Review: Inside No.9 – Season 7, Episode 6 – “Wise Owl”

Spoilers ahead for this finale review of Inside No.9. The final episode of Series 7 takes inspiration from public information films, or PIFs for short. For those not old enough to remember – these were a series of short films commissioned by the government designed to inform the public on a variety of issues from welfare, education, health, and human rights. 

The episode opens with a public information film from a beloved, fictionalised cartoon character Wise Owl – to which the episode owes its title. The owl is fond of its catchphrase Twit You, as it warns two children about the dangers of climbing an electricity pylon to recover a flown-away kite.

The film is the first of many animated segments we’ll see throughout the story. Right after, we meet Ronnie (Reece Shearsmith). Ronnie and his sister Joanne are the two children featured in the films. Ronnie is a reclusive grown man living in a house with an outdated seventies decor. Despite being physically alone, Ronnie feels the watchful eyes of preserved animals wherever he goes. We assume Ronnie makes a living as a taxidermist. However, it’s never safe to assume anything so early into an episode of Inside No. 9. 

Derek - Inside No.9.
Derek – Inside No.9. (Pic: BBC).

Ronnie sleeps on the living room floor, takes baths in his clothes, and receives Wise Owl fan mail. He also hears Wise Owl’s infamous catchphrase cut through the static on the radio, right before the doorbell rings. We meet Derek Blenkin (Steve Pemberton), who asks if Ronnie can treat a dead rabbit belonging to Blenkin’s daughter. She accidentally fed it chocolate buttons, and it ended badly. The rabbit is called Ferrari.

Resistant to help, Ronnie tells Blenkin that he should avoid speaking to strangers. It confuses Pemberton but fails to deter him – and eventually Ronnie takes the rabbit. Following this, there’s another public information film of Ronnie on a beach and Wise Owl’s warning of speaking to strangers, echoing his remarks to Blenkin. 

Ronnie continues to be plagued by the sound of fluttering wings and an owl feather in the bath. In another film, on their mother’s birthday, Joanne takes a box of matches to light a cake – and as we return to Ronnie in the bathroom, a balloon floats up behind him in the reflection of the mirror – and he reveals a burn scar behind his ear. The episode provides further insights into Ronnie’s past through a torn photograph of his sister Joanne and a FaceTime call with Dinah, his mother (Georgie Glenn). The call establishes the absence of Ronnie’s father, the fact Ronnie has received psychiatric care, and a doctor has encouraged Ronnie to attend Joanne’s birthday for the first time in three years.

Ronnie - Inside No.9.
Ronnie – Inside No.9. (Pic: BBC).

Another cartoon depicts Ronnie at the hospital after an accident on Joanne’s birthday that leaves Dinah distraught. A later film reveals that a fire destroyed the house, killing Joanne. She had intended to use the matches to light her birthday cake – with disastrous consequences. A cartoon shows the Wise Owl floating into a tree branch to watch the house burn as Joanne screams inside. Suddenly these innocent, beautifully animated public information films steer the episode in an uncomfortably sinister direction.

In the middle of the night, Ronnie has a nightmare of a naked man wearing an owl costume. The next day, he attends to the rabbit and does a botched job preserving the poor bunny. It’s fair to say that when Pemberton’s Derek Blenkin returns, having decided against taxidermy, he’s less than pleased to find a malformed rabbit in its box. He’s also displeased to learn that Ronnie is not the man who owns the house – whose actually around the age of seventy. 

The episode enters its final act and introduces Wilf (Ron Cook). Wilf finds Ronnie perched on the edge of the bathtub. Wilf is a heavy drinker, and there’s no love lost between him and Ronnie. Wilf has returned from a 70s weekend at a Toy Museum in Pickering.  After a successful career as the creator of Wise Owl, Wilf moved on to theatre work before switching it out for a career in taxidermy.

The Wise Owl - Inside No.9.
The Wise Owl – Inside No.9. (Pic: BBC).

Wilf asks Ronnie if he’d get up to date with the course of his career, alluding to the idea that Ronnie mightn’t have had the chance in a psychiatric hospital. However, everything that came before is a far different picture from what comes after. Relationships in the family are fraught – Joanne’s death has had a lasting, devastating impact on the family. Wilf tells his son that he doesn’t blame him for the fire that killed Joanne, calling it an accident – imploring him not to feel guilty. At this point, there’s another cartoon and the plot twist. Ronnie’s father is the Wise Owl, slumped drunk in an armchair as Joanne prepares to light the candles on her birthday cake.

Despite Ronnie’s protests, a drunk Wilf allows Joanne to light the candles on her cake and make a birthday wish before taking Ronnie upstairs to his room. As Wilf says – the Wise Owl knows best. As we switch out of the cartoon, Ronnie leads his father upstairs at knifepoint into his childhood room, where Wilf had abused Ronnie on the night of the fire. Historically, Wilf climbed in through a window after returning from the pub and saved Ronnie from the fire. In reality, Wilf had lied to protect his career and cover up the abuse, allowing Ronnie to take the blame for the accident. Ronnie attempts to kill his father with the knife – instead plunging it against the pillows of his bed.

While it’d have arguably been a satisfying twist to have Ronnie kill Wilf, the episode ends on a non-violent note. Ronnie packs his bags and prepares to expose Wilf to his family for his disturbing crimes. In a desperate bid to take control of the situation, Wilf chillingly impersonates the Wise Owl that Ronnie must always obey the once-adored cartoon character. But Ronnie leaves regardless – breaking years of manipulation at the hands of his father and sets off.

Wilf - Inside No.9.
Wilf – Inside No.9. (Pic: BBC).

The last animation depicts Ronnie growing up from a child to a man with a bag on his back while the Wise Owl flies after him, repeating its dreadful catchphrase, twit you. In response, Shearsmith gives the perfect line. Get stuffed. There’s no better way to end an episode – and on that note, the seventh series. Fear not, the BBC has confirmed that Inside No.9 will be renewed for two more series – taking the anthology show up to Series 9. 

“Wise Owl” delivers, arguably, one of Inside No.9’s most disturbing twists to date – faintly echoing the plot twist from the show’s pilot “Sardines.” It’s an uncomfortably wicked episode as the inevitable plot twist rears its ugly head – much like the snuff film director’s cut twist from “The Devil Of Christmas.” The throwbacks to public information films, the scary Bungle and Jeff Holland can also be appreciated by those old enough to remember them. 

Series 7 has been a mixed series of highs and lows, but “Wise Owl” ends the series on a high note and sits among the greats of the anthology series. For more Inside No.9 content, take a look at last week’s review for “A Random Act Of Kindness”. What did you think of Inside No.9? Give us your thoughts in the comment section below!

Matt Bailey

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