HBO Max Series vs. Netflix Doc

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Netflix and HBO Max

For more than 20 years, the question of who or what caused the death of Kathleen Peterson on December 9, 2001, has gripped true-crime followers. Was it her husband de ella Michael, whom the prosecution targeted for his bisexuality and pattern of lies? Was it an intruder who was never found — human or avian? Did Kathleen simply slip down the stairs?

No single theory has ever fully emerged as an agreed-upon-by-all truth, but that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from exploring what happened that night. French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase Documentary began as 8 episodes that premiered in 2005, grew to 10 in 2011, and finally ended with 13 after a commission from Netflix (the full series has streamed there since 2018). Because de Lestrade was embedded within Peterson’s family and his defense team, The Staircase has served as the definitive behind-the-scenes look at the case for years and is the source material for HBO Max’s fictionalized miniseries The Staircasewhich premiered on May 5.

Antonio Campos’s eight-episode adaptation of The Staircase combines a portrait of the Peterson family, led by Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Collette as Kathleen, with a depiction of the work done by de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) and his creative partners, including producer Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) and editor Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche). Some scenes are practically shot-for-shot redos of what we already saw on Netflix, like Parker Posey’s meme-worthy line delivery of “Filth. Pure filter!” as her assistant district attorney Freda Black describes Michael’s cache of gay porn. And some elements, like the depiction of a burgeoning relationship between Sophie and Michael while she’s editing The Staircase and he’s in prison, haven’t pleased Lestrade.

but where Este version of The Staircase deviates most compellingly from that version of The Staircase is through its recreations of what might have happened to Kathleen that night. Campos grabs the freedom afforded by fiction to craft flashbacks presenting how each of these theories could have played out. in doing so, The Staircase rearranges the disconnected evidence — the gory photos of Kathleen’s body lying at the bottom of the stairs; the autopsy images of the seven gashes on the back of her head de ella — to challenge whatever preconceived notions we might already have about Michael’s guilt or innocence de ella. Similar to how the documentary provided another layer to Michael by showing him in unguarded moments with his brother, children, and lawyers, this crime drama builds upon what we think we already know by turning abstract explanations into immersive scenarios.

So which theories do the two The Staircase cover series? How do they differ, and what do the recreations provide? Let’s review.

From left: Photo: NetflixPhoto: Netflix

From top: Photo: NetflixPhoto: Netflix

Whose theory? The prosecution team and Kathleen’s family
Covered in which series? Both Netflix’s The Staircase and HBO Max’s The Staircase
Recreated by HBO Max’s The Staircase? Do not

This is the prevailing theory that the prosecution team, led by Durham County district attorney James Hardin Jr. and ADA Black, used in court against Michael. Perhaps Kathleen found out about Michael’s bisexuality and sexual rendezvous with men, perhaps Michael wanted her life-insurance payout, and perhaps Kathleen confronted Michael about his infidelity de ella and he attacked her to both cover his double life de ella and cash out on her death her. Both versions of The Staircase thoroughly cover this suggestion. The Netflix docuseries explains how the theory was inspired by Kathleen’s sister Candace Zamperini, who realized that the blow poke she gifted to her sister was missing from the Peterson home, and the medical examiner, who wondered what kind of tool would cause gashes and slashes on the scalp but not a brain injury. That first version of The Staircase also includes interviews with Hardin and Black about their certainty that the missing blow poke was the murder weapon; clips from the in-court testimony of North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation analyst Duane Deaver, who says that he was able to recreate the scene’s blood-splatter patterns with a blow poke; and the eventual discovery of the blow poke in the Peterson garage by Michael’s son Clayton.

HBO Max’s The Staircase goes over all this, too, but interestingly, it does not recreate Michael attacking Kathleen with the fireplace tool. Is this because Deaver was eventually revealed to be lying about his work and using shoddy experimental techniques, evidence Michael’s lawyer David Rudolf used in 2011 to secure his client’s release and a new trial? Perhaps that’s why Campos refuses to honor the theory with a recreation — because it’s arguable whether the science actually holds up. By not including it, The Staircase essentially diminishes its validity.

Photo: Netflix

Whose theory? The defense team and Michael’s family
Covered in which series? Both Netflix’s The Staircase and HBO Max’s The Staircase
Recreated by HBO Max’s The Staircase? And it is

Yes, there was an extreme amount of blood surrounding Kathleen’s body, splattered all over the walls, and spilled on the floor of the Peterson family home. But according to Michael, that was all there when he found Kathleen at the bottom of the stairs. They had been drinking wine and Kathleen had taken some pills, Michael says, so perhaps she slipped and fell, and his team uses that theory for his defense of him. They test whether Michael could have heard calls for help from the pool — he couldn’t, the distance was too far — and they call expert witnesses like Dr. Henry Lee to describe how the blood splatter could have been caused by a series of falls rather than an attack.

Both versions of The Staircase include this theory, but HBO Max’s version takes it a step further by depicting the everyday danger of the stairs in the premiere episode, “911” — daughter Martha, played by Odessa Young, slips while running up them — and presenting an actual recreation of December 9 in the second episode, “Chiroptera.” It is an agonizingly macabre, jarringly sudden scene that demands a physically committed performance from Collette, who we see try to go upstairs, fall downward and into the molding with a thud, woozily attempt to stand up, fall again, hit her head a second time, and then cough up and gag on her own blood. The scene is believable and horrible to sit through, like a repudiation of our consuming this woman’s death as entertainment. As the first recreation, it sets the tone for The Staircase‘s experimentation while also chastising us a bit, and that combination is an effectively sovereign one.

Photo: HBO Max

Whose theory? Campos’s, arguably
Covered in which series? HBO Max’s The Staircase
Recreated by HBO Max’s The Staircase? And it is

This theory, which combines elements of both the prosecution’s and defense’s explanations, exists within the HBO Max miniseries but not the Netflix docuseries, and perhaps that means it is most in line with what Campos might actually believe. Michael has refused for decades to acknowledge any involvement in Kathleen’s death of her and in the docuseries discusses how his choice of him to deliver an Alford plea for voluntary manslaughter in 2017 was borne out of wanting the ordeal to be over rather than admitting any genuine guilt . A theory that involves Michael attacking Kathleen spontaneously, even without any preplanned intention of harm, seems unlikely to be something he would agree with or admit to — but The Staircase gives it credibility via another believable recreation.

The assault takes place in the fourth episode, “Common Sense,” directly after a scene in which Michael is in the family home alone, looking at the staircase that has been marked off with plastic sheeting, and immediately before the jury provides their verdict on Michael’s innocence or guilt. It starts off similar to the “Kathleen fell on her own de ella” explanation, with Kathleen leaving Michael beside the pool after some wine to go upstairs and do some work. This time, she makes it all the way up successfully, but after logging onto the family computer, she discovers Michael’s emails to other men and his account of him on a gay-escort website. She confronts him: “I always knew, I think. Somewhere, underneath… The men, the men, the men!” Michael’s denials de ella only make her more frantic and frustrated, but when Kathleen says she’s going to leave him, that in turn makes Michael angry — and in the heat of their argument, he shoves her down the stairs and then slams her head de ella . When Kathleen starts to twitch and seize, he becomes repentant and revisionist (“It’s okay, it’s okay, you tripped”), but Campos doesn’t let us off the hook or forgive Michael. He slowly zooms in on her and Kathleen’s body and positions Michael as standing by her while his wife dies.

The scene is unshakably powerful both for how it incorporates elements of Michael’s established personality (his tendency to lie to cover himself; his seemingly genuine, if complicated, love for Kathleen) and again for its plausibility. A fight that got out of hand in a location of the home that we’ve already seen to be dangerous makes sense and combines nonsense elements of standalone theories that don’t quite stand on their own. A lot of viewers might be convinced by this one; I certainly was.

Photo: HBO Max

Whose theory? Peterson neighbor and family friend Larry Pollard
Covered in which series? Both Netflix’s The Staircase (briefly) and HBO Max’s The Staircase
Recreated by HBO Max’s The Staircase? TBD

This one is for the very devoted true-crime fans. As reported by various outlets, including this in-depth story published by the bird-devoted environmental nonprofit Audubon, the Petersons’ neighbor and family friend Larry Pollard began speaking about the possibility of an owl culprit in late 2009. He believed that the seven scalp wounds on Kathleen, which were deep but not forceful enough to cause a skull fracture or brain contusions, were caused by an owl’s talons — a theory supported by three small owl feathers found on Kathleen and noted in the autopsy report. The explanation got some coverage on Dateline when the news magazine tackled the case. But The Staircase documentary doesn’t really focus on this theory, only noting it in passing: “Can I say a hundred percent that it wasn’t some raptor who flew down and inflicted those scalp wounds?” Michael’s lawyer David poses as a theory in “Chapter 12: Between Anger and Despair.”

HBO Max’s The Staircase, meanwhile, integrates this theory from the beginning. In “911,” we see a pine needle collected from Kathleen’s body during the autopsy, and the series introduces an overhead threat via bats nesting in the Petersons’ attic in “Chiroptera.” (In a moment of foreshadowing, Kathleen is so spooked by them that she falls down the attic stairs.) And when the fifth episode, “The Beating Heart,” ends with Pollard (Joel McKinnon Miller) reviewing the scalp wounds in Kathleen’s autopsy photos and turning to look at the taxidermied bird in his office, it becomes clear that Campos is going to pay more attention to this theory than de Lestrade did.

This article will be updated as episodes of The Staircase air on HBO Max.

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