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Today we’re talking about ‘The Staircase’ Ended a Long Spring of True Crime—By Undoing the Genre
The final stop on this Emmy season’s murdery assembly line, HBO Max’s The Staircase always knew what it was. Less interested in a simple dramatization of an infamously grisly case than in unpacking our obsession with the grisliness, the limited series felt like a fitting cap to a string of projects that revisited sensational true events through an empathic lens. (As my colleague Richard Lawson wrote in his review, it’s “the true-crime series to end them all.”) But the show, created by Antonio Campos and co-run by American Crime Story alum Maggie Cohn, became even more fascinating when airing alongside its spring 2022 brethren—subverting a genre once notorious for its voyeuristic focus on dead girls and women, now suddenly trendy post-MeToo.
The Staircase, FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven, and Hulu’s Candy all premiered within a two-week timespan, each brutally catalyzed by the particular tragedy of a woman dying in her own home. The three dramas hew to the conventions of true crime—closely exploring the effects of the incident on the people involved, inspecting various theories on what happened and how—while simultaneously asserting a grander, more humanistic purpose. That latter quality is in constant tension with the very reality of each show’s existence, dredging up real-life horrors for another round of pop-culture fixation (a tension The Staircase proves keenly aware of).
Over the last few months, I’ve spoken to the showrunners behind each program. They’ve emphasized the goal of giving a voice to victims who were without one in previous, popular tellings of their story. In the ’80s Texas-set Candy, Betty Gore is played by Melanie Lynskey, and develops into a lead character as the five-part thriller tracks how she’ll ultimately be bludgeoned to death with an ax by her neighbor Candy Montgomery (Jessica Biel). (Montgomery was acquitted of murder on grounds of self-defense.) Banner of Heaven fictionalizes the investigation of Brenda Lafferty’s murder by creating a composite detective character in Andrew Garfield’s Jeb Pyre while depicting Brenda (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in flashback scenes that resemble the events of Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book (on which the series is based). Finally, The Staircase collects the many convincing, competing theories of why Kathleen Peterson died at the bottom of her Durham, North Carolina, home’s staircase, literally imagining how each scenario—tumbled in a freak accident, murdered by her husband, Michael, attacked by an owl—could have played out. Playing Kathleen, Toni Collette breathes terrifying believability into each scenario.
“We don’t know how she died,” Collette told me recently, “but there’s a big responsibility that comes with bringing not only a real truthful quality to that experience but to her life as well.”
Since 2016’s The People v. O.J. Simpson brilliantly untangled the misogynistic vitriol directed at Marcia Clark during that infamous trial, a great deal of the true crime on prestige TV has worked to spin sexist tropes on their heads. Each of this spring’s “murder shows” was fashioned as a kind of moral corrective, to the point that the notion of a limited-series adaptation has spilled into discussions of recent sensational real-life trials.
Yet without ripping the whole thing apart, the true-crime genre still has its rules. And Under the Banner of Heaven, for one, intently adheres to them. Created by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black, the thriller implicitly promises from the jump not to reduce its victim to a stock dead girl. The opening sequence of Pyre surveying the suburban Utah crime scene evokes classic crime tales but denies featuring any glimpse of Brenda Lafferty’s corpse. The finale, which builds to the deaths of Brenda and her baby girl, Erica, doesn’t shy away from the violence of their killers, Ron and Dan Lafferty (Sam Worthington and Wyatt Russell). But again, Banner of Heaven stops short of lingering on the bloody demise.
We come to know Brenda in recollections of her life, as told to Pyre by her family and friends. In Banner of Heaven, she’s a devout but mainstream Mormon, outspoken against the polygamist turn taken by her husband’s relatives and near-saintly in her protection of the women around her. Her killing is motivated by extremist faith and doctrine, and like the book, Black draws on everything from 19th-century Mormon history to the endurance of fundamentalist orthodoxy to give it context and meaning. We’re not presented with a new angle on the atrocity, exactly—Black’s and Krakauer’s takes are aligned—but the show’s increasing focus on the patriarchal roots of the religion doubles as a kind of subversion of its genre.
Unfortunately, that fades as Brenda’s presence fades, once the fictionalized case kicks into gear and the manhunt is on. An ironic self-critique emerges: A female victim’s angelic portrait serves the larger, more complex arc of the men vying to honor her memory. The true-crime structure proves insufficient to Banner of Heaven’s mission.
Brenda Lafferty’s family spoke out strongly against the show. Her sister slammed it as “absolute fiction” and described the trauma of knowing Brenda would “be murdered all over again.” Of course, no true-crime project should be judged solely by the opinions of the victim’s loved ones. (The Lafferty family’s response was published in the Deseret News, a Mormon Church–owned publication; the church previously expressed outrage over Krakauer’s book.) But as these adaptations attempt to give such victims a new voice, they’re meeting inevitable scrutiny on all sides.
Unlike Banner of Heaven, which smartly unpacks the intricacies of intense faith, Hulu’s Candy tells a relatively compact story that speaks primarily to, as showrunner Robin Veith told me, “female rage.” Indeed, Candy goes to great lengths to depict Betty as a flawed, even disagreeable person, a marked contrast to Brenda’s presence in Banner of Heaven. The show is fashioned as a study of two prickly, capable, repressed women who come to blows due to the social forces around them. Yet the end result, at least in terms of family reaction, has been the same: As BuzzFeed wrote, an anonymous family member told the outlet that Candy was making them “relive their nightmare” and indicated that Betty was far less “mopey and vengeful” than Candy’s depiction would indicate.