Richard Gadd sitting on a bus in Baby Reindeer

‘Baby Reindeer’ Is a Riveting New Netflix Show That’s Both Painful to Watch and Deeply Funny

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch Netflix’s latest dramatic comedy series, but whatever it was, Baby Reindeer was not it.

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Based on the synopsis, I suppose I expected a run-of-the-mill story about a man who attracts a stalker while working in a London pub. Instead, I saw a man coming to grips with the traumas of his past, his increasing sexual confusion, and his overarching desire to be loved in spite of not loving himself.

It’s not an easy show to watch, yet at the same time, it’s impossible to stop watching once you’ve embarked on this journey of self-discovery alongside the show’s writer and star, Richard Gadd. There’s a reason why Baby Reindeer quickly ascended the Netflix charts (it’s currently sitting at number two on the streamer charts just days after its April 11, 2024 release): It’s a riveting yet oddly hilarious story that draws viewers in and refuses to let go. Even after the final credits roll, Baby Reindeer lingers on the mind.

**Content warning: this post contains discussion of sexual abuse and self-harm. Discussion of plot/spoilers also ahead**

Back in 2016, Richard Gadd was a struggling actor/comedian who gained attention when he won the Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Awards’ main prize for his one-man show, Monkey See Monkey Do. The performance was praised for its raw honesty and surprising humor, and Gadd did not hold back.

In the show he described, in excruciating detail, the experience of being groomed by a more successful television writer in 2012. Promising to help Gadd’s career, the man sexually assaulted Gadd countless times. Gadd coped with his trauma and ensuing lack of confidence by engaging in self-destructive behavior like drugs and reckless sexual behavior, destroying all of the solid relationships in his life in the process.

As he was struggling to get his life back on track, a woman named Martha came into the bar where Gadd worked. She was upset and said she had no money, so he gave her a cup of tea on the house. This small act of kindness was enough to captivate Martha, and soon she came into the bar to see Gadd every day. They developed a friendship of sorts, although it was clear to Gadd from the start that Martha rarely told the truth and was definitely harboring feelings for him. Yet instead of setting her straight and telling her he wasn’t interested, he played along and encouraged her behavior.

Over the next four years, Martha’s stalking went from mildly irritating to downright scary. One of her nicknames for him was “Baby Reindeer,” hence the name of the Netflix show, and she used it liberally while sending him hundreds of unhinged emails every day. By the time the stalking ordeal was over Martha had sent Gadd over 41,000 emails, left 350 hours of voicemail messages, and sent hundreds of social media messages and handwritten letters. Gadd laughed off the stalking at first, but when she started showing up at his comedy shows and harassing his loved ones, he finally went to the police—though that was far from the instant solution he may have hoped it would be.

After winning the Fringe Festival award, Gadd took Monkey See Monkey Do to the Soho Theatre in London’s West End. Eventually, Gadd adapted the story into the seven-episode miniseries Baby Reindeer for Netflix, directed by Weronika Tofilska (writer of Love Lies Bleeding) and Josephine Bornebusch (Bad Sisters).

Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning in Baby Reindeer
(Netflix)

Baby Reindeer transforms one man’s pain into art

In the series, Gadd plays Donny Dunn, a version of himself, and Jessica Gunning stars as Martha. Seven 30-minute-long episodes give Gadd more room to explore the many wrong turns that lead him to develop a bizarrely co-dependent relationship with his stalker. As much as he hates Martha’s attention, he also craves the validation it provides him. He basks in her compliments and often flirts with her, which only adds fuel to the fire. The writer uses Baby Reindeer to delve into exactly why he led her on in this way, along with how the stalking situation bled into his sexual confusion, shame, and self-hatred.

Watching Donny make these self-discoveries is harrowing. The scenes depicting his abuse are horrific. Seeing him ignore and mistreat his girlfriend, a trans woman named Teri (Nava Mau), is heartbreaking. And seeing the way the police disregard his claims and do nothing to help him is, unfortunately, all too familiar.

Gadd himself admits he played a large part in the way his stalking situation dragged on for years. In an interview with The Guardian, he described acting out what happened on stage. “I did loads of things wrong and made the situation worse,” he said. “I wasn’t a perfect person [back then], so there’s no point saying I was. And I know as I’m doing those sections that people are thinking I’m not a nice person—which make them difficult to perform.”

It’s true; Donny/Gadd doesn’t come off that well in Baby Reindeer. He makes poor decisions time and again, risking his own life and safety and hurting the people who care about him. I actually felt a bit sorry for Martha, because while she is clearly experiencing mental illness, Donny/Gadd’s subtle encouragement was deceptive and cruel. As a writer, making the audience question (and sometimes dislike) his character is exactly what Gadd hoped to accomplish.

In an interview with Netflix’s Tudum, he explained that he wanted to change the way viewers see stalking entirely. “Stalking on television tends to be very sexed up,” Gadd said. “It has a mystique [ … ] But stalking is a mental illness. I really wanted to show the layers of stalking with a human quality I hadn’t seen on television before. It’s a stalker story turned on its head. It takes a trope and turns it on its head.”

Spending these few hours with Donny, Martha, and Teri does not always feel great as a viewer, but there’s so much to unpack that it’s worth the second-hand pain. Donny is unable to free himself from his shame until he comes clean about what he’s been through, both to his parents and to the world at large. That’s why watching Baby Reindeer feels different. It’s not just a show, it’s a cathartic exercise in acknowledging our own failures, and ultimately accepting ourselves as we truly are.

All seven episodes of Baby Reindeer are currently streaming on Netflix.

(featured image: Netflix)


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Author
Beverly Jenkins
Beverly Jenkins (she/her) is a contributing writer for The Mary Sue. She writes about pop culture, entertainment, and web memes, and has published a book or a funny day-to-day desk calendar about web humor every year for a decade. When not writing, she's listening to audiobooks or watching streaming movies under a pile of her very loved (spoiled) pets.