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Christine LenahanMay 31, 2024
Jessica Gunning and Richard Gadd in Baby Reindeer (2024) Photo via Netflix.  

This review contains some spoilers for “Baby Reindeer.”

“I had a serial stalker, stalking me,” says the voiceover of Donny Dunn, a floundering comedian, London barman and the title character in the Netflix limited series “Baby Reindeer.”

In what seems to be a moment of clarity, Donny (played by Richard Gadd) repeats the sentence, this time faster. “I had a serial stalker stalking me.” 

A few weeks before, a woman named Martha (Jessica Gunning) walked into the pub where Donny works. Sitting alone and teary-eyed at the bar, she tells Donny that she would like to buy a drink if only she could afford it. (This despite her later claiming to be a successful “lawyer” to Britain’s high-profile politicians.) Donny offers her a cup of tea on the house. Martha is quickly charmed by Donny’s kindness toward her. She returns to the bar daily, paying him compliments—some charming (insisting he pays a “man tax” for his sharp jawline), others crude (innuendos abound throughout the series).

In the closing sequence of the first episode, as Donny sits at his laptop screen, a Facebook friend request is pending from Martha. He does a quick online search that reveals Martha’s criminal history: She stalked a former coworker and harassed his child. Martha has been relentlessly leaving Donny voicemails and emails, and in each one affectionately calls him Baby Reindeer. There is an emptiness behind Donny’s eyes as he stares into the screen. His voiceover says it a third time, but this time his tone changes: “I had a serial stalker, stalking me.”

He accepts Martha’s friend request.

Why? Why has Donny let Martha follow him on Facebook? Why is he flattered by her compliments and is insincerely returning them to her? Why has he entered into the world of this disturbed woman?

The show’s attempt to answer why has led to the immense success of “Baby Reindeer,” which premiered on April 11. The series has reached over 7.4 million views this week alone according to Netflix. It spent six weeks as the number one, most-viewed show on Netflix.

The show at its core is a stalker drama with a voyeuristic appeal. Because Donny’s first-person narration anchors the show, there is an immediate intimacy with the characters that seems to be broken only by finishing an episode and shutting your laptop. But viewers cannot simply be passive observers of Donny’s twisted world, believing that the discomfort of watching the drama unfold on screen can be soothed by simply not watching. That is not the connection “Baby Reindeer” seeks to establish with its audience. Instead, the show haunts the viewer long after the credits roll. 

This effect hinges on Richard Gadd’s performance, which is so raw and authentic that you wonder how he achieved such an honest portrayal. Then you remember the title card in the first episode: “This is a true story.” You remember that Gadd is recounting the events of his own life. 

The seven-part series takes its name and expands upon Gadd’s one-man theater performance, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019. “Baby Reindeer” debuted in London’s West End in 2020 and garnered critical acclaim, going on to win an Olivier Award that year. Four years later (like the solo show “Fleabag”), it completed the journey from Edinburgh to television. 

“Baby Reindeer” is a dark and intricate autobiographical portrayal of Gadd’s real-life experience as he was stalked by a woman for two years, dissecting his psychological state through the character of Donny, a proxy for Gadd’s past life. 

“Baby Reindeer” forthrightly dives into a victim’s psyche but without making a victim of the character. Instead, Donny thoughtfully, though critically, analyzes himself. His self-reflection aims to answer the question so often on the viewer’s lips as we watch his relationship with Martha unfurl: “Why did he just do that?”

But there is a dualism to this dive: Yes, you feel bad for Donny. It would be impossible not to. But you also, despite the apparent impossibility, feel bad for Martha. The show’s modus operandi is Donny’s empathic lens, which is established in the first scene of the first episode. As Donny slides the teacup across the bar and meets Martha’s gaze, his narrative voice reminds us: “I felt bad for her. That’s the first thing I felt.” But in establishing this sense of empathy, there is another meaning for the viewer. Donny is not excusing his behavior. Instead, it is as if he is saying, “I’m human, wouldn’t you do the same?”

As Martha infiltrates Donny’s life—mapping his walk home, befriending his landlady, harassing his parents and his girlfriend—the audience meets his powerlessness and her psychosis with a sense of pity for these two profoundly broken people. 

“Baby Reindeer” showcases a cycle of abuse and self-destruction in slow-motion storytelling. As more details of Donny’s past are uncovered, the audience knows, because Donny’s voiceover reminds us, that just as things seem to be going well, the past will soon envelop the present. As Martha’s antics seemingly reach their peak, Donny lashes out at her, sending her scampering away. But Donny’s life is empty without the drama of Martha, and when her obsession with him wanes, his fascination with her blooms.

“There was something awful but so thrilling about doing something that would devastate my life even further,” Donny says, as he indulges his interest in Martha once more. He wants to understand her and unwittingly feeds off the attention she so eagerly gives him.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the show, Donny speaks about his girlfriend, Teri (Nava Mau), who is transgender. He is both in love with Teri and embarrassed to be with her in public. We watch as the two fall in and out of love amid the terrifying and seemingly omnipotent presence of Martha. Their relationship failed because, Donny reveals in a heartbreaking, harrowing line, “I hated myself so much more than I loved her. And I loved her so much.”
 
This cycle reaches a fever pitch in Episode 6, where Donny competes in a stand-up comedy competition. As his corny “anti-comedy” jokes bomb, Donny begins a cathartic confession, telling the crowd about Darrien O’Connor (Tom Goodman-Hill), an industry guru who, as revealed in an early episode, repeatedly drugged and raped him years prior as Donny was trying to emerge in the comedy scene. 

His grooming and eventual sexual assault by a man he considered his mentor led to a spiral of self-hate and sexual and ethical confusion that closed Donny off to relationships. It eventually allowed him to indulge his stalker, who, as he says, “saw [him] as he wanted to be seen.”

Donny is critical of his new turmoil with Martha, understanding that he should have sought help from family or reported Martha to the police sooner. He never absolves himself from his inaction but instead contextualizes it. How could he report a mentally unstable woman but not have reported Darrien for grooming and abusing him many times? It is here that Donny begins to see himself as a victim, not in the sense that he pities himself, but in an honest portrayal of a man trying to understand himself after being assaulted. 

In the aftermath of his onstage confession about Darrien’s abuse, Donny becomes famous when a video of the show goes viral on YouTube. This is much to Martha’s chagrin. She continues to berate him by voicemail until she threatens to hurt him and his family, enough evidence to have her sentenced and jailed.

It seems as though Donny has finally broken the cycle—until he hasn’t. Donny’s obsession blooms once more. He goes back and pores over all of Martha’s emails and texts. He runs to the soundtrack of her voicemails, some complimentary and others belittling. He storyboards their entire relationship on his bedroom walls, trying to understand who she was, why she tormented him and why he was so willing to let her do that. 

A carefully placed title card in each episode’s opening credits reads “created & written by Richard Gadd.” Gadd has taken ownership of the events of his life. He is honoring his promise, as he says through his character Donny, not to let his abuser “win.” Gadd does not want to surrender to a hollowed life defined by what has happened to him. Instead, he chooses to share his story. 

Gadd’s courage in creating the show and owning his past has come at a cost, however. After the series premiered on Netflix, internet sleuths have tried to uncover the real-life Martha, and have even falsely accused one of Gadd’s former co-workers as the industry executive who abused him. “Please don’t speculate on who any of the real-life people could be,” Gadd posted in an Instagram story. “That’s not the point of our show.” 

“Baby Reindeer” is a difficult show to watch, but not because of anything particularly violent or graphic, aside from the blurry, drug-hued scenes of assault that haunt Episode 4. It is difficult to watch if you are a human being who has ever wanted to be truly understood. It is difficult to watch if you have ever felt that you cannot measure up, have felt lonely or confused, or wanted someone to believe in you.

“Baby Reindeer” is now streaming on Netflix.

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