peterson enjoys so much, and that he decided to play it, is extremely meaningful, and it makes sense that director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade would opt to end his series with this moment. Look at the lyrics:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Peterson, who has maintained his innocence since being charged with his wife’s murder, clearly identifies with “Everybody Knows,” a nihilistic story about corruption and the good guys losing in unfair circumstances. If you watched the documentary and believe that Peterson was innocent (or even if you think he was guilty, but the state denied him a fair trial) you can see why Cohen’s song resonates.
If the “Everybody Knows” scene was Peterson finding absolution in art — a song that empathized with his unfair plight — “all are punish’d” is a darker, perhaps more self-aware reading. The scene’s position as the series’ final moment makes it seems as though Peterson is acknowledging the full scope of Kathleen Peterson’s death and the subsequent trial. Everybody involved was punished. Kathleen died, their family was torn apart, the case haunted members of both legal teams for a decade, and Peterson spent years behind bars, his life irrevocably changed.
And, punishment doesn’t come without cause.
The Staircase is now streaming on Netflix.