The first time we see Mike Peterson after his conviction, he has two black eyes and answers to his prison number, as well as the callous jail yard nickname he’s already picked up – “Staircase”.
In episode five, this series once again changes its form according to the demands of Mike’s story. It’s been a true crime thriller and a courtroom procedural. Now, it’s a prison drama.
A pen pal from Paree
Mike (Colin Firth) isn’t popular in prison. On account of his celebrity, he jumps the queue of inmates who have been waiting years for a private cell, which is how he ended up in that fistfight. Freshly released from solitary confinement, he’s approached by an inmate who extends an offer of protection in exchange for weekly payment in postage stamps. It’s a no-brainer.
The deal keeps him safe, but unfortunately for company he’s only got Sophie (Juliette Binoche). The unhappily married editor of Jean’s documentary has begun to send her subject novels by Proust and Lewis Carroll. They’re accompanied with little notes of embarrassingly banal observations, including, I kid you not, how walking the Louvre with a friend made her appreciate the relative compactness of a prison cell. Francophile Mike is putty in her hands.
One happy family
We’re finally treated to a pretty thorough update on where the Peterson kiddos are now, three years out from Kathleen’s death. Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger), Clayton (Dane DeHaan) and Margie (Sophie Turner) are organising the house for a firesale of, well, every last object they own. Mike needs money to fund his legal appeal, which means even Kathleen’s extensive collection of enormous Christmas nutcrackers has to go on the auction block.
They don’t have much trouble moving the Peterson family wares, but the house itself is harder to off-load, even after a hasty renovation of the staircase where Kathleen (Toni Collette) died. It goes for a quarter of a million dollars less than Mike hoped Their neighbour, Larry, is the new owner of an enormous reindeer tchotchke I’m sure Kathleen adored.
Still, Mike worries that he’ll be broke when he gets out of prison, which is an almost optimistic notion for a man serving a life sentence. If it seems like Mike is adjusting to prison too well, it’s because he sees it as a short-term condition. David (Michael Stuhlbarg) will get him out in a few months, and everyone seems to agree.
At least they agree out loud. The kids have grown distant from each other since the trial ended. Todd is living in Cabo now, drinking himself to smithereens while theoretically trying to get a dodgy timeshare business off the ground. Margie is working for a film company in LA; Martha is doing a customer service job, which her siblings all agree she’s singularly ill-suited to perform. Oddly, it’s Clayton – the black sheep of the family banished for most of the trial – who is the best at caring for Mike. He visits with good news, telling his father that he and Becky are having a baby. When Todd fails to replenish Mike’s commissary account with the stamp money he desperately needs, it’s Clayton who steps in with the deposit.
Curiously, the series keeps dipping into flashbacks, an indicator that the show’s assessment of Mike’s guilt hasn’t ended with the trial. Even more interesting is how the flashbacks we get in this episode are designed to erode the idea of Mike and Kathleen as a couple in happy agreement on most matters of family life. We see a scene in which Mike brutally rips into Margie for getting poor grades at university, and then punishes her by refusing to buy her a plane ticket home for Thanksgiving – Kathleen’s favourite holiday. In another scene, Mike orders a second bottle of Sancerre he certainly can’t afford on his own in the middle of Kathleen’s waxing about how she’d like to quit her job for a less stressful – and remunerative – alternative.
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Winning hearts and minds
David starts work on Mike’s appeal from the moment the guilty verdict is pronounced, and his legal case seems sound. The seizure of Mike’s home computer – the one that was critical to the prosecution’s theory that Mike killed Kathleen to keep his bisexuality a secret – wasn’t covered by the search warrant. Without the computer, there’s no porn; without the porn, there’s no motive.
Privately, though, Mike is banking on Jean’s documentary to be exculpatory. It’s helpful that Sophie is the one obsessively splicing the project into its final shape. But series producer Denis is hellbent on producing a documentary that aligns with the jury’s finding of guilt. In every heated debate, the trial reproduces itself, over and over again. What happened in court doesn’t ring with the finality of truth, at least for Sophie. She wants the audience to understand Michael, not convict him. Denis finally puts into words a question that’s hung over the rest of the series: What is the value in “understanding” a liar?
It’s Jean who ultimately saves Sophie’s vision, even after she confesses that her impartiality has been compromised by the promise of epistolary romance. It’s like the documentary series is morphing alongside the series we’re watching now. What started as a study of how the American justice system works has become something more intimate – an extended look at how a system that powerful can cripple entire families. When they finally have their first screening, the audience erupts in applause. Sophie thinks it will be a hit.
Not quite the end of the road
Unfortunately for Team Mike, the documentary premieres a few hours after the court of appeals refuses to release the writer. The panel concludes that the seizure of his computer was illegal, but not that the arguments the prosecution based on that seizure controlled the jury’s decision. Which is to say, the court refuses to acknowledge that Mike’s sexuality was at least partially on trial.
Now, Mike will have to wait for the state’s Supreme Court to get involved. But the higher up the courts you climb, the slower the gears of justice turn. Mike is sure to be in prison for at least another year or two. The kids soothe themselves with platitudes: “buckle up”, “refuel”, there are still “moves left on the board”. The truth is that they’re all running out of hope, as well as things to say to each other.
It’s surely the darkest period of Mike’s life and yet we know from The Staircase’s time jumps that it’s also the start of the life he’ll eventually be freed to. His kids have all moved out of state; his brother is back home, too. There’s no one left to visit Mike and yet the prison guard calls his name on visitation day anyway. He walks down a long hallway to find Sophie’s unfamiliar face.