Inside No. 9 S7E6: Wise Owl

by thethreepennyguignol

Wise Owl is certainly an interesting point to leave this season on.

In some ways, I think, it’s a pretty good reflection of the first episode of the series, Merrily, Merrily: that invocation of nostalgia, of the ways time can cloud memory, of the urge to preserve things we love and loose. Except this particular episode does it with a whole heap more horror and a bunch of badly-taxidermied animals to boot.

From the off, this episode has the same sort of discomforting aura as something like Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared: the invocation of childhood media stylings designed to draw you into a sense of safety before shattering it with deliberate cruelty and abject darkness. And God, it’s so effective: Reece Shearsmith is the star of the show here, the diminutive Ronnie, son of the creator of a collection of safety videos for children under the guise of the cartoon character Wise Owl, floating around his dad’s house like a ghost as he tries to come to terms with the tragic loss of his sister as a child.

I’ll be honest, Wise Owl hits a lot of stuff in my small brain that makes my stomach feel like it’s curdling: childhood cartoons turned into foreboding horror, child sexual abuse, suicide. There’s also a lot of the duo’s textbook black comedy here, from an absurdly horrible stuffed rabbit to a sodden Shearsmith trudging down the stairs after being interrupted in the middle of a suicide attempt. In terms of tone, it’s hard to think of a more quintessential Inside No. 9 episode than this. It also, in a bizarre twist of television, features an almost exact replica of a peeled cat ready for taxidermy-ing that I saw once in a natural history museum as a childhood before promptly fainting in absolute terror into my dad’s arms, so, you know, points for specificity.

But more than just stepping directly into my living room to make my night worse, this episode is a masterful balance of the truth and the fiction we use to cope with it. Using the lens of nostalgia, it approaches one specific tragedy from various perspectives: Ronnie navigates the death of his sister, for which he was blamed, through increasingly twisted renditions of the Wise Owl animations (beautifully realized by Sam O’Leary) his father created, blurring the lines between fiction and reality in much the same way that his father’s rendition of the accident has forced Ronnie to do.

After his father arrives back on the scene, the actual truth of the matter starts to become clearer – as well as the fictions Ronnie’s father has told himself about his treatment of his children to cope with what he did to them. There’s no sympathy for this man, but there is a fascinating probe into how he’s spun his actions to turn them into something he can live with – it reminds me a lot of the tremendous British horror movie Possum, which is nothing but a compliment because that film is up there with the very best of them. To see a survivor of abuse and a perpetrator spinning their own stories in an attempt to cope with what they’ve done and what they’ve endured makes for a really great bit of narrative tension, and a satisfying one that closes out with Ronnie finally refusing to obscure the truth any longer. Throw in a quick cameo from Steve Pemberton as a father looking to hide the death of his daughter’s rabbit from her, and you’ve got a whole episode cleverly exploring the stories parents and children come up with to make it through family life.

Wise Owl is a very dark but not entirely downbeat episode to end the series on, and it feels like a perfect bookend when compared with the equally-excellent season opener, Merrily, Merrily. It’s a reminder of the tone-juggling and media literacy that makes Inside No. 9 so eminently watchable, and it’s a pretty brilliant promise of another season to come, if they can keep creating at this level next year, too.

Thank you so much for joining me on this little reviewing journey! I really writing love these reviews because the Inside No. 9 community has always been so welcoming and thoughtful in their responses and comments, and I’m already looking forward to doing it all again next year.

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(header image via BBC)