‘The Staircase': How the Creators Approached the Ending of a Case That Has No Answers

·12 min read

Over the past five weeks, HBO Max’s “The Staircase” has taken another look at the 2001 death of Kathleen Peterson and the subsequent murder trial against her husband, Michael Peterson.

The final episode follows Michael at two different points over the past two decades: The first is after he’s granted a retrial after spending eight years in prison and his family is reignited with the hope that he might prove his innocence. The second is in 2017, when he finally took an Alford plea — allowing him to accept his sentence, which was time served, without admitting guilt.

Whether the conclusion is satisfying is up to the viewer. The series explores several ways in which Kathleen could have died, and the story questions Michael’s innocence down to the last shot. Ultimately, creator Antonio Campos had his hands tied when it came to wrapping things up, considering we may never know what truly happened to Kathleen.

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“You have to accept that there are aspects of this story that you just won’t ever know,” Campos told TheWrap. “I really love the end of Episode 8, because it’s one of those endings where you feel something, I think. It sits with you and you are thinking about it for a while after.”

Below, Campos lays out how he and his team approached the final episode knowing that they’d never be able to give the audience the answers they desperately want.

Obviously this story is ongoing. How did you decide where to end the story?

The whole journey for me has been like trying to figure out how to tell the story. Basically, in 2008, when I saw the first iteration of the documentary, he was in prison for life. Then in 2011, he was out on a re-trial and there was almost a sense of like a happy ending, that there was this potential for a new life, for a second chance to prove his innocence and to put the family back together. Then, as the years went on, it was like ‘Oh, well, there’s this there’s this Alford plea.’ So then [it was] trying to figure out how to tell a story where there were three endings. I figured out that the pilot would start off in his bedroom, him waking up that day [that he pleaded guilty]. I always felt like the end of the show would end in that same bedroom. So it’s kind of like how to get back, how to do that loop was the trick.

So I want to ask about that last shot. Colin’s expression at the end is very haunting, and also a bit confusing. Can you walk me through the intention for that shot?

If you don’t mind, I mean, I can read you the way it was scripted.

“Michael places the photo of Kathleen — the wind blowing her hair, she’s standing in front of the Grand Canyon — on his bedside table. Note: this is the same image he woke up to in the very beginning of the series. Angled on the back of Michael’s head, Michael looks down at the photo of Kathleen on his bedside table. He sits alone in his room and alone with himself for the first time in a long while. He considers the life he’s lived and the little remaining life he has yet to live. Camera begins to push down and come around until you’re face to face with him. As we look directly into Michael’s eyes at the end of this journey, we believe it may be possible for someone to be guilty and innocent at the same time. And for a moment his lips curl. I think he just smiled, like someone who got away with something. Maybe it wasn’t a smile. It’s hard to say. Even if you knew for sure, what would that tell you?”

That’s the end. It was trying to capture the Mona Lisa. How do you perform that? The thing in my head was to see an image that was two things at once. And it really it’s like one thing at a time, but your brain is processing one thing and then the other. Are you looking at his eyes? Are you looking at his mouth? I remember at one point before we got to the scene, and I was in my head, ‘Okay, well, if [Colin] doesn’t nail the moment, it’s okay because I’ll CGI some kind of like effects — two expressions into one. So I was never worried about it. I just let Colin interpret it. The shot, because of the way that it’s designed, allows for a sense of discovery, not just for you, the viewer, but for us watching it on the day. For Colin, it’s like there’s a sense of something creeping behind him. And he’s kind of, I think, anticipating what’s he going to do and when is he going to look? When is he going to make eye contact and what does that feel like? So it’s one of those shots where I think that the camera does a dance with the actor. And the shot is very much in tune with the intention of the scene.

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That is so interesting to hear, because I had literally written down “Is he smiling or is he crying?”

The thing that people get really frustrated with is uncertainty. We really believe that uncertainty is important and doubt is important. There is this desire to have an answer, And then if there’s not a clear answer you decide on something. We really want to leave you in a place of not knowing. Ultimately in this case, the questions are probably the things that are more concrete. I mean, along the way in the series, we always knew that you were going to get answers to certain things and we wanted to lean into what those answers were because they were important. But we knew at the end that this big question of did he or didn’t he do it would kind of have to be left open. And again, is it possible for somebody to be guilty and innocent at the same time? That’s what we’re trying to capture with that look.

I also think the addition of the kids’ lives at the end leaves you with an even more conflicted feeling, like everyone has left him behind even after he’s finally free. Was that what you were going for?

We were trying to interpret it with everything that we put together. Why wouldn’t they be there? It was like they’ve moved on. And you really get the sense, just from the way it is presented in public, that in some ways they have decided to move on. Michael has decided to carry the torch of this thing. I mean, he wrote the book and then he wrote another book and then he did the interview. He’s very much still engaged with it in a way that the kids aren’t. We wanted to give the kids in the story a hopeful ending. We wanted the sense that our version of Michael is almost incapable of making a true connection. We see the kids themselves have made those connections and are prospering in whatever area they’ve chosen to focus on. We don’t get the totality [of their lives], but we just wanted to give the impression of hope. We want it to be satisfying for you as the audience and sense of just like you feel like someone has found their way even if Michael [cannot].

How did you approach this story knowing that there were going to be many questions raised that you’d never actually be able to answer?

You have to accept that there are aspects of this story that you just won’t ever know. From the very beginning as part of the story, we’re exploring the possibilities and not necessarily one definitive truth. We’re making each one of the possibilities as convincing as the other. So in some ways, the show has ended along the way, if you believe any one of those things really strongly. That’s why the end of the show had to be more lyrical. It had to be less grounded in or driven by plot and more by atmosphere, [getting] individual moments with Michael and getting a glimpse into why this guy could be the way he is. The other thing is also for us, we wanted to end the show with Kathleen alive. That story ends with the last known moment in Kathleen’s life.  I really love the end of Episode 8, because it’s one of those endings where you feel something, I think. It sits with you and you are thinking about it for a while after, and you’re trying to put it all together. And for a story as complex and twisty and windy as this, it feels like the end needed to be something very definitive in a way that encompasses all of the questions that we’re considering.

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I’m glad you mentioned Kathleen, because I did enjoy seeing so much of her alive. How did you land on those scenes with her, and what were you trying to convey to the audience with them?

We really wanted you to feel like you were going through the day-to-day and feeling the highs and lows with her. These are very familiar scenes, I think that are very universal moments for someone to experience, like workplace drama. Those were very much like aspects of Catherine’s life that we knew we had to explore and as we were getting closer and closer to the end of the series, that’s where we were really ratcheting it up. So we looked at all the things we knew and we started to dramatize them and imagine what they were. It was life with Kathleen and the plot points with her are not huge things if you look at it on paper, but in context living it out with her, the stakes are really high. It’s about like just getting a sense of how alive she was right before she died. The scene at the Christmas ball is very much like just experiencing this woman who we know is going to die in a few days — just experiencing how much life she had before it was taken away by either by an accident or by murder.

Everyone is talking about the death scenes, but I was also struck by the autopsy scenes. How did you decide to depict her body and her injuries in such a graphic way as opposed to, say, just showing photos?

To feel [Kathleen’s] presence, we also have to feel her absence. That scene on the table is very much that and because we were really establishing Deborah Radisch as an important part of the story. We needed to have a moment where she’s interacting with the body, and we felt like that scene was very much about her not seeing a body but her seeing a person. There’s a gentleness throughout that scene. As cold as it is in that autopsy room, there’s even like a whisper quality as though they don’t want to wake her up. So it was important to us that you had that moment not only with Kathleen but with Deborah to understand the care with which she examined this body. We just felt like her body on that autopsy table was also a bit of a maze. I mean, they’re trying to find all these clues. It’s also an extension of the crime scene in a way. So many of the things that are established in that scene play a part as we go along through the series. Whenever we were showing anything graphic or violent, it was always how do we do that without being sensational but being authentic and capturing the reality of either what it looked like or felt like. There are so many photos of that autopsy that are out there and they’re featured in the documentary. So we felt like we had to be true to them. If we diminished or augmented any of those wounds, it was almost like we were commenting on it. So we needed to just present it the way that one would see in all that material that they would find online or the documentary.

How did you handle those scenes, as well as the death scenes, in a way that was engaging and even speculative, but without coming across as exploitative?

I think that the secret is creating characters that people care about. Because again, the events are known. You can Google that stuff. Ultimately, as an audience, we become invested in the characters and their journeys. If you can succeed in doing that, people come back. I think ultimately it is about creating something that is an experience every week. We just felt we had a really wonderful group of people that really cared about the story and the characters and felt really invested. True crime is a genre that’s very popular and there’s obviously a formula that can work. What’s interesting is kind of how do you depart from the genre and deconstruct and put it back together again? That’s what we were really trying to do [by] having a fresh take on the genre, and also trying to create really rounded and grounded and dynamic characters.

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