The Staircase (2022) s01e03 – The Great Dissembler

This episode’s mostly about Colin Firth’s sex life. Assistant district attorney Parker Posey’s determined to expose Firth as a practicing bisexual, pursuing past partners, and so on. But it’s not just Posey’s even too bigot-y for 2001 North Carolina investigation; the episode focuses on it from Firth’s perspective too. While wife Toni Collette is stressing out from work or whatever, Firth is setting up rendezvouses. He gets her a massage, then heads to the adult video arcade, bringing home a DVD from Blockbuster when he’s done.

I’m curious about the accuracy of the rental format.

But the episode’s also about daughter Odessa Young having a girlfriend at college and not wanting to tell the family. Finally, it’s about Patrick Schwarzenegger, maybe possibly liking guys, with director Antonio Campos going overboard on the visual innuendo. Lots of love, lust, and sex on display in this episode. Lawyer Michael Stuhlbarg even addresses it, telling Firth he’s got marriage problems.

The episode does a bunch of stops and starts—this person’s testifying, wait, they’re not, this person’s coming out, wait, they’re not, over and over again. Credited to Campos, the script is just one red herring after another. Sometimes something’s suspicious because it lacks historical context, sometimes it’s because of the presentation, sometimes it’s suspicious. There’s an actually engaging scene where Tim Guinee, playing Firth’s brother, confronts him about his sexual indiscretions, calling Firth on the lies.

Even though Firth’s doing a lot this episode—with a whole lot of people—he’s playing an avatar, not a person. He’s a function of “The Staircase,” nothing more. There’s good acting, to be sure, but it’s disingenuous stuff.

Collette’s momentarily got a suspicion plot point, but then it turns out to be nothing. Just like when she heard the creepy noises upstairs last episode. They’re just bats. It’s a big problem, and it’s just going to worsen. Firth’s not concerned about it, though, because sons Schwarzenegger and Dale Dehaan (who doesn’t appear in this episode, just gets the mention) need money. Ex-wife Trini Alvarado doesn’t want to get another mortgage to help them out. Firth can’t do it because, despite his bravado, Collette signs the checks, and she’s almost out of a job.

Or not. Collette’s work subplot isn’t actually important. It’s a bummer she’s in this show so little.

There’s a big plot twist in the last twenty minutes—all these episodes run just over an hour; I guess streaming shows are just embracing possibly unadvisable verbosity—and they do a bunch to set it up for next time.

Alvarado’s great, it’s some of Guinee’s best acting on the show, and the kids are good. Schwarzenegger’s a controlling asshole, mimicking how dad Firth and lawyer Stuhlbarg strong-arm the girls, Young and Sophie Turner, but it’s far from unrealistic. The bullying is effortlessly authentic.

The episode’s got its moments, but they’re rarities amongst the red herrings swimming in circles.

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