Did Michael Peterson do it? The last episode was a cruel triumph

This article discusses the finale of The stairs.

The last episode of The stairs gave the riveted audience what they had been waiting for: an answer. It just wasn’t the question they had asked. When Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), the false author accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen (Toni Collette), finally stood in a courtroom and took the blame for her death, 16 years had passed. “Guilty. I plead guilty,” Michael said, but it was preceded by a momentary smile that suggested she’d won. Michael agreed to an Alford plea: He pleaded guilty to manslaughter but legally maintained his innocence, while admitting that state evidence could lead to a conviction.

A case that was fought on various interpretations – of evidence, of intent, of the past – ended in a stalemate. That was the answer HBO’s real-life drama had always shown us. There is no simple, definitive conclusion for such loss of life. It was trench warfare and no one was unharmed – even an owl was accused of causing Kathleen’s death. In this vexing mystery, it was both a plausible theory and a grim joke. Towards the end, the absurd began to make sense.

What happened to Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette)? Was her husband, Michael (Colin Firth), to blame? The Trap offered no easy answers.Credit:HBO Max/Binge

The case took twists and turns, including revelations about Michael’s bisexuality and the lost-and-then-found status of the blowgun, a hearth tool that the prosecution had identified as a murder weapon with which Michael had repeatedly beaten Kathleen. But the stories from the show’s creator, filmmaker Antonio Campos, were flawless. The stairs built with unrelenting dread to three moments: Kathleen’s death in 2001, the 2011 court decision over whether Michael should face a new trial, and his struggle to accept Alford’s plea in 2017.

The timeline was not chronological; nor was the blame ever clear. Over eight episodes, Campos provided three depictions of Kathleen’s death – an accidental fall while drunkenly descending the stairs at the family home, Michael snapped and attacked her in a fit of rage after she caught him lying, and the owl fell outside leading to her. subsequent fall – with clear eyes calmness. The technical accuracy of the storytelling was acute. It kept you sharp, but also attentive. When a distraught Michael threw himself on Kathleen’s body as authorities gathered, it was a flowery, unexpected gesture. The viewer was already judging.

This was a deeper, solemn exploration of the true crime genre. On an emotional level, it was forensic, with reaction shots that felt like they had been snatched from characters desperate to give nothing away. An early sequence of the Peterson clan driving in a convoy of cars to a police station had the camera move seamlessly from vehicle to vehicle, turning upside down like the reality of the family. They were all connected by an invisible bond, and nothing they could do, whether noble or self-destructive, could break it.

A family in mourning (left to right): Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan), Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young), Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner), and Caitlin Atwater (Olivia DeJonge).

A family in mourning (left to right): Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan), Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young), Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner), and Caitlin Atwater (Olivia DeJonge).Credit:HBO Max/Binge

External pieces, such as the disclosure of corruption in the investigative process, which gave Michael his right to a new trial in 2011 after exhausting the appeals process, fell into place. But within the remains of his family, the grown children struggled to keep their heads above water. Even in a moment of triumph, it was clear that Michael’s two sons, Clayton (Dane DeHaan) and Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger), could only compete for favoritism in his presence; adopted daughters Margaret (Sophie Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young) had their childhood memories torn apart.

The triumph of Colin Firth’s performance was his emotional fluidity. Michael could be mean and pompous, caring and considerate. He would cheat on Kathleen and then prove his love for his wife, whose burden of stress and displeasure seeped masterfully out of Toni Collette scene by scene. Which Michael was the right one? As played by Firth, all of them. Perhaps the most vivid blow in the final episode was Michael, at a celebration in 2017, who casually turned on Margaret, calling her “Margie the Martyr” as if it was still 2001 and she was a teenager and he hadn’t turned 16 yet. had tried to clear his name with her support.

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