How Baby Reindeer challenges the way we think about trauma

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Richard Gadd’s series Baby Reindeer tackles subjects of stalking, abuse and trauma with an honesty that is rare in TV or film. Spoilers ahead.

NB: The following contains spoilers for Baby Reindeer.

Writer and actor Richard Gadd’s series, Baby Reindeer, encompasses several difficult subjects: stalking, sexual abuse, broken relationships. There’s also a single unifying theme beneath all of, though, which is the self-hatred that trauma leaves behind. It’s something the show lays bare over the course of its seven episodes – sometimes with humour, but always with the kind of unsparing honesty seldom seen in film or TV.

Gadd plays Donny Dunn, a fictionalised version of himself, a comedian in his 20s trying to get his career going in mid-2010s London. Everything about his life is a bit of a compromise: he lives in the spare room of a house which belongs to his ex-girlfriend’s mother; he performs stand-up gigs that often fall horrifically flat in front of threadbare audiences; and the little money he earns comes from his day job at a Camden pub.

Then along comes Martha (Jessica Gunning), a 40-something woman who claims to be a successful lawyer but clearly isn’t, given that she plops herself down at the bar in front of Donny but doesn’t have the money to buy a drink. Taking pity on her, Donny pours her a cup of tea and says it’s on the house – a spur-of-the-moment act of kindness, Gadd repeatedly reminds us, whose ripple effect will last for years afterwards.

Suddenly obsessed by Donny, Martha spends seemingly every waking moment sending him lewd, sometimes threatening emails. When Donny tries to distance himself from her, the messages turn darker, and her attention branches out to his trans lover, Teri (Nava Mau), his ex-girlfriend Keeley (Shalom Brune-Franklin), and his parents, who live in Fife.

As the obsession deepens and even threatens to turn violent, Donny finds himself distanced from his work colleagues and forced to move out of his lodgings, while his gigs are derailed by Martha’s deranged presence. Worse, the psychological toll forces Donny to confront the sexual abuse he received by one Darrien O’Connor (Tom Goodman-Hill), an older writer who once dangled promises of fame and success before drugging and assaulting him.

That Gadd would write and even act in scenes that reconstruct such personal, horrifying events (even in fictionalised form) is brave enough. But he also goes further than this: through the latter episodes, he readily admits that he’s a deeply damaged person himself. His behaviour causes distress to Teri, hastening the end of their fragile relationship. His fascination with Martha – both his initial flattery at her interest in him, and his later obsession with her constant voice mails – inadvertently brings harm to his family and friends.

Rather than revel in the moment when Martha is finally convicted for her behaviour, Gadd instead seeks to understand the parallels between himself and his stalker. Both are deeply compromised people, haunted by their pasts and filled with self-loathing. It’s this forgiveness and empathy for Martha that makes Baby Reindeer such moving TV: where most writers, given the platform to tell their story, would paint themselves as the hero and their stalker the villain, Gadd turns the mirror on himself.

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While Darrien is undoubtedly a monster – quite possibly the most odious specimen you’ll see in a TV show all year – Gadd, through Donny, asks himself why he kept going back to his flat. The depths of Martha’s obsession and rage are terrifying – Jessica Gunning is perfectly cast – but Gadd probes at the part his actions played in escalating it all. It’s a merciless self-exploration that is at times difficult to watch; there’s a feeling that even Donny’s singularly awkward comedy persona, all wigs and silly props, is based in some deep seated self-disgust and need for attention at any cost.

In the wake of Baby Reindeer’s unexpected success, some viewers have started poking around on the internet, trying to figure out who the real-life inspiration for the show’s characters might be. Gadd and his collaborators on the show have rightly asked for this to stop; aside from the legal and moral issues that come from poking into people’s private lives, throwing around names and accusations misses the point of the series itself.

Baby Reindeer isn’t about settling scores, but rather something far more difficult and emotionally honest. In all the guilt, shame and anger that comes from suffering through trauma, sometimes the hardest person to forgive is ourselves.

Baby Reindeer is streaming now on Netflix.

Here are some potentially useful links if you need them:

The National Stalking Helpline provides advice for victims: 0808 802 0300
Rape Crisis England & Wales
Samaritans: 116 123
We Are Survivors: 0161 236 2182, [email protected]

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