blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Staircase (2022) s01e06 – Red in Tooth and Claw

If someone wanted to take the time—and I’m not suggesting it—analyzing “The Staircase” ’s moving thesis about subject Michael Peterson (Colin Firth in his future Emmy-winning performance, not undeservedly) as the series progresses might be interesting. This episode’s where the show wants viewers to feel bad for ever thinking Firth could’ve killed Toni Collette, even as it continues to reveal his petty, malicious parenting style, particularly to his adopted daughters. Just because Firth’s an asshole doesn’t make him a murderer; also, we spent four episodes trying real hard to convince you not to trust him.

This episode might be the first where no one calls Firth a liar, though son Dale DeHaan does talk about his untrustworthy nature. He and Patrick Schwarzenegger are having a chat in flashback about Firth cheating on first mom Trini Alvarado (who was delightful and isn’t back) with Collette, then hitting Alvarado up for money ever since. We also find out he wanted to give away one of the adopted daughters for having panic attacks.

Of course, since the show’s now through Juliette Binoche’s intrepid documentary editor turned freedom fighter’s perspective, Firth’s a tragic hero. It’s tonally all over the place; the show missed an opportunity to style Binoche after Joan of Arc, as she gives up her own life to save Firth’s while his family’s off doing their things. Lots of reveals in the various family visits to Firth in prison, with that part of the story taking place just after he’s lost his third appeal.

And it turns out Michael Stuhlbarg, in a competent but utterly phoned-in performance (it’s also the writing), wasn’t willing to do a lot of old-age makeup, so I think part of his beard gets grayer. Not sure he’s committed enough for an Emmy.

The main plot is Binoche and neighbor Joel McKinnon Miller coming up with the most likely, although most absurd sounding, explanation for Collette’s death. It’s a “stranger than fiction” solution and reasonably well-executed, but once they introduce the idea, it’s obvious it will pan out. Moreover, the close-to-present material—Firth about to plead manslaughter and get out on time served in 2017—heavily implies it.

Though, given it’s “The Staircase,” I suppose it could be another red herring. I’m not sure how they’re going to get another two episodes out of the story. I guess I could Google, but no.

The episode’s script credit is Emily Kaczmarek, who co-wrote one of the better previous episodes, so I’m guessing it’s her co-writer. Leigh Janiak directs. At least it’s not Antonio Campos. The most amusing manipulation bit this episode, other than the entire 2017 framing, is how the show wants to demonize Schwarzenegger and DeHaan simultaneously to juxtapose redemptions, but it’s set five years apart. DeHaan used to be a cheater but got his act together after dad Firth went to prison. Schwarzenegger… used to be a more functional alcoholic than after his dad went to prison and is now struggling.

Collette gets a slightly demonizing flashback subplot about being shitty to sister Rosemarie DeWitt on Thanksgiving. It’s notable primarily because it’s the only time the show’s been disparaging of Collette’s character, but also because I’d forgotten DeWitt was even on the show, she’s so immaterial to it. It’d be nice if prestige shows cared about the finished product as much as the casting announcements.

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