The first images from HBO Max's highly anticipated drama The Staircase are here, which will likely lead many of us to ask the question: Could Mr. Darcy be a murderer?
Colin Firth (Pride & Prejudice, The King's Speech) stars as Michael Petersen, the man at the center of a controversial murder trial who was charged with killing his wife in 2001. Anyone who considers themselves any kind of true crime enthusiast has probably heard of the Petersen case---and the wild conspiracy theories that surround it. Based on French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's docu-series of the same name, which first aired on the Sundance Channel in 2005 and for which new three episodes were made when it moved to Netflix in 2018, the HBO series will dramatize the investigation into the mysterious death of Kathleen Petersen.
The 48-year-old was found by her husband at the bottom of the staircase in the couple's North Carolina home, lying in a pool of her own blood. Petersen called 911, the police didn't believe the death was accidental, and he was arrested and charged with his wife's murder. But that's not where the story ends.
Prosecutors claimed Michael bludgeoned his wife to death; he argued she fell after consuming a debilitating mix of alcohol and prescription painkillers. However, the autopsy revealed Kathleen's death was caused by multiple injuries, including a blow to the back of her head with a blunt object. The theories that resulted from these two conflicting claims essentially gave birth to the true-crime industry as we know it today, with the most outlandish theories gaining traction on the internet as at-home sleuths tried to solve the mystery.
The most famous, known simply as the "owl theory," involves Kathleen being attacked by a Barred Owl prior to her fall, sustaining multiple severe injuries while the creature was entangled in her hair. These injuries, so the theory goes, were supposedly disorienting enough that she fell down the stairs afterward. Evidence for this includes the presence of both pine needles and microscopic feathers on her body. (Don't believe me? Audubon has a great in-depth analysis of whether this was all possible in a piece that originally ran in 2016.)
Petersen was ultimately found guilty of his wife's death and spent several years in prison before his conviction was overturned. In 2017, he was freed after submitting an Alford plea---an agreement in which the defendant does not admit to a criminal act, but acknowledges that the evidence presented by the prosecution would likely result in a conviction---to the reduced charge of manslaughter.
Firth leads an all-star ensemble that includes Toni Collette (The United State of Tara) as Michael's wife Kathleen, alongside Michael Stuhlbarg (Dopesick), Juliette Binoche (Chocolat), Dane DeHaan (Lisey's Story), Olivia DeJonge (Will), Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married), Tim Guinee (Inventing Anna), Patrick Schwarzenegger (Moxie), Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), Vincent Vermignon (Luther), Odessa Young (The Stand), and Parker Posey (Best in Show).
There's no official premiere date for The Staircase as yet, though HBO Max has said it will arrive in Spring 2022.