The Staircase

The Staircase, the new HBO series that just wrapped up, was very entertaining. I didn’t watch the original documentary, but I had read an article all about “the owl theory”, which I had found very convincing, so I was vaguely familiar with the murder of Kathleen Peterson.

To someone unfamiliar with some of the details of the case, it was very easy to feel like the series was giving a lot of credence to the owl theory, by repeatedly showing Kathleen being spooked by owl sounds outside. Is the subplot with the bats a further allusion to Kathleen’s alleged issues with wildlife? Probably?

The series leaves out certain facts about the crime scene that can strongly influence your opinion about Michael Peterson’s innocence, and I think it’s extremely suspicious. I can understand that the show, for the sake of suspense, may want to paint an somewhat ambiguous picture of Michael early on, so they can hit you with more damming evidence later, but by the end I don’t think the show went far enough in this regard.

Before the last episode of the show aired, I did some googling and found a lot of people who were like me: people who felt like Michael Peterson wasn’t guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and the show didn’t help remedy this perception much. But after finding a very eye-opening post on Reddit about the case, all doubt was gone for me, and by the end of the show I ultimately felt like it was extremely misleading.

I felt the same way after the 2018 Waco series which portrayed David Koresh as a likable rockstar character and not the sociopathic child molestor he actually was. To the credit of The Staircase, it’s not as egregious as the Waco series in regards to making the psychopath at the center of the series seem super cool and hip, but I still call into question the compulsion to create media that feels a bit like the narcissist himself was involved in crafting their portrayal.

Sure, you could say it’s so that the audience can sort of feel what it was like to actually be there, and to be so thoroughly suckered by the charisma of these men, but I really don’t think that is much of a defense. At the end of the day, these were men who did bad things, and leaving out details and events so that the main character of the show still remains somewhat likable is just dishonest and manipulative.