HBO Max’s ‘The Staircase’ Digs Deeper Into Michael Peterson’s Sexuality, Family Dynamic After Kathleen’s Death: TV Review

HBO Max‘s The Staircase is a dramatized retelling of Kathleen Peterson’s death and her husband, Michael Peterson’s murder charges. Many first learned of Michael in in the Netflix true crime docu-series from French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

Both shows recount Kathleen’s gruesome death in her Durham, North Carolina home and Michael’s legal battle. HBO brings us the Peterson family‘s point of view as they pick up the pieces in this retelling starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette.  

Michael's brother (Time Guinee), Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner), Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge), Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) in HBO Max's 'The Staircase'
Time Guinee as Michael’s brother, Sophie Turner as Margaret, Colin Firth as Michael, Olivia DeJonge as Caitlin, and Patrick Schwarzenegger as Todd | HBO Max

Michael Peterson’s bisexuality is at the forefront of HBO Max’s ‘The Staircase’ 

Michael’s bisexuality comes up in the Netflix series, but that narrative becomes a mainstay in the HBO Max version. Firth perfectly captures the underlying insecurity of a man living a double life. 

Scenes of Michael’s sexual escapades often align with Kathleen’s work struggles, the growing estrangement with her daughter Caitlin Atwater (Olivia DeJonge), and the problems with their sprawling Durham home. Michael’s moments of infidelity help bolster the story much of the public wanted to buy into — a cheating husband whose wife found out and he ruthlessly murdered with a blow poke. 

‘The Staircase’ on HBO Max explores the divide between Michael and Kathleen Peterson’s kids

The Petersons had a blended family of five children. Michael has two boys from his first marriage, Clayton and Todd. He also has two adopted daughters Margaret and Martha Ratliff. Kathleen also had a child from a previous marriage, her daughter Caitlin.

Where the Netflix docu-series focuses on the legal side of Peterson’s case, the HBO series pokes at a family falling apart amid tragedy. DeJonge evokes Caitlin’s plight, that of someone who initially supported Michael, as she shifts to stand with Cullen Moss’ district attorney Jim Hardin after seeing Kathleen’s autopsy photos.

The series doesn’t ignore the distance Caitlin put between her Peterson siblings. As she pushes them away, they struggle to rally around each other thanks to their own suspicions. This is especially true of the Ratliff sisters, whose mother’s death almost mirrors Kathleen’s. 

HBO Max series doesn’t bury the owl theory 

Netflix’s The Staircase touched on almost every aspect of Michael’s legal battle except for the owl theory. Michael’s lawyer David S. Rudolf recounts his experience representing Michael on his website. In one post, he breaks down the owl theory the Netflix series only mentions in a digital short. 

“Exsanguination was the cause of death,” he writes. “Not blunt force trauma to her brain, not a fractured skull, not strangulation. Loss of blood.” Initially, the injuries on Kathleen’s scalp were presumably caused by her fall and impact on the wall or floor.

The Netflix series’ intent was to expose a flawed criminal justice system and what Rudolf called “junk science” without presenting the owl theory. HBO’s The Staircase does both.

This time, the story leans into the owl theory without ignoring the “junk science” part. Medical examiners find pine needles on Kathleen’s body from the start. At the same time, blood splatter analysts spend hours trying to recreate the crime scene. Eventually they do, painting a picture of a legal system manipulating evidence to twist the narrative in the court room. 

The Staircase is a refreshing dramatization of Michael’s case in the form of a family drama. You know the story of Kathleen’s murder and Michael’s trial. Now, glimpse the impact such trauma has on a family’s collective heart.

The first three episodes of The Staircase are available on HBO Max.

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