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‘Baby Reindeer’ is a tough and tremendous watch

‘Baby Reindeer’, created by Richard Gadd, is a personal confession by the author that works frighteningly well as a true-crime series

Richard Gadd in 'Baby Reindeer'
Richard Gadd in 'Baby Reindeer'

"It’s been a very sad year,” says the comedian Pete Davidson in his Netflix special Turbo Fonzarelli. “I lost my stalker.” Released a few months ago, it’s a sharply written and self-effacing special, the highlight being an extended riff on Davidson and someone obsessed with him. “It’s weird when you get a stalker, ‘cause there’s two parts of your brain… ‘Oh my God, this is so weird and scary’, but then there’s the other part of your brain, ‘I guess I’m doing well’.” Davidson describes his stalker threat at length, referring to her sending him dozens of soiled undergarments as “a crime of passion”, detailing the genuine threat of her visiting the comedian’s mother, which finally led to him getting a restraining order against her.

Then something strange happened. Davidson started missing his stalker. “So I made a Finsta,” he says, “and I started stalking her a little bit. I found her. She’s doing well… Y’know, ‘cause she’s a stalker, you don’t just stop stalking, right? You pick someone else, I assume, right? I was going through her Instagram, and I found out she’s a Jack Harlow fan now. And I like Jack, but that, that fucking hurt.”

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This codependent relationship of having—and needing—a stalker is explored more seriously and unsparingly in Netflix’s new smash hit Baby Reindeer, created by and starring Richard Gadd. This miniseries is a personal confession by the author that works frighteningly well as a true-crime series, and is a truly hard show to watch. It’s a show about mental illness and sexual assault that is liable to trigger many viewers. Like the show’s narrator, played by Gadd, it often contradicts itself: it’s both sensitive and unwilling to paint characters in reductive light, but it’s also a sensational true-crime show that makes it very, very hard to look away. Even when you’re disgusted.

Gadd plays Donny Dunn, a wannabe comedian who specialises in anti-comedy and (therefore) bartends in a Camden pub, where one day a woman called Martha comes in, crying.

He feels sorry for her. This is the first thing he tells us about this stalker, colouring our perception of the stalker even when she harasses him in horrible ways, making his life hell. We see Martha wreaking havoc on Donny, bombarding him with lewd emails and threatening his parents with bodily harm, but all the while Baby Reindeer makes it clear that she’s ill, that she means no harm—unlike more malevolent predators. We feel sorry for her.

Donny smiles at Martha (played by Jessica Gunning) and spots her a cup of tea. She claims to be a high-level lawyer, bailing out Britain’s top politicians, but never has any money. She doesn’t have an iPhone, but makes sure she types out the words “sent from an iPhone” in the hundreds of thousands of emails she sends Donny, addressing him as her baby reindeer while she, dyslexically, spells many a word wrong. Even, at times, “iPhone”.

Donny indulges Martha—he sees it as harmless—by taking her out to coffee but is soon embarrassed by the sheer force of her laugh. “Do you have a volume dial?” he asks, wincing, “Can I turn you down a bit?” Her reply is quick as a whip: “You’d have to turn me on first.” For her, the coffee date is foreplay. For him, it’s a way to let her down. However, much to the viewer’s exasperation, Donny doesn’t shut the door on Martha’s expectations with enough finality. He seems to be enabling her even as he’s discouraging her.

Why Donny behaves this way, seemingly placing the stalker’s care over those of his loved ones that are threatened by him, starts to become clear only midway through the seven-episode series, with the harrowing fourth episode giving us a glimpse of Donny’s own trauma. This puts much of Donny’s indecisiveness and hesitation in context—while not entirely letting him off the hook. That’s the impressive thing about Baby Reindeer, a staunch refusal to take the easy way out. Trauma is a mess but healing is a mess as well.

The thing about autofiction—and even true-crime—is that the storytelling efficacy is tied to the audience believing this really happened. Gadd achieves something remarkable here, baring his soul and his trauma for the audience, but had the show not been billed as a true story, would it have worked as well? I doubt it. Baby Reindeer is incredible, sure, but also overwrought, a diary entry that is often written, and narrated, with indulgence. There is a scene in the show where the comedian takes the stage only to deliver a long soliloquy about his own pain, and while this is powerful and brutal, it also makes me wonder why nobody is turning off his microphone or escorting him off stage.

It’s a feat for Gadd, who has lived (most of) the incidents shown on screen, to be enacting and dramatising them for us, and Gunning is flat-out spectacular as Martha, both hateful and heartbreaking. Still, the series doesn’t achieve the complexity and nuance of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (streaming on JioCinema). Baby Reindeer is stickier television, however, designed to appeal to our true-crime conditioned appetites.

What would you do if you had a stalker?

The Police song Every Breath You Take is played frequently at weddings and makes its way on to mixtapes used to woo lovers, but Sting wrote that perfect pop song—unambiguously—as a song about stalkers. “Every single day / and every word you say / every game you play / every night you stay / I’ll be watching you.” Maybe, just maybe, our misunderstood love for that song isn’t down to vocals or bass-line. Maybe on some level we believe a stalker may be the truest—and hence most dangerous —of romantics. Maybe somewhere deep inside we long for that. Someone to watch over us.

Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen.

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