I Can’t Stop Thinking About Toni Collette’s Death in ‘The Staircase

The series is great, but there's one scene that's particularly tough to shake.

I Can’t Stop Thinking About Toni Collette’s Death in ‘The Staircase‘
Screenshot:HBO Max

I realized that nowhere near enough people were watching The Staircase when I searched “Colin Firth eats Toni Collette’s ass” on Twitter and found only a couple of results. Most TV shows that aspire to buzzworthy-ness have at least one scene a week that’s really designed to get the people talking, and in The Staircase’s third episode, the tender domestic rimming scene was clearly the big one. And yet, barely a peep.

Still, it’s hard to blame anyone who hasn’t yet watched the excellent HBO MAX series—The Staircase is a remake of a documentary that itself spawned two sequels and at first glance appears to be just another ripped-from-the-headlines limited miniseries, like WeCrashed, Inventing Anna, The Dropout, Under the Banner of Heaven or The Thing About Pam, all of which retell stories thoroughly popularized via podcasts, books, magazine features, and documentaries. It stars Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, the novelist who, in 2001, found his badly injured wife Kathleen, played in flashbacks by Toni Collette, at the bottom of the stairs in their North Carolina home. A 15-year-long legal saga would follow, documented in the 13-part French documentary series also called The Staircase.

Despite its arrival at what’s hopefully the tail end of a rather stale trend, HBO Max’s take on the story is among the best of the new true crime dramatization. The performances are all great—Parker Posey as a theatrical DA is a particular standout among the supporting cast—and the thoughtful meta-narrative (here, the documentary filmmakers themselves are characters in the intrigue) is far richer than a simple murder story retelling.

The series’ second episode also contains a sequence perfectly designed to get the chattier corners of the internet talking, and it’s this one that I can’t stop thinking about. It imagines Kathleen’s accidental death on the stairs, and has got to be one of this spring’s most artfully executed scenes of television.

In the four episodes that have been released so far, we’ve seen Kathleen’s death twice: as the defense initially argued it occurred, and as the prosecution put the story. Both are challenging viewing, but it’s the accidental version of her death that I find so hard to shake. In it, Kathleen is heading to bed, taking her home’s stairs at an easy jog. Only a few steps from the ground, she loses her footing and falls, hitting her head on the door frame. When she lands, she stays down for agonizing seconds. Then, she regains consciousness, bleeding profusely from her head wound, scraping around in a daze, bare feet struggling for traction. She manages to rise, only to slip in her own blood and fall once more. She coughs, gags, calls for help, but it’s too late. Her husband—with whom she’s known years of open and honest wedded bliss in this version of her death—sits by the pool, too far away to hear any of it.

Collette, who’s always fantastic but profoundly skilled at tapping into the bloody, gristly side of things, does incredible work with both versions of Kathleen’s demise. The second one takes place in episode four, which ends with Peterson’s 2003 murder conviction. This time, we’re shown her last moments from the prosecution’s perspective. After confronting her husband about his affairs with men and declaring her intent to divorce him, Michael and Kathleen argue as they make their way through the house. In a fit of fury, he pushes her down the stairs, then grabs her by the neck, slamming her head against the landing. The violence lasts 15 awful seconds, and then, coughing and choking, Kathleen dies on the stairs yet again.

Firth is genuinely terrifying, exploding into violence before transforming into a self-serving repentant in a way that illustrates the schizoid reality of so much domestic violence. But the second depiction of the death no longer holds the original shock, and we’ve all seen women murdered on TV before—the entire true crime craze is scaffolded on their corpses. The accidental version of Kathleen’s demise is more novel television, as the terror lies in how mundane it all is. I’ve thought of the scene every time I’ve mounted my building’s steps since watching it, thinking of how everyday bad luck can, very, very rarely, lead to disaster. It’s gruesome, and truly scary, but not gratuitous. After watching Netflix’s The Staircase documentary, I remember thinking that the tale was either an accident or a horror story. Viewing HBO Max’s version makes it clear that this is a horror story either way.

It seems likely that we’ll watch Kathleen die yet again before the series’ eight episodes are out—the show still has owl theory to explore, of course—but I’ll be thinking about that first fall for a long time. The series, with its musings on subjectivity and graceful handling of so much uncertainty, achieves what so few true crime shows do, transcending the police blotter and crafting a story full of both terror and humanity.

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