The case of Michael Peterson is back on TV, with Colin Firth and Toni Collette starring in the limited series The Staircase. The 2001 death of Peterson’s wife Kathleen caused headlines and a documentary, also called The Staircase, but now the story has been given a narrative retelling.
The Staircase joins the ranks of numerous true-crime and scammer-inspired stories that have debuted on TV recently, including the likes of Pam & Tommy, Inventing Anna, The Thing About Pam and others. Though with an Oscar-winner, an Emmy-winner, a Game of Thrones alum and more, this may be one of the more star-studded true crime shows we’ve seen in quite some time.
Here is everything that you need to know about The Staircase...
When is the next The Staircase episode?
The final episode of The Staircase, "America's Sweetheart or: Time Over Time," is available on HBO Max in the US and Sky/NOW TV in the UK as of Thursday, June 9.
All eight episodes of the limited series are now available to watch on streaming the respective streaming services.
Here are the synopses for The Staircase episodes released:
The Staircase episode 1, "911"
"In 2001, author and aspiring local politician Michael Peterson is charged with murder after the suspicious death of his wife Kathleen." Read WTW's fact vs fiction piece for The Staircase episode 1.
The Staircase episode 2, "Chiroptera"
"While working on his defense, Michael considers an opportunity to tell his story in a documentary. Then, after learning shocking information about her stepfather, Caitlin wrestles with doubts."
The Staircase episode 3, "The Great Dissembler"
"As the DA's office attempts to solidify their case, shocking new details surface about Michael's past that threaten to derail the defense."
The Staircase episode 4, "Common Sense"
"After an unexpected homecoming, a critical discovery rocks the Peterson household. Michael's fate hangs in the balance as the trial ends."
The Staircase episode 5, "The Beating Heart"
"In the aftermath of the verdict, the Petersons struggle with the court's decision and Michael finds solace in an unlikely friendship from thousands of miles away."
The Staircase episode 6, "Red in Tooth and Claw"
"In 2006, Sophie pursues a far-fetched new theory about the night of Kathleen's death. Then, in 2017, Michael grapples with compromising his principles in exchange for his freedom."
The Staircase episode 7, "Seek and Ye Shall"
"After a body with similar injuries to Kathleen's turns up at the county morgue, Sophie continues her quest to uncover what really happened to Kathleen. Meanwhile, Martha decides to dig into her fraught past despite pushback from Margaret."
The Staircase episode 8, "America's Sweetheart or: Time Over Time"
"After navigating a possible retrial, a 73-year-old Michael confronts a life-changing decision. Meanwhile, Martha and Margaret each share long-buried truths and Sophie comes to terms with a revelation."
What is The Staircase plot?
Here is the official synopsis of The Staircase from HBO Max:
"Based on a true story, The Staircase explores the life of Michael Peterson, his sprawling North Carolina family and the suspicious death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson."
We’re about to get into some of the details of the trial, so SPOILER ALERT if you want to find those out from The Staircase.
The show depicts the death of Kathleen Peterson, who was found dead in a pool of blood at the bottom of the staircase in the family’s Durham, N.C., mansion in December 2001. Michael Peterson then became the lead suspect in her death. After a three-month trial, Peterson was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in 2003. However, that was not the end of the story.
Thanks to a documentary made by a French film crew and Peterson maintaining his innocence through multiple appeals, the case stayed in the public eye and theories began to emerge about how else Kathleen Peterson may have died. A new trial was even given when it was revealed that a key witness for the prosecution had lied under oath.
Ultimately, Michael Peterson served 89 months in jail but was able to walk free in 2017 after entering a plea deal that allowed him to maintain his innocence but acknowledge that the prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction, with the official verdict labelling him as guilty (it’s known as an Alford plea).
That certainly sounds like it will present a lot of potential twists for viewers as they try and piece together what happened to Kathleen Peterson.
We have an article about where the real Michael Peterson is now if you want further information, it also answers other key faction vs fiction questions.
In addition, the real-life lawyer for Michael Peterson, David Rudolf, has come out against the series for what he calls its "false portrayals."
Who is in The Staircase cast?
An impressive ensemble has been put together for The Staircase, led by Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson.
Firth is an Oscar-winner for his role in The King Speech, but the British actor is known for a range of roles across the range of genres, including rom-coms (Pride & Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary), drama (A Single Man, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), action (The King’s Man) and even musicals (Mamma Mia). His latest starring vehicle is the war drama Operation Mincemeat.
Collette is also a well-versed actress. She is an Oscar-nominee for The Sixth Sense and an Emmy-winner for United States of Tara, with other credits including Hereditary, Nightmare Alley and the new Netflix series Pieces of Her. Read WTW's interview with Toni Collette on The Staircase.
The supporting cast is no less impressive, led by Michael Stuhlbarg (Dopesick), Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), Dane DeHaan (Lisey’s Story), Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), Rosemarie DeWitt (Little Fires Everywhere), Parker Posey (Lost in Space) and more.
Here is The Staircase cast and who they are playing:
- Colin Firth as Michael Peterson
- Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson
- Michael Stuhlbarg as David Rudlof
- Dane DeHaan as Clayton Peterson
- Olivia DeJonge as Caitlin Atwater
- Rosemarie DeWitt as Candance Zamperini
- Tim Guinee as Bill Peterson
- Patrick Schwarzenegger as Todd Peterson
- Sophie Turner as Margaret Ratliff
- Vincent Vermignon as Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
- Odessa Young as Martha Ratliff
- Parker Posey as Freda Black
- Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet
The Staircase trailer
An official trailer for The Staircase is now available. Check it out, as well as the previously released teaser trailer below:
How to watch The Staircase
Where HBO Max is available, including in the US, The Staircase is only available to subscribers of the streaming service. So if you want to watch The Staircase you will need to sign up for HBO Max (HBO Max does not currently offer a free trial).
In the UK, The Staircase is available to those who have a Sky or NOW TV subscription.
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Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.