The following contains spoilers for The Staircase (2022) Episode 7, “Seek and Ye Shall” (written by Antonio Campos and Aja Gabel, and directed by Antonio Campos).
Another person in the Durham area has died from blunt force trauma to the back of the head. As with Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette), this person’s skull wasn’t fractured, which means the Peterson case is no longer an anomaly. The lack of skull fractures also casts doubt on the Owl Theory that was introduced in the last episode. Now there are other possible explanations for the injuries on Kathleen’s skull.
Dennis Rowe (Morgan Henard) is the second victim who has died from blunt force trauma to the skull. His name should be familiar to those watching carefully. Dennis claims that he had sex with Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) on multiple ocassions, something Michael vehemently denies. Dennis’ murderer is a man named Tyrone Lacour (Donny Boaz), who has also slept with Michael. His presence is another means of creating doubt about what occurred on the night of Kathleen’s murder. There was no sign of a break-in at the Peterson home the night she was murdered, but that alone doesn’t rule Tyrone out because he has been to the house before. He does have an airtight alibi, though. He was in jail.
It’s worth noting that this line of thinking was not pursued in the original docuseries or in the actual case by Michael’s attorney, David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s another instance of the show twisting reality to invent salacious drama for a “better story” and undermining the credibility of the very real people involved in the case.
The focus of this episode shifts to some of the people who were involved professionally with the Peterson case. Specifically, Freda Black (Parker Posey). She was Assistant to the Durham District Attorney, and now she is working at a dry cleaner. Evelyn Ivans (Deja Dee) from the Innocence Project has contacted Freda to discuss the relationship between the DA and the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI). The SBI is an independent organization that helps to process crime scenes. In theory, they should be an unbiased organization whose only goal is the pursuit of justice. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The DA’s office completes performance reviews for the SBI that correlate to bonuses.
The Innocence Project’s discovery of corruption within the SBI reignites the claims that Michael wasn’t given a fair trial. It’s one of the more interesting aspects of the show, but something that’s essentially resolved by one meeting with Freda and Evelyn. There are references to other men and women who are in jail based on evidence that was altered or withheld by SBI for the sake of maintaining the DA’s story. It’s a shame the audience isn’t given the opportunity to understand the full scope of this issue. One of the characters calls it “systemic,” but the show narrows its focus to Michael’s case.
This is indicative of the problem with the series as the episodes go on. The Staircase (2022) makes Michael the focal point of the show, to its own detriment. Michael and the Peterson case as a whole should have been an entry point to an investigation of the corruption of the United States justice system, society’s larger obsession with true crime, and the pursuit of truth.
The Peterson case is a microcosm of all those larger themes that are at play. The fact that we still don’t know for sure what happened that night speaks to the fact that truth is variable. The existence of The Staircase, in both its 2022 and 2004 iterations, demonstrates the hold the true crime genre has over every means of storytelling. From documentary to fiction to podcast to series to movies, true crime is inescapable and, more often than not, exploitative. Where is the line drawn with these stories? How many times must we dig up graves simply to create content? Even critiquing these series on a weekly basis adds fuel to the fire of true crime’s hold on our society.
The tangled web of lies between the DA and SBI should have accounted for more than five minutes of screentime. To reduce something as catastrophic as an “independent” company bending to the will of the DA to one conversation between two characters and a faux local news report is detrimental to what this means on a grander scale. The impact of these organizations working together is monumental. At least 190 cases were potentially affected by the tampering of bloodwork evidence by the SBI between 1987 and 2003. The sheer scope of what that means in terms of researching and putting together a completely new trial is staggering. Not to mention the fact that the death penalty is legal in the state of North Carolina. Some people may have missed out on justice forever.
Once The Staircase (2022) demonstrates the immensity of the case and its repercussions on the world around it, the series backs away, seemingly too nervous to take bigger swings at the institutions that led to this situation in the first place. The series exposes a number of wrongdoings, but instead of digging its heels in, The Staircase pivots back to Michael. Reducing the enormity of these themes to the singular story of Michael could have been interesting had it not already been done eighteen years earlier in the docuseries.