The Baby Reindeer Mess Was Inevitable

This story contains spoilers for the Netflix limited series Baby Reindeer.

In the finale of Baby Reindeer, the comedian Donny Dunn (played by the show’s creator, Richard Gadd) achieves the kind of success he’d always wanted: He lands podcast interviews, performs before appreciative crowds inside big clubs, and scrolls through scores of online comments praising him for his bravery. He has transformed, as he puts it, “from a walking ghost to the center of a media storm”—all because a random audience member filmed and uploaded to YouTube a set during which Donny fell apart and delivered confessions instead of jokes. He’d told the room that he’d been groomed and abused years earlier by a man he’d considered his mentor, and that the resulting mix of self-hatred, humiliation, and guilt led him to indulge a stalker named Martha (Jessica Gunning).

Donny is based on Gadd himself, and the British series—an expanded, episodic version of Gadd’s one-man show of the same name—opens with a card that reads “This is a true story.” Gadd has said that he was indeed stalked and harassed by a middle-aged woman who claimed to be a lawyer, and that he had been sexually abused by someone in the industry he’d greatly admired. The names of these people and certain details about the events were changed, but, as Gadd said in an interview, the show was “all emotionally 100 percent true.”

The response to Baby Reindeer has been a lot more complicated than Donny’s brush with acclaim. Though the show has received glowing reviews since its April debut and became a hit on Netflix, topping the streamer’s English-language charts three weeks in a row, the fallout has been, to put it mildly, a mess. Some viewers tried to uncover the identity of Gadd’s entertainment-industry abuser and ended up targeting an innocent former co-worker of Gadd’s. As for Martha, internet sleuths found a woman who matched her description, leading tabloids such as the Daily Mail to track her down. The woman has said she believes that the character of Martha was based on her, and admitted to sending Gadd emails and tweets, but denied stalking him or committing criminal behavior during their interactions. She has since accused Gadd of stalking her, and, last week, she was interviewed by Piers Morgan, which led to a fresh wave of online commentary. Maybe that’s the last of it; Gadd himself has refused to “confirm or deny anything relating to the real life people who the characters are based on in the show.” Or maybe such a high-profile appearance will beget more headlines, which will beget even more discussion.

None of this is really a surprise when you consider the show’s structure. Baby Reindeer spends most of its time dissecting Donny—and, by extension, Gadd himself—but the stalker story is its most seductive hook. The show’s thrillerlike twists offer a kind of voyeuristic accessibility into Donny’s staggering turmoil. But by branding itself as a true story, the series implicitly invites viewers to ponder what’s real and what’s been embellished—this intrigue is what helped turn the show into a word-of-mouth hit. As such, it’s become nearly impossible to see the story of Baby Reindeer on its own terms, separate from the conversation about Gadd’s ethics and whether he did enough to prevent the real people involved from being publicly identifiable. The show itself actually makes trenchant observations about obsession, shame, and abuse—all of which have been overshadowed by the frenzy it helped create.

This apparently wasn’t Gadd’s intention. “Please don’t speculate on who any of the real-life people could be,” he wrote in an Instagram Story. “That’s not the point of our show.” The point, it seemed, had been catharsis—for Gadd, and for anyone who might resonate with his journey. The original stage show, he told The Guardian, became “a lifeline … The way people received the show, and received me, and accepted what happened to me: it saved my life.” In making the show, he sought to make sense of how his earlier abuse informed his behavior around his stalker: why he remained in contact with her for so long and why he failed to draw clear boundaries.

The show succeeds in many ways at capturing Gadd’s cathartic self-reflection. Donny’s narration anchors the series in his queasy point of view, his voice-over repeatedly veering into critical takedowns of his own behavior. He tends to state how much he loathes himself, his need for relevancy, and his similarities to Martha. Baby Reindeer’s fourth and strongest episode, told in a visceral series of flashbacks, is especially uncomfortable: The disorienting camerawork places us inside Donny’s confused, blurry mind as he returns to his groomer’s apartment over and over, knowing each time that he’ll be drugged and raped. Even the title credits emphasize how trapped Donny is in his head: The words “created & written by Richard Gadd” are typed on-screen and then backspaced away, as if Gadd can’t fully say what he wants to express. The effect is overwhelming—Donny is so raw and honest about how he feels about himself that you immediately empathize with him.

But Baby Reindeer also quietly, perhaps inadvertently, encourages prying into the people being depicted on-screen—to participate, in other words, in the very form of “toxic empathy” Gadd said he struggled with during the time he engaged with Martha. Netflix has maintained that it took “every reasonable precaution in disguising the real-life identities of the people involved,” yet the show seems to have kept plenty of other details intact: Netflix U.K.’s Instagram account declares that the misspelled emails depicted in the show were pulled from Gadd’s inbox. An in-joke about curtains is reproduced in the drama; the alleged real-life Martha referred to it in a public social-media post, which viewers easily found online. Donny’s emphasis on how much he couldn’t quit Martha often overshadows the richer parts of his story. The show spends several episodes exploring Donny’s budding romance with a trans woman, Teri (Nava Mau), and his evolving understanding of his parents, who have more in common with him than he thought. But Donny’s relationship with Martha bookends the series, affirming its importance over everything else. Viewers are left with Martha’s voice ringing in their ears. It’s no wonder that so many began hunting for her once they finished the show.

I want to give Gadd the benefit of the doubt. Reliving his real-life trauma to play Donny can’t have been easy, and he said on a panel discussion recently that he had expected Baby Reindeer to “sit as maybe a little cult, artistic gem on the Netflix platform.” “If I wanted the real life people to be found, I would’ve made it a documentary,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in a conversation conducted before the Piers Morgan interview. “I’ve spoken publicly about how I don’t want people to do it and if I start playing a game of whack-a-mole, then I’m almost adding to it. I don’t think I’ll ever comment on it ever again.” (It’s unclear whether the woman who claims to be the real-life Martha was ever formally charged or investigated for alleged stalking.)

For better or worse, the selling of the show as a true story positioned it to become the subject of internet sleuthing, and buried what’s really potent about it beyond the stalker storyline. Baby Reindeer examines the destructive nature of abuse, the way that a survivor can do seemingly irrational things—returning to the site of the abuse, obsessing over actions and inactions—just to be sure the whole ordeal wasn’t imagined. Donny found solace in the easy validation Martha provided and saw in her the same self-loathing and loneliness he had within him.

During Donny’s unplanned confession onstage, he explains why he couldn’t let go of the possibility that his abusive mentor could actually make him famous. “When you’re famous, people see you as that,” he said. “They think, It’s the guy from that thing!” In reality, of course, fame can simply be the start of a cycle of exploitative empathy. At its core, Baby Reindeer understood this. But inevitably, too many of its viewers did not.

The Atlantic