There are stories that don’t need a miniseries, and there are series that really don’t need one. The Staircase is the latter. Altogether, there have been 13 heavily reported docuseries episodes about this one case that have been released on three different occasions. If people want to know about Kathleen Peterson’s death, there are resources. And yet The Staircase on HBO Max has squandered perhaps the only reason to make a miniseries about this obsessively covered case. Yep, we’re once again talking about the owl theory.
On the very slim chance you don’t know this case, here’s a quick rundown. In December of 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found bloodied and unconscious at the bottom of a flight of stairs in the home she shared with her husband, Michael Peterson. Michael was eventually arrested and served time for his wife’s murder, though he has always maintained his innocence. The circumstances got even more complicated after his arrest. Eight years after his conviction, a judge ruled that a witness who was critical to the prosecution gave misleading testimony. Because of this, there was a new trial that resulted in Michael Peterson taking an Alford plea, a guilty plea in which the accused maintains their innocence but concedes that there was enough evidence for a jury to find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Most of The Staircase, both the docuseries and the miniseries, revolve around questioning Michael Peterson’s potential guilt. And one of the theories that argues Michael Peterson was innocent has to do with owls. Proposed by Durham, N.C., attorney T. Lawrence Pollard, the owl theory suggested that an owl attacked Kathleen Peterson and caused her to fall down the flight of stairs to her death. The theory points to the microscopic owl feathers found on the crime scene and the gashes on Kathleen Peterson’s scalp as evidence.
Is it an insane theory? Absolutely. Despite gaining popularity in certain circles, it was mostly mocked by prosecutors, and no motion for a new trial was ever proposed due to this theory. But is it perfect fodder for a TV miniseries? You bet.
As it stands, The Staircase miniseries only has one episode about the owl theory. That one episode — the excellently titled “Red in Tooth and Claw” — falls short of its potential. For starters, the episode barely has anything to do with the actual theory. It’s more about Sophie Brunet’s (Juliette Binoche) evolving romance with her documentary subject, Michael Peterson (Colin Firth). The second she learns about this theory, Sophie immediately grasps to it in a transparently desperate attempt to prove to herself that Michael Peterson is innocent. Instead, she learns that the man she loves has been hiding more secrets from her than she ever imagined.
It’s already morally icky that Sophie and Michael’s relationship is happening. Also, the last thing this show needs is more proof that Michael lies. The man does it nearly as often as he blinks. But you know what this somber miniseries could have used? A heaping dose of owl-related insanity.
The Staircase could have given us a deep dive into its version of T. Lawrence Pollard. Why was he so interested in this case in the first place? And why owls, instead of other predatory birds? What did his friends and family say when he mentioned the deep, all-consuming owl research he was doing for a case that wasn’t his? By the way, what did that research look like? Did he interview owl experts? What did they say when he presented this chaotic theory? And what in the name of true crime did Michael and Kathleen’s (Toni Collette) grieving children say when they heard about the owl theory? Were they deeply offended? Did they laugh? Or were they as desperate as Sophie to take this seriously?
These are all questions that The Staircase could have answered through the magic of fiction. Instead, we were only given a glimpse of some narrative feathers before the story shifted to focus on Sophie.
It’s already upsetting enough that HBO Max has taken a case that has been dissected to death and opened it up one more time for entertainment purposes. But when it had a chance to explore arguably the most entertaining part of this grisly case, it glossed over the entire thing. If The Staircase is not going to commit to being entertaining, necessary, or, according to the original directors, honest, then what are we even doing here?
By: Ny Post