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Baby Reindeer – The Gut-Punching True Story

Interior of a Westminster pub.
Credit - Thomas Dahlstrøm Nielsen

Staff Writer Leah Napier-Raikes explains the success of ‘Baby Reindeer’, a gripping narrative about stalking and abuse.

Since its debut on April 11th, ‘Baby Reindeer,’ the gripping British drama-thriller on Netflix, has climbed to the No. 1 spot on the streaming platform in both the UK and the US. The programme boasts a seldom seen 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 

The 7-episode series follows ‘Donny Dunn,’ a bartender and failing comedian as he takes pity on a middle-aged woman at his London pub. Visibly distressed and lonely, ‘Martha’ —portrayed by the phenomenal Jessica Gunning—self-styles as a high-ranked lawyer, working with government officials and celebrities, while claiming to not have the funds for a cup of tea. 

This exchange evolves into routine: Martha appears at Dunn’s workplace and lavishes him with compliments and attention, Dunn reciprocates by offering her a free Diet Coke and occasional insincere reciprocal flirtation each visit. What appears a lighthearted, friendly gesture, with an ironic undertone from Dunn, escalates when Martha accesses Dunn’s email address and proceeds to bombard him with abhorrent emails daily.

This begins the real story of stalking and abuse endured by Richard Gadd, the actor portraying Donny Dunn and the writer of the show. As Gadd states in the “Making Of”, his story culminated through “41,071 emails, 350 hours of voicemail, 744 tweets, 46 Facebook messages, four fake Facebook accounts, 106 pages of letters, and one cup of tea.” 

The Grey Areas of Victimhood

Stalking is familiar theme for many viewers: Netflix, for example, offers a variety of TV series on the subject, including popular titles such as ‘You’ or ‘Pretty Little Liars’. Movies and TV shows centered around the theme of stalking typically present such topics in in a heightened, highly fictionalised manner, often tinged with a dark, sexual undertone.

‘Baby Reindeer’, however, truly sets itself apart from the precedent. Drawing heavily on Richard Gadd’s personal ordeal with a stalker, this production rejects the common narrative of a blatant, unwavering, good-versus-bad binary between stalker and stalked. Instead, Gadd elevates the gripping account with a raw look into his own behaviours during this traumatic phase of his life, sincerely narrating through his character ‘Donny’ in ways which mirror our apprehensions and critiques of his choices as the audience watching these events unfold.

Throughout this messy ordeal, a witty, dry self-awareness underscores Donny’s unrelenting misfortune and cuts through the show’s tension. The comedic elements in the show notably enhance the overall viewing experience, especially considering that its heavy and complex themes can become difficult to get through at times.

A central source of this humorous self-reflection is Dunn’s consistent downplaying of the severity of the threat posed by the obsessive woman when reporting to the authorities. This shortcoming from Dunn, as he narrates, is not entirely unintentional. As the dynamic between Donny and his stalker evolves, the audience, frustrated, sees how despite Martha’s suffocating presence over time, Dunn fails time and time again to cleanse her from his life.

This exploration of the flawed human experience is what makes ‘Baby Reindeer’ such a gut-punching, well-portrayed examination of victimhood. This show directly deconstructs the “perfect victim” archetype–Dunn is not flawless, blameless, or devoid of personal agency. Instead we see through Donny’s eyes why so many victims refuse to sever ties with their abusers or report them to authorities.

‘Baby Reindeer’ argues that Donny may have enabled the continuation of much of his abuse because of his deep desire to feel validated. This bold argument on a distinctly gutty topic elevates the complexity of the show. While Gadd admittedly had no distinct, overarching message to present through the telling of his stalking experience, his story still touches on various societal issues that he came face-to-face with during his experiences.

A True Story for Many

A main talking point around ‘Baby Reindeer’ revolves around how real stalking cases are handled, and how incompetent the police can be in these instances. A 2009 report reveals that a staggering 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men will experience staking in their lifetime. Moreover, approximately half of stalkers persist despite police warnings, which in some instances are less effective than taking no action at all. This certainly rings true for the Netflix drama.

The police’s mishandling in Donny’s case highlights another significant theme in ‘Baby Reindeer’ —male victimhood. Despite Martha’s documented history of violence and harassment, law enforcement consistently downplays the severity of Donny’s situation, likely due to the gender dynamics involved. While statistics indicate a higher prevalence of stalking and abuse among women, it’s crucial to recognise that male victims exist as well. Many men, like Donny, grapple with feelings of emasculation and fear when disclosing their experiences of abuse, contributing to the complexities explored in the series.

While male victimhood is a central theme in the show, it becomes evident while watching that there isn’t a singular, pivotal message being conveyed. Although some scenes specifically speak to male victims, the show also sheds light on universal truths experienced by individuals of any demographic, such as the complex dynamics of returning to abusers. Statistics show that stalking victims on average do not report until the 100th incident, revealing this as a common challenge faced by victims, irrespective of gender.

These complex themes allow the audience to examine Dunn’s challenges with honesty and depth, and make the show such a hard-hitter. ‘Baby Reindeer’ refrains from prescribing emotions or moral judgments. Instead, it presents Gadd’s own experiences with nuanced authenticity and succeeds in commanding empathy from its audience.

The confrontation scene, in which Dunn challenges Martha over her weeks of waiting at his bus stop, is perhaps the most cutting scene in the show. Martha’s relentless waiting leaves her near-catatonic, and so Dunn takes her back to her flat. There, the audience is confronted with the bleak reality of Martha’s life: her apartment is overflowing with unwashed dishes and clutter, while her Bachelor of Law degree is displayed proudly on the fridge. The visual representation of her decayed potential is harrowing. Donny becomes empathetic towards Martha as a victim to her own self-neglect, and Dunn finally understands why she lives vicariously through her obsession with him. Conversely, Dunn clings to her treatment as it provides him with the validation and thrill in his life he longs for.

A New Era for Netflix?

Needless to say, the celebration of ‘Baby Reindeer’ is beyond well-deserved. The success of the brave and controversial show on such a niche topic despite its little advertising demonstrates how far exceptional writing and storytelling goes when dealing with such a compelling topic.

As streaming services dominate the viewing landscape, there’s a worry that the services prioritise quantity over quality: a flood of meaningless content therefore dilutes the impact of truly exceptional productions. Hopefully, the success of ‘Baby Reindeer’ encourages Netflix and other streaming services to invest in more original, honest stories which challenge the popular, ‘safe’ narratives that are quickly becoming stale. I, and other viewers, hope to see more shows which resonate with viewers as much as this one.

‘Baby Reindeer’ can be found on Netflix in the UK.

 

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