The most recent episode of The Staircase underlines the problem with covering true crime as a drama rather than a documentary – but it still makes for unmissable viewing, according to one Stylist writer.
Warning: this article contains spoilers for the fifth episode of Sky’s The Staircase.
For the past couple of weeks, Sky’s The Staircase has brought a new lease of life to one of the world’s more perplexing true crime cases.
The mystery death of Kathleen Peterson remains to be head-scratch-worthy and The Staircase doesn’t aim to clarify any points of the case. Rather, it seems to lay it all out – as is the style of glossy new dramas – for audiences that are either familiar and already engaged with the subject matter or for new viewers who are yet to be transported into the chaotic world of the Peterson clan.
But it’s when dramas hark too close to reality – and ongoing mysteries aren’t yet tied up neatly – that things start to overlap with real-life consequences. It’s the same case with The Crown’s Netflix disclaimer and Pamela Anderson’s slating of Disney+’s Pam & Tommy. Now, the same can also be said of this drama.
The Staircase is based on the 2004 Peabody award-winning documentary of the same name, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. De Lestrade sold director Antonio Campos the rights to the story, gave him access to archives and is even one of the new drama’s executive producers.
But it seems that now, because of The Staircase’s most recent episode, a dispute has broken out between the filmmakers. De Lestrade told The Times of his fury at how certain events were depicted in the drama: “I couldn’t believe it, it was so inaccurate.”
He also told Vanity Fair: “We gave [Campos] all the access he wanted, and I really trusted the man. So that’s why today I’m very uncomfortable, because I feel that I’ve been betrayed in a way.”
But why? Well, episode five is one of the more eye-opening instalments of the new drama as it catalogues a part of the story that many people may not be aware of: the relationship between Michael Peterson and the original documentary’s editor Sophie Brunet.
It wasn’t something that was mentioned in the documentary – on account of the relationship forming “much later than depicted in the drama”, according to Brunet – and so, it’s only in the new Sky drama that we get a glimpse of how the blossoming romance came to be.
In episode five – entitled The Beating Heart – we deal with the aftermath of Michael’s (Colin Firth) sentencing. It’s April 2004 and we’re greeted by his cut and bruised face. He’s been beaten up for taking one of the single-occupancy cells that another inmate had been waiting five years for.
It’s because of his “famous” status, another inmate tells him, and because of that, he’s being treated differently. Even when getting his commissary items, he’s in a position of privilege that the other inmates aren’t. His balance stands at $345 (£278), something he’s keen for the prison officer to keep quiet.
But as well as dealing with Michael’s new life in prison – and the effect it has on his family – the episode primarily deals with the real-life documentary that was produced from it.
Once Michael is sentenced for Kathleen’s (Toni Collette) murder, the documentary team works tirelessly to bring the project to the screen to help with Michael’s ongoing appeal. It’s a bone of contention between the trio: director de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) and editor Brunet (played by Juliette Binoche) believe that Michael is innocent, whereas producer Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) doesn’t.
In the background of the drama of this episode, Sophie and Michael’s friendship continues to grow. They exchange letters, Sophie sends him books and, in her editor whirlwind, she strives to make Michael appear as humane as possible. “Trust that we are working as fast as we can to get your story in front of the world and finally get you the trial you so deserve,” one of Sophie’s early postcards read.
There are ongoing arguments about what scenes of the documentary should be cut or added; Poncet doesn’t care to include a humanising conversation that Michael has with his son Clayton (Dane DeHaan) but Sophie has opposing thoughts.
“We need Sophie off the project. She’s biased – it shows in her work,” Poncet says to de Lestrade.
Ultimately, it looks like a conflict of interest and Sophie agrees to stop writing to Michael. But it’s in the final scene of this episode – when she finally reads Michael’s last letter after The Staircase documentary premiere – that we really see how this serious relationship formed.
She hops on a plane and visits Michael in prison, leading to a cliffhanger that a drama like this weaves in seamlessly. But it’s Brunet’s editorial motivations that are depicted in this episode that have led to de Lestrade’s condemnation.
According to Vanity Fair, de Lestrade and fellow producer Matthieu Belghiti have now sent a letter to Campos demanding that “the offending allegations be removed from episode five before it airs publicly” or that the series have a disclaimer added to each episode, emphasising that the story is “inspired” by the real-life events.
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Brunet has since stressed that her relationship with Michael “only began much later than depicted in the drama, finished before she had finished editing the film and that her editorial decisions at the time of making the documentary weren’t compromised”.
When dramas are based on true crime cases – that still remain ominously unresolved – they do drum up intrigue and high viewerships but at what cost? In this case, behind-the-scenes disputes and blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. Perhaps that’s part of the growing intrigue to keep tuning in – we know we’ll continue to.
Episode 5 of The Staircase airs tonight at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and is now available to watch on streaming service NOW with the previous episodes.
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