The Unicorn Scale: The Staircase

By Jennie Roberson

May 21, 2024



Photo credit: Image/HBO

Hello, dear Unicorns old and new! I hope everyone is happy and made sure to go for a mental health walk, or “hot girl walk” as I like to call them. It's good to stretch your legs and get the blood flowing.

People assume a lot about others just by looking at them, don’t they? For some reason, people think I have an open and honest face and often overshare when they first meet me. And also, quite often, when they realize I’m a Millennial woman they’ll immediately assume I’m a true crime girlie. I’m not, but who can blame them? It’s a really common interest for women around my age!

So I’m not a true crime girlie. I’m more, as previously stated, into courtroom dramas. But there can be some overlap between those genres, and often famously so. One of those confluences came about when I learned about The Staircase, the 2022 true crime/legal drama starring Colin Firth. And when I learned from my friend Nancy Marcus’ article on this website that bisexuality was a major factor in the case, I became determined to cover the adaptation.

Before I get too far into the weeds here, I should go over a few ground rules. First and foremost, there will be SPOILERS for this HBO drama miniseries. I should give a few content warnings as well, including but not limited to: depictions of murder, violence, and bloodshed; verbal abuse; and manipulation, among a host of others. Finally, if this is your first time around the Scale (and a hearty welcome to you!), it may behoove you to check out the rubric here to learn what the Unicorn Scale is all about, or check out our Media Entry here.

All set? All right, and away we go.

The Staircase (2022) is an eight-part drama miniseries covering the life of Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), a former Marine and war novelist whose wife, Kathleen Atwater Peterson (Toni Colette) was found dead in December 2001 at the bottom of their home staircase — and the legal trials working to figure out if her death was accidental or at the hands of Peterson, who discovered her there. The expansive story also follows the narrative of how the trial affects the children of Michael and Kathleen’s blended family, the prosecution in the 2003 trial, and the journey of a crew making a documentary about the trial. The sprawling narrative has about three major threads we follow — the events (or retellings of events) leading up to Kathleen’s death, the course of the initial trial, and the events around Peterson’s retrial and Alford plea hearing.

What I Liked:

There is no questioning that bisexuality is used as a term in The Staircase, nor that it’s an important part of the narrative. “Bisexual” as a word is used incredibly often, as it is discovered during the trial Michael is bi and had multiple same-sex trysts throughout his marriage to Kathleen as well as his previous wife, Patty. The term is used by both children (some even correcting others when they try to label him incorrectly as gay) as well as both the prosecution and the defense attorneys throughout the course of the trial.


But Michael’s queerness is not just talked about; since the miniseries is told in a non-linear fashion, we get to see both multiple sexual acts Michael has with Kathleen, as well as his trysts with men — flirting in saunas, lurid phone calls, escapades in the back of adult video stores, etc. But it’s not just other people labeling Michael as bi. While he is hesitant to talk about his affairs at first and often talks around the truth, Michael does speak about his attractions — from Episode 2: “Kathleen was my soulmate, but I am bisexual, which happens to be a problem for people in Durham.” In later episodes, Michael also talks about how he has known about his sexuality since he was a child. There are also shots utilizing the queer gaze in instances from Michael’s point-of-view like him gawking at people of different genders exercising in the gym around him.

The Staircase also does a solid job of showing how both the personal biphobia of family members as well as the use of biphobia as a weapon in the legal system affect the course of Michael’s life. When the police discover bi porn on Michael’s seized computer, his sister-in-law Candace (Rosemarie Dewitt) proclaims: “I knew he was hiding something when he didn’t have the nerve to call us himself [to tell us Kathleen died].” Kathleen’s daughter and Michael’s stepdaughter, Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) also claims that if, as Michael says, he was open to Kathleen about his bisexuality, Kathleen would have told her. The two characters end up using this deceit as a basis for assuming Michael murdered Kathleen and split from the rest of the family.


While defense attorney David Rudolph (Michael Stuhlbarg) fights to keep his extramarital affairs from being entered into evidence, the court does allow them, and the prosecution makes the most of it. Even in their biphobic closing arguments, assistant district attorney Freda Black (Parker Posey) notes: “Do you REALLY believe Kathleen Peterson knew her husband was bisexual? Does that make common sense to you? That it was ok with her? She couldn’t have approved. That’s not the way soulmates conduct themselves.” (Note: While ultimately the retrial in the miniseries comes from re-examining tainted testimony from a dubious blood spatter specialist, in the real case the judge admitted that he also should have conducted his previous court better and not allow the biphobia to take hold in his courtroom.)

While much has changed from the time of the original trial to today, it’s important to remember the political climate with the LGBT community in the early 2000s in the conservative Southern town of Durham was quite different, and that is part of what allowed the biphobia in the case to flourish. Not excusing it, merely explaining and giving some context to some younger readers.

Finally, the treatment of Michael as a character is not without his charms. The character is clearly smart, often loving and charming, and is allowed to run a full gamut of emotion throughout the story. While his bisexuality is a huge part of his identity and the narrative, it is not the sole reason he exists in the story, or why the story exists in the first place.

What I Didn’t Like:

All that said — Michael Peterson has a ton of faults.

It’s hard to fight off stereotypes we see in films of bi people not all being greedy, liars, or cheaters when that is a major crux of the story at play here. Though Michael asserts over and over that Kathleen knew about his bisexuality and that they had an understanding, we ultimately learn in the final episode in his interview with documentarian Jean-Xavier (Vincent Vermignon) that Kathleen did not know about his queerness. This throws a lot of his story and character into question, as that was a major foundation for his legal defense.

On the one hand, I do have sympathy for Michael. This was, as he says, a bi man in the South who, when he did try to experiment as a boy in the ‘50s, was hit by his abusive father. So he quickly learned he needed to keep his queer expressions under wraps to not get ostracized or hurt. Growing up with that secret for decades is a heavy emotional burden.


That said, even beyond that hurt and anger he needs to address, Michael very often is not a nice person to the people who love him and often exploits them. He pits his boys against each other to vie for being the favorite, mocks his adopted daughter Margaret (Sophie Turner) for acting like a martyr, and, long before the trial began, we discover that he once tried to split up his adopted daughters and have others take them into custody. He even exploits Sophie (Juliette Binoche), the editor of the documentary-turned-lover, who sacrificed years of her life and work to the case, soon after he is released. He’s also manipulative with the truth, often applying his own logic to stuff to excuse his behavior, even when speaking with his lawyer.

Firth gives a brilliant, layered performance to a complex character, but yes — even Oscar-winning Mr. Darcy himself can’t make Michael come across as a prince.

The Rating:

Whether you believe Michael killed Kathleen or not (honestly, I’m leaning hard into the owl theory), The Staircase comes up with a complicated but ultimately rather damning profile of a bi man in the American justice system. It is good to see such a high-profile case done with a lot of high production value and a decent amount of delicacy, and there is a lot of injustice that fell at Michael’s feet as far as him getting a fair trial. Ultimately Michael seems to be a rather unkind person, a manipulative and abusive liar, and a person who uses people — and that does not ultimately serve as a great example of a bi character in the media landscape. Then again, in true crime stories, almost no one emerges with their character unscathed.

2.5 Unicorn emojis