Richard Gadd in 'Baby Reindeer'

The Most Disturbing Part of ‘Baby Reindeer’ Isn’t What You Think

It’s true that Baby Reindeer contains many disturbing elements—including the entirety of episode 4, which I haven’t fully shaken a week after watching it. But the most unsettling aspect of the show isn’t something that is done to someone. It’s something that is said.

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Much has already been written about Baby Reindeer, Richard Gadd’s limited series based on his real-life experiences with a woman who stalked him. Created and written by Gadd, who also plays a fictionalized version of himself named Donny, the series is about so much more than his relationship with Martha (Jessica Dunning), a mentally ill woman who becomes obsessed with Donny after he extends her the slightest courtesy—a response that suggests, at least partially, that Martha isn’t accustomed to such passing moments of kindness. If you are or have ever been fat, you are no doubt keenly aware of the reason why Martha isn’t used to people treating her kindly, let alone flirting with her. It’s something implied but never stated explicitly, making it difficult for viewers who aren’t or have never been fat to observe what is profoundly obvious to those with lived experience.

Baby Reindeer is about more than Donny’s relationship with Martha—and it is a relationship: as we learn over the course of several episodes, Donny reciprocates Martha’s obsessive attention, sometimes unconsciously, other times in an effort to pacify her, but often times because Martha sees Donny the way he wants to be seen and treats him the way he wants to be treated. This “ideal” version of Donny is, like Martha’s fawning, built on a fiction. He can never exist because that version of Donny is not representative of who he truly is. Which brings us to all the other things that Baby Reindeer is about, and the real reason why the show feels so disturbing.

By the time we reach episode 4, Donny is actively making it more difficult to empathize with his actions. He lies to Teri (Nava Mau), the woman he’s dating, about his name and what he does for a living, ostensibly to protect her from Martha. The real reason is that Teri is a trans woman, and Donny is so consumed by shame and fear that he can’t bring himself to date her openly. At the end of the second episode, when Teri moves in for a kiss on the train, Donny doesn’t just decline—he steps out of the car entirely, leaving Teri on the train alone. He’s lucky that Teri is a therapist and a genuinely empathetic person (though maybe a little too forgiving) who accepts his efforts to set things right. When they go out for drinks after Martha disrupts another of Donny’s comedy sets, Teri is verbally and physically assaulted by Martha. Donny angrily defends Teri, but it feels inadequate at this point in the story, when we’re asking ourselves why he hasn’t done more about the Martha problem.

Episode 4 is Donny’s attempt to explain why, and it’s framed beautifully, taking us back to the opening scene of Baby Reindeer, when Donny goes to the police to report Martha and a cop asks why he didn’t say something sooner. This frustratingly familiar question is most often aimed at women who have been abused or assaulted; we never ask men to answer for their own abuse, perhaps because they so seldomly attempt to report it. Episode 4 will explain this, too, offering the closest thing Donny has to a Rosetta Stone for his actions, knowing that even the worst thing that ever happened to him still can’t adequately account for his every shortcoming.

While performing a series of shows during the Edinburgh Fringe festival, Donny met a successful TV writer named Darrien who offered to be his mentor—a guise for Darrien to systematically groom, drug, and rape Donny. It’s a transformative episode for both Donny and the viewer, and features the most breathtakingly genuine and visceral depiction of sexual abuse since The Tale, writer/director Jennifer Fox’s film based on her own experience of being groomed and abused by her mentors. The fourth episode of Baby Reindeer is absolutely devastating, and makes a strong case for reverting to a weekly episode release model; it’s truly deserving of more consideration than the binge-watching era allows.

But again, this—the disorienting shots of Donny high on MDMA and GHB, unable to move or react to the person violating his body—is not the most disturbing part of Baby Reindeer. It starts coming into focus in this episode, however, when Donny reveals that he didn’t leave the apartment after Darrien raped him, but instead lingered there for days. From here, Donny begins a series of increasingly uncomfortable admissions: after the rape, Donny began almost compulsively having casual sex with strangers, convinced that repeated intercourse would somehow diminish the impact and significance of the assault, because, he hypothesizes, “it’s happened a ton of times now, so what does it matter?” We learn also that Donny’s fear of being honest with Teri isn’t just because he’s afraid of dating a trans woman and what that might indicate about his sexuality, but that it’s intertwined with the deep-seated shame and guilt he feels about the sexual abuse he experienced, as well as his debilitating fear of being vulnerable. If he’s honest about his feelings for Teri, then she—and everyone else—will see him as he truly is. “… with every hand-hold or lingering stare came a crushing sense of anger and shame that I was falling in love with her, that I couldn’t hide in anonymity anymore,” Donny reflects in voice-over. “And, perhaps most bitter of all, that I might not feel this way if [Darrien] hadn’t done what he did.”

It’s a devastating admission that paves the way for Donny’s most heartbreaking confession, and the moment that illustrates why I think so many people are disturbed by Baby Reindeer. In episode 6, after an encounter with Martha ends with a glass bottle in his face, Donny takes the stage for the comedy finals. As his jokes bomb, he’s suddenly hit with a wave of understanding: Martha didn’t really think his routine was funny. She just liked him. What follows is a gripping monologue in which Donny tells an astonished crowd about Martha, about Darrien, about his guilt and shame and his need for validation. About Teri. “I met this trans woman,” he says. “You should see her. She’s the most beautiful person you’ve ever met, and I just couldn’t … love her.” As he chokes up, Donny explains that he knows now “why I messed it up in the way that I did”:

“It’s because I loved one thing in this world more than I did her, right? One thing. And do you know what that one thing was? Hating myself.”

It’s the most honest thing he’s ever said, and possibly the most honest thing any of us could say about ourselves and why we hurt people the way that we do. Even if Donny’s (and Gadd’s) perception of events is imperfect, and it inherently is, what ultimately matters—and what makes Baby Reindeer that much more rewarding to engage with as a work of art—is his radical honesty. We may not understand every decision he makes or identify with every experience, but I have a hard time conceiving of a person who hasn’t been consumed by their own insecurities at one point or another; a person incapable of empathizing with this naked kernel of truth. They surely exist, but I wouldn’t want to meet them.

Donny’s admission of self-hatred is jarring because it lacks the embellishment and self-mythologizing we’ve come to associate with stage confessionals, and which is apparent to some degree throughout Baby Reindeer. If it feels disturbing, it’s only because Donny is naming a feeling that most of us prefer to stifle; something we vigorously avoid acknowledging in our most vulnerable inner monologues, let alone speak aloud. It feels forbidden, especially in a world that demands resilience and expects us all to suffer silently, to effortlessly overcome—not only the worst things that have happened to us, but the daily indignities we have no choice but to endure. To admit that you—that I—have allowed insecurity to curdle into an imposing barrier, upon which every trauma is laid across like barbed wire that prevents us from freely giving and receiving love, from pursuing and experiencing joy, from acceptance, from living as we desire and deserve to live—yes, it is disturbing. We are surrounded by forces of oppression and systems that rely on our misery. To realize that we have contributed in some way to our own unhappiness, even and especially as a matter of inoculating ourselves from more pain, is devastating. But it’s also freeing.

By the end of Baby Reindeer, I can’t help but imagine how the story might be told from Martha’s perspective and what her cathartic moment of self-realization might look like. If we’re being radically honest, most of us have engaged in Martha-like behaviors at some point, brief episodes of obsessive mania brought on by heartbreak and a desperate need to reassert control. But most of us are also lucky in that we tend to move on. In the end, Donny ultimately has some privilege that Martha—or women like Martha—do not. He is a cisgender man who presents as conventional, thin and straight and sort of inconspicuous. He has friends and loved ones to support him and help pick up the pieces, giving him a place to stay and forgiving his trespasses. Donny also has a mental acuity that Martha apparently lacks, though we’ll never know it because this isn’t her story—which I don’t say to begrudge Gadd of his, nor do I want to diminish the profound courage it takes to be so achingly vulnerable. I just wonder if there are women like Martha out there who are ready to do the same, and more importantly, if anyone will let them.

(featured image: Netflix)


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Author
Britt Hayes
Britt Hayes (she/her) is an editor, writer, and recovering film critic with over a decade of experience. She has written for The A.V. Club, Birth.Movies.Death, and The Austin Chronicle, and is the former associate editor for ScreenCrush. Britt's work has also been published in Fangoria, TV Guide, and SXSWorld Magazine. She loves film, horror, exhaustively analyzing a theme, and casually dissociating. Her brain is a cursed tomb of pop culture knowledge.