The Staircase Sky

Michael Peterson has condemned Sky’s The Staircase but it underlines this crucial ethical point with true crime dramas

Posted by for Entertainment

Sky’s The Staircase may have concluded but it’s left one writer thinking: did this case need to be brought back into the spotlight? 

Like many others, I’ve been wrapped up in the Colin Firth and Toni Collette bubble of The Staircase for the past six weeks.

With its final episode came a chilling look at how one case can tear a once happy family apart. It also had its fair share of revelations – some of them based on fact, some on fiction – and stellar performances from the star-studded cast.

It was a chilling end to what was a great drama, but upon airing, the man at the centre of the real-life case that the show was based on, Michael Peterson, has  condemned not only the drama but also the original documentary maker, Jean De Lestrade. It’s not the first time that the Sky/HBO drama has been embroiled in controversy. After detailing Sophie Brunet and Michael’s romantic relationship in the series’ fifth episode, De Lestrade spoke out about his sense of betrayal with series director Antonia Campos.

And now, in a series of emails to Variety, Peterson himself is blasting the “egregious fabrications and distortions of the truth” in the drama. He says: “I have read about Jean De Lestrade’s sense of betrayal by Antonio Campos and HBO Max’s presentation of The Staircase, but what has been forgotten or overlooked or simply ignored is his betrayal of me and my family. 

The Staircase Sky

“We feel that Jean pimped us out – sold OUR story to Campos for money – what word other than pimped describes what he did?”

He continues: “He released his archive to Campos who then created a fictional account of events, most of which trashed me (which I really don’t care about) and my children – which I really do care about.”

He goes on to state that he and his family were never “consulted or informed that Jean had done this” and feels “betrayed”, “falsely depicted” and that the “made up storylines […] denigrate all of us in the eyes of millions”. Peterson’s comments go on to disrespect sex workers – which is simply unacceptable and won’t be republished here – but ultimately, his viewpoint underlines an important thing to remember when it comes to true crime. 

Michael Peterson
Michael Peterson has condemned the recent Sky/HBO drama.

In recent years, murders, kidnappings and generally awful criminal acts have been the basis of podcasts, documentaries, dramas and films. It’s a booming genre that doesn’t look like it’s on the brink of slowing down and where I once used to – like many women – commute to work with graphic episodes of Crime Junkie in my ears, my consumption of true crime has changed. 

But unlike the cut-and-dry form of a documentary, the Sky/HBO drama was never, in my eyes, going to be a factual analysis of the details at hand. It’s a drama, after all, and a glossy, well-produced one with a high-profile cast.

If you’ve watched the drama, you’ll know that there are elements of the real-life case, but for the most part, it is a dramatic retelling of the story. When I first tuned in, I had this thought at the forefront of my mind. I told myself it’s an entirely different experience to consuming the Netflix documentary about the same case, but even so, the mind wanders when watching TV, right? You can drive home the point that what you’re watching is fictitious but, when it’s based on a real-life case and is inspired by hours of real-life footage, you can’t help but think about the mystery of Kathleen’s death for yourself.  

The Staircase
Toni Collette stars as Kathleen Peterson in Sky's The Staircase.

What starts off as intrigue turns into avid googling of the real-life case, rewatching the documentary, reading articles on the trial – and retrial – and trying to piece together fact versus fiction for yourself. It’s something many of the millions who tuned into The Staircase have likely done and is part of the reason why the 2004 documentary crept into Netflix UK’s top 10 in recent weeks. There’s a renewed interest in the 21-year-old case, but did there need to be?

The drama contained three separate scenes of Kathleen’s death – all of which left chills down my spine. We saw her fall and die in a pool of her own blood, bludgeoned to death in a violent argument with Michael and then ravaged by a barred owl. Even in my repertoire of true crime consumption, not many scenes have left me as stunned and disturbed as those.

And yet, even with those horrifying moments in the drama, Kathleen’s death remains a mystery. Michael revealed in a recent interview on ITV’s This Morning that his attorney believes wholeheartedly in the “owl theory“, but of course, with the drama comes a resurgence in prying eyes and sleuths who desire answers to one of the most perplexing cases in true crime history. Even so, we’re no closer to finding out what happened on that tragic night – something the series does underline.  

The Staircase: Michael and Kathleen Peterson.
The real-life Michael and Kathleen Peterson.

But where do we go from here? Many of us will likely go on and perhaps watch other things about the Peterson case or stream a new docuseries entirely.

Peterson’s comments are a rare insight into how true crime impacts the people who were left behind – and were at the centre of the criminal case itself. Whatever suspicions of yours may surround the case – or Michael for that matter – the fact remains that even the most well-meaning of documentaries and dramas stir up facts and convoluted stories that the loved ones of the deceased would rather ignore.

The Staircase is available to watch on streaming service Now.  

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: HBO Max

Share this article