The Staircase

Sky’s The Staircase episode 6 review: the Colin Firth drama confronts one of the wildest theories in true crime

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The sixth episode of The Staircase is one of the most anticipated because it finally deals with a perplexing theory about what caused Kathleen Peterson’s mysterious death. 

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the sixth episode of Sky’s The Staircase.

With only two more episodes left of The Staircase, we knew it was only a matter of time before one of the more intriguing sides of the case unraveled.

After last week’s episode aptly underlined the difference between chronicling true crime cases in a documentary versus a drama, we were even more intrigued to see how more recent events around the Peterson case would unfold in the Sky series.

Whether you’re familiar with the case of Kathleen Peterson or not, this episode confronts one of the theories of her death in such a captivating way, you’re left with no other option than to seriously consider it.

The “owl theory” sounds entirely ludicrous when you first hear it but, like in the Netflix documentary, once the facts are laid out before you, the drama does a good job of convincing you of its strengths. To put it plainly, the theory clears up a lot of confusion and answers several unresolved questions. 

The Staircase
Juliette Binoche and Joel McKinnon star as Sophie Brunet and Larry Pollard in Sky's The Staircase.

In the sixth episode of the Sky drama – entitled Red In Tooth And Claw – we see Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche) try to navigate life between Paris and the US, which ultimately leads her to move to Durham, North Carolina, to be closer to Michael (Colin Firth).

Michael’s second appeal is rejected, his lawyer is resolved to admitting defeat and as we get a glimpse of Michael’s children’s lives, we see that Kathleen’s death and Michael’s incarceration have only brought destruction and instability to a once stable family unit.

Although others have dismissed Michael’s case, Sophie remains convinced there’s more to it and decides to listen to Larry Pollard (Joel McKinnon), the Peterson’s next-door neighbour and a former lawyer.

For a long time, the only means of death that were considered were murder or that Kathleen accidentally stumbled on the stairs. But Pollard’s theory claims that a barred owl attacked Kathleen (Toni Collette), which caused major head injuries and led to her falling down the staircase.

Up until this point in the drama, we only catch glimpses of Pollard as the somewhat nosy neighbour. But in this episode, he reveals himself to be a true crime sleuth with an upstairs office dedicated to stuffed owls, case files and a foam mannequin head poised to demonstrate his theory. 

The Staircase
Toni Collette stars as Kathleen Peterson in Sky's The Staircase.

He explains how the shape of the lacerations on Kathleen’s head – which could never be explained by the defence or prosecution – resemble the same shape of an owl’s talons.

He brings out newspaper clippings which chronicle the fact that the barred owl – a common species in Durham – was known to attack humans, especially during their mating season. He also shows Sophie an image of the Peterson house after that fateful night and how the image shows that their Christmas decorations were put up on that very night.

It’s enough to pique Sophie’s interest and going to the police station together to look over the six-year-old evidence, they are surprised to find microscopic traces of feathers laced in Kathleen’s hair that were found in her hand. It suggests she was trying to swot the owl away from her head, pulling out clumps of her own hair in the process.

It’s almost too absurd to believe but, as is the fashion of the Sky drama, the most chilling parts of the episodes came when these theories played out on the screen for us to see. So far in the series, we’ve seen variations of that 2001 night; we’ve seen Kathleen fall down the stairs and choke on her own blood, we’ve also seen Michael bludgeon her to death. Now, we see Kathleen quietly put her Christmas decorations out and an owl swoop down to attack her. 

The Staircase
Episode six of Sky's The Staircase confronts the "owl theory" and it's not to be missed.

While it could have been an odd, CGI-heavy moment to include in the drama, The Staircase actually pulls off the scene well – and trust us, the resounding silence of it all will leave you with goosebumps.

As Kathleen stumbles into her home following the owl attack, she closes the front door, calling for Michael. But on her way up the stairs, she falls back and passes out.

In the Netflix documentary, the owl theory was only given a passing moment on account of director Jean-Xavier De Lestrade’s intention for the documentary to focus solely on the US justice system. But even so, he doesn’t dismiss its relevance and plausibility.

This episode does a good job of bringing the theory to a wider stage and it doesn’t fail in convincing the viewer of just how neatly it could tie up all the questions that have been brewing in our minds over these past five episodes. It’s not to say it’s correct, just that it will leave you contemplating a new segment of this mystery.

While episode six deals with wider issues within the family – alcoholism, lies, stress and financial burdenThe Staircase once again shows how a series fuelled by flashbacks and flitting timelines can so easily hook us in. Whatever your suspicions may be around the case, there’s no denying that this episode will definitely leave you with some conflicting emotions.

Episode 6 of The Staircase airs tonight at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and is now available to watch on streaming service NOW with the previous episodes. 

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Images: HBO

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