Halfway through episode five of The Staircase, the producer, editor and director of the documentary are arguing about whether to include a clip of the coroner saying a piece of evidence shows that Kathleen Peterson was strangled. The three engage passionately in a heated debate about whether it would tilt the viewers perception of Michael Peterson's innocence or guilt; their goal is to be completely neutral. It's a vital scene that also applies to this dramatization of the life, death, filming and repercussions of the death of Kathleen Paterson and the family. But the fact that it comes some time after Michael has been convicted of murder and handed a full life sentence without the possibility of parole shows precisely that this neutrality is a fallacy — the show is clearly on the side of Michael's innocence. That's also something that could be levelled at the original documentary, but revisit that and it simply shows evidence, or rather the lack of evidence and a justice system not fit for purpose. Or does it?
The real meat of this telling is what the documentary never alluded to once — the romantic relationship between French editor Sophie Brunet (a superb Juliette Binoche) and Michael (Colin Firth). She writes to him, sends him books and has clearly become smitten during the long hours in Paris spent studying and editing the hundreds of hours of footage. Whilst completely unprofessional at best, it's the fact that the original 2004 series nor its 2013 follow up don't contain even a hint of this relationship that virtually destroys the impartiality of it all immediately. True, the relationship didn't really start until well after Michael was incarcerated, but director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his team should have included it.
That's not to say the omission sways us further as to Michael's guilt. As the verdict is about to be read out, we are instead shown him attacking Kathleen on the staircase in a rage and brutally murdering her, a shocking remove from the first depiction of her death simply being an awful accident. A further recreation comes later, based on a new theory that at first sounds ludicrous until it and the totality of the evidence backing it up is shown.
All of this is interspersed with flash forwards eight years to Michael debating whether or not to take an ‘Alford plea' which would give him his freedom, but at what cost? We also get further insights into the extended Peterson family, scenes which may flesh out the lesser characters in this tragedy but are largely superfluous. It's Michael's story, his guilt vs innocence we are following, and Colin Firth walks the fine line between self-pity and indignation at what has happened to his life perfectly.
Everyone this death affected personally either firmly believes Michael Peterson is a murderer, perhaps even twice, or is completely innocent and was only found guilty based on the prejudices and distaste of his lifestyle of the prosecution, jury and community. Even the most owl-eyed of viewers of this and the original documentary may, however, still not know what to believe, and never will.