One of the benefits of Netflix—and one of the reasons it’s such a perfect medium for true crime TV—is the propensity for commentary and conversation that would make you the villain of any movie theater audience. When I sat down to watch Netflix’s much-dissected The Staircase, I was prepared for the infuriating and fascinating anti-resolution that was the series. I was unprepared to watch sitting next to a federal agent trained in interrogation and detecting deception whose specialty is medical. This agent also happens to be my fiancée, which made the story’s tangle of biphobia and strange, casual misogyny that much more of a rabbit hole.
As the camera takes us through the enormous Peterson house, my fiancée began to frown. “He’s lying,” she said, again and again, or “That’s not entirely true,” or “Well that blood pattern doesn’t look like a fall.” The catch in this viewing experience was that hers was the most reliable version of the narrative I could find. I trust her opinion over mine, especially at a crime scene. The Staircase follows the original 2003 and retrial a decade later of novelist Michael Peterson, whose wife’s body was found at the bottom of the staircase in their home. He was charged with her murder, despite his insistence that she fell while he was out by the pool. But what did happen? Theories abound. Some online conspiracists and several respectable podcasters blame a random owl attack. Nobody will ever know the real answer to the mystery except for Michael Peterson.
As with all true crime media, there’s the sense with The Staircase of peering in where we’re not wanted, lending a greedy ear to someone else’s tragedy. Peterson’s large family—his four children and his brother—make the case a crowded family affair. Their efforts and their pain feel very personal—as does their betrayal. It is 2003 and it is the American South, and the defendant is living as a bisexual man. The open bigotry is remarkable. Both Peterson’s sister-in-law and step-daughter have 180-degree turns in opinion about his guilt or innocence as soon as he’s outed. He’s not who we thought he was is the refrain from both.
There’s a kind of weighing that goes into watching this: you can’t sit back without an opinion. The nature of a narrative is to lead toward a resolution or at least a culmination of its various facets, and where the narrative is only composed of clues and hints and impressions, the viewer must be active in shaping that amorphous narrative as well. The impulse to make decisions overlays The Staircase with a strange urgency.
Compare, for instance, Netflix’s other recent viral true crime docu-series, Evil Genius. The margins for doubt and guilt in that series are so much narrower, the retrospective feels much more like a character study than a mystery. We feel that answers are on their way. The people on screen hold fascination, as we try to guess what we’ll learn about them next. Next to Evil Genius, The Staircase leaves us adrift. There is no reassuring narrative presence, no promised light around the corner. There is confusion and despair and dark humor on screen, which buoy along the subjects and the viewers from one taut crisis to the next.
The two series, The Staircase and Evil Genius, operate on two different levels of highly successful early cinema spectacle. The Staircase is the realism and patience of the Lumière brothers’ train arriving at the station. It situates us in place and time. It gives us a sense of inhabiting that moment. It doesn’t tell us very much explicitly: it only gives us what’s in front of our noses. Evil Genius is more like Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon. The visuals fascinate us. It’s all rush and vision. We’re absorbed in what will happen next. There is plot, and there is resolution waiting at the end.
The two together give a terrific and disturbing demonstration of how Netflix’s dark-reality binge is grabbing true crime fans like myself and spinning us around its little finger. Netflix is home to masterful documentaries, constructed carefully and with care, and its true-crime series like Wild Wild Country, Evil Genius, and The Staircase are no exception to its high bar of quality. What these shows reinvent so generously is the thrill of the unresolved, the gift of uncertainty, which haunted so many early filmgoers.
Consider the account, probably more of an urban legend, of how audience members jumped out of the way of the Lumierès brothers’ train as it rolled toward them on the screen. The thrill of being the unaffected onlooker as the Avengers wreck New York City is addictive enough to drive us back to the franchise again and again. We’re thrilled, but we’re spared. These thoughtful true crime sagas allow us to indulge in the same song and dance, but with the intellectual bent of this really happened and I’m learning something. It’s an ugly, eternal fascination. It’s a pattern I’m addicted to, as are millions of other Netflix subscribers. Film evolves, from 52-second records of a train rolling silently into a station, to an elaborate on-demand stream of digital data appearing all over the world at once. But the song remains the same.