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'The Staircase' on HBO Max: That Ending Explained and All Your Questions Answered

The season finale of The Staircase brought a ton of reveals.

Colin Firth gazes out of a window in The Staircase.
Colin Firth stars in The Staircase.

HBO Max's new drama miniseries The Staircase tells a gripping story about the life of novelist Michael Peterson and the suspicious death of his wife Kathleen. If you've finished every episode, you might have questions about what happened in Peterson's real-life trial. We're here with answers.

Covered in books, podcasts and an acclaimed Netflix 2004 documentary with the same name as the HBO show, the high-profile 2001 case continues to spark debates and theories

How can I watch the documentary?

The 2004 documentary, also called The Staircase, is streaming on Netflix. Directed by French documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, it originally aired as an eight-episode miniseries, but Netflix added two sequels from the director, as well as three additional follow-ups. Some consider it to be one of the best true crime docuseries out there. 

The new HBO Max drama is directed by Antonio Campos, who began work on the project in 2008. The show is a co-production between HBO Max and Annapurna Television, and it's written and executive produced by Campos and Maggie Cohn.

How are the show and documentary related?

Interestingly, the shooting of the 2004 Staircase documentary is a part of the narrative in HBO Max's new show, with actor Vincent Vermignon playing documentary director de Lestrade. We see the crew start to film Peterson in episode 2. 

The HBO Max series isn't based just on material from the documentary. It also draws from books and reports on the case. However, viewers of the dramatized show and doc will spot similarities between the two. For instance, the testimony we hear in episode 4 from Kathleen's sister Candice, Dr. Deborah Radisch, and others echoes what's shown in the doc.

What happened in the real-life case?

On Dec. 9, 2001, emergency workers found 48-year-old business executive Kathleen Peterson dead at the bottom of a staircase in her Durham, North Carolina, home. Her husband, novelist Michael Peterson, told 911 operators Kathleen had accidentally fallen down the stairs. Still, he was charged with murder before the month was up.

In an autopsy report released in 2002, lead pathologist Deborah Radisch concluded Kathleen's cause of death was due to "severe concussive injury of the brain caused by multiple blunt force impacts of the head. ... The number, severity, locations and orientation of these injuries are inconsistent with a fall down stairs; instead they are indicative of multiple impacts received as a result of beating."

The actual trial spanned three months in 2003, making it one of the longest trials ever in North Carolina. Prosecutors maintained Michael beat Kathleen to death, and the defense maintained she accidentally fell to her death down several stairs. Michael's sex life became public during the trial. For more facts about the case, venture a bit farther down. (But be aware there are spoilers for the show). 

Who are the main characters in HBO Max's The Staircase?

There are a lot of characters in this new version of The Staircase. If you've been trying to sort out who's who in Michael and Kathleen's big family, you're not alone.

Let's start with the kids. 

Sophie Turner and Odessa Young star as Margaret and Martha Ratliff, Michael Peterson's real-life adopted daughters, who took his side after Kathleen's death. Olivia DeJonge plays Caitlin Atwater, the real-life daughter of Kathleen Peterson and her former husband, Fred Atwater. Caitlin eventually gave evidence on the side of the prosecution.

Patrick Schwarzenegger and Dane DeHaan play Todd and Clayton Peterson, Michael's real-life sons from his first marriage to Patricia Peterson. 

Rosemarie DeWitt and Maria Dizzia play Kathleen's real-life sisters, Candace Zamperini and Lori Campbell, and Tim Guinee plays Michael's brother, Bill. 

And of course, Colin Firth is Michael, and Toni Collette is Kathleen on the show.

Who was Elizabeth 'Liz' Ratliff and how did she die?

At the end of episode 3 of HBO Max's The Staircase, we learn a bit more about Elizabeth "Liz" Ratliff's death. Here's what we know about the real-life events.

Elizabeth Ratliff, a family friend of Michael Peterson and his first wife, Patricia, died in 1985, just two years after her husband, George.

An autopsy concluded Elizabeth died from a cerebral hemorrhage. After Elizabeth's death, Michael and Patricia took in Ratliff's two daughters, Martha and Margaret. When Michael moved in with Kathleen in 1989, Martha and Margaret went with him.

Before the start of Michael's murder trial, it was revealed that Elizabeth Ratliff, like Kathleen, had been found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Prosecutors had Ratliff's body exhumed, and pathologist Deborah Radisch performed an autopsy in North Carolina (Radisch also conducted Kathleen's autopsy). She concluded Ratliff's cause of death was homicide.

Big spoilers: Where is Michael Peterson now?

In 2003, a jury found Michael Peterson guilty of murder after a three-month trial, and he received a sentence of life in prison. However, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson (who oversaw the original trial) granted Peterson a new trial in 2011 after he found blood splatter analyst Duane Deaver misled him and the jury. Peterson was released from prison on bond.

Peterson's official release came in 2017 after he entered an Alford plea, which allowed him to plead guilty while maintaining his innocence. Today, he continues to live in Durham, according to the Raleigh News and Observer