In The Staircase Episode Six, “Red in Tooth and Claw,” directed by Leigh Janiak, Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) reckons with the fact that he will spend the rest of his life in prison. At the same time, Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche) investigates the wild theory that an owl killed Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette). “Red in Tooth and Claw” begins in 2017 with Michael preparing to take an Alford Plea with his defense lawyer David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg). Michael officially taking the Alford Plea will mean that he is admitting that the prosecutors have enough evidence to prove to a jury that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of murdering Kathleen while maintaining his innocence. Therefore, he will be a free man. However, the episode ends with Michael unsure if taking the Alford Plea is the right thing to do because he will be admitting some form of guilt over Kathleen’s death.
In 2007, Michael and Sophie wait patiently to hear back about his second appeal. Michael works out, reads books, writes romantic letters to Sophie, and spends time with her during prison visits. Sophie ends her marriage to her absentee husband. She flies back in forth between Paris and Durham. Sophie shares custody of her son with her ex, rents a home in Durham, edits a narrative feature and visits Michael in prison. Michael lashes out at David when his defense lawyer shares that his second appeal failed. The former author becomes a broken-down man when he realizes that he will be spending the rest of his life in prison.
Michael’s former neighbor Larry Pollard (Joel McKinnon Miller), tells Sophie that he thinks an owl killed Kathleen. At first, the French editor thinks that Larry is bonkers, but he convinces her that his theory is credible. Next, they dig into Kathleen’s case files and footage from the docu-series to find proof of the owl’s involvement. Eventually, Sophie and Larry find two feathers to go with the theory that the bird’s talons caused all the injuries on Kathleen’s face. Finally, the editor argues her case in front of the pathologist Dr. Deborah Radisch (Susan Pourfar), who agrees to check her body for signs of an owl attack. First, however, the doctor needs Caitlin Atwater’s (Olivia DeJonge) permission to exhume Kathleen’s body.
During Thanksgiving 2001, Kathleen takes Michael and Caitlin to her sister Candace Hunt Zamperini’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) home for the holidays. Kathleen and Candace fight the entire visit leading to a tense Thanksgiving. Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young) figures out she is queer during her Thanksgiving in San Francisco. Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner) spends the holiday in Rhode Island with her biological mother Elizabeth Ratliff’s sister Margaret Blair (Deena Wade), a.k.a. Aunt Blair, and her brother-in-law Steven Blair (James Healy Jr). Margaret calls Martha to tell her some upsetting news that she learned from Aunt Blair, but her younger sister is so joyful over the phone that she can’t break the news.
On Thanksgiving 2001, Margaret learns something that destroys the way she sees her family. Margaret and Aunt Blair sit at the dining room table looking over old family photographs while Uncle Steven watches football in the living room. The two women share some smiles while looking at photos of Elizabeth Ratliff and discussing her life. Aunt Blair shows Margaret a picture of her and Martha when they were very little. The sisters were hanging out at the beach with her and Uncle Steven. Aunt Blair tells her the photograph was taken when the sisters spent the whole summer in Rhode Island. Margaret questions why her father (Michael) would send her and Martha to spend three entire months with her aunt. Aunt Blair checks to make sure Uncle Steven is focused on his game, then blows up her niece’s world.
Aunt Blair explains that Michael’s ex-wife Patty Peterson (Trini Alvarado) couldn’t handle raising her sons and the Ratliff sisters. As a result, Patty handed custody of the girls over to her and Uncle Steven. Margaret is shocked since nobody told her anything about living with her aunt. Aunt Blair says that Michael took the girls back because he didn’t like that they were being raised religiously. The eldest Ratliff sister scoffs, resting her head in her hands. Four years later, Michael wanted to return Martha to Aunt Blair because of her behavioral issues. Aunt Blair tells Margaret that he wished to keep custody of her, essentially splitting the two sisters up. However, she refused to only take in Martha. Margaret can’t believe that her father wanted to split the two of them up. Tears well up in her eyes, realizing that Michael’s loving parent routine isn’t real.
Why did Margaret work so hard to help create Michael’s defense when she knows he is a liar? Perhaps the eldest Ratliff still feels loyal to her father because he ended up keeping the sisters together. On the other hand, maybe Margaret supported Michael to keep Martha from knowing the truth. She could also believe that Michael isn’t capable of murder even if he manipulates people.
Sophie hangs all her hope of living happily ever after with Michael in Paris onto the Owl Theory. She spends “Red in Tooth and Claw” researching case files and footage to find proof that an owl killed Kathleen. Sophie feels so excited when the pathologist agrees to examine Kathleen’s body for signs of an owl attack but instantly nervous when Dr. Radisch explains that she needs permission to exhume the body. The phone call with Caitlin to gain that permission goes as well as can be expected.
Caitlin is typing away on her laptop in the dark when her cellphone starts to buzz. She answers the flip phone. Sophie asks if it’s Caitlin Atwater, and the younger woman confirms her identity. The French editor introduces herself, then explains she thinks that the defense’s theory about how Kathleen died is incorrect. Sophie sits at her dining room table in Durham. The French editor’s half-put-together puzzle is sprawled on the table in front of her. Caitlin doesn’t understand what Sophie is trying to say. She doesn’t even know that the editor worked on The Staircase.
Sophie asks if they can meet up in person. She can’t get her thoughts out. Maybe she realizes that she shouldn’t be asking Caitlin to exhume her mother’s body. Caitlin asks Sophie to tell her everything over the phone because she is too busy to meet. The French editor explains she has a theory that could answer all the questions about what happened “that night.” Then there is a reenactment of the owl attack on the Peterson’s lawn and Kathleen dying alone on the staircase.
The French editor cries as she tells Caitlin they need to exhume Kathleen’s body to confirm the Owl Theory. Sophie asks for the daughter’s permission to find that evidence. Caitlin yells at Sophie about why she would ask her to dig up her mother’s grave. The editor begs Caitlin for a chance to prove Michael’s innocence. The daughter shouts that she sleeps well at night, knowing that Michael will die in prison. She angrily hangs up the phone. Sophie holds back tears as she hangs up her phone. She destroys the half-put-together puzzle, frustrated that her last hope of being with Michael is gone. Without the body, the pathologist can’t change Kathleen’s cause of the death because she can’t be sure that an owl killed Michael’s late wife. Sophie’s love will be trapped in prison forever.
Will Michael officially take the Alford Plea, or will he fight to prove his innocence? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.