You Won't Be Able to Stop Thinking About Heart-Wrenching Stalker Thriller 'Baby Reindeer' From the Moment You Press Play

Scottish comedian Richard Gadd brings his one-man show to TV — and both tell a stunning, gripping and unforgettable true tale.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 19, 2024

A person walking into a bar. The words "sent from my iPhone". A comedian pouring their experiences into a one-performer play. A twisty true-crime tale making the leap to the screen. All four either feature in, inspired or describe Baby Reindeer. All four are inescapably familiar, too, but the same can't be said about this seven-part Netflix series. Streaming since Thursday, April 11, written by and starring Scottish comedian Richard Gadd, and also based on his real-life experiences, this is a gripping, bleak, brave, revelatory, devastating and unforgettable psychological thriller. It does indeed begin with someone stepping inside a pub — and while Gadd plays a comedian on-screen as well, don't go waiting for a punchline.

When Martha (Jessica Gunning, The Outlaws) enters The Heart in Camden, London in 2015, Donny Dunn (Gadd, Wedding Season) is behind the counter. "I felt sorry for her. That's the first feeling I felt. It's a patronising, arrogant feeling, feeling sorry for someone you've only just laid eyes on, but I did," the latter explains via voiceover. Perched awkwardly on a stool at the bar, her teary eyes downcast, Martha is whimpering to herself. She says that she can't afford to buy a drink, even a cup of tea. Donny takes pity, offering her one for free — and her face instantly lights up. That's the fateful moment, one of sorrow met with kindness, that ignites Baby Reindeer's narrative and changes Donny's life.

After that warm beverage, The Heart instantly has a new regular. Sipping Diet Cokes from then on (still on the house), Martha is full of stories about all of the high-profile people that she knows and her high-flying lawyer job. But despite insisting that she's constantly busy, she's also always at the bar when Donny is at work, sticking around for his whole shifts. She chats incessantly about herself, folks that he doesn't know and while directing compliments Donny's way. He's in his twenties, she's in her early forties — and he can see that she's smitten, letting her flirt. He notices her laugh. He likes the attention, not to mention getting his ego stroked. While he doesn't reciprocate her feelings, he's friendly. She isn't just an infatuated fantasist, however; she's chillingly obsessed to an unstable degree. She finds his email address, then starts messaging him non-stop when she's not nattering at his workplace. (IRL, Gadd received more than 40,000 emails.)

Two early details in Baby Reindeer speak to the level of revealing specificity that Gadd has layered into the script; names are changed, clearly, but there's no doubting that this is a personal work that's adapted carefully and probingly from reality. Firstly, Donny spies that "sent from my iPhone" text at the bottom of Martha's endless array of emails, which'd be innocuous in almost every other situation — but he also knows that she doesn't have an iPhone. Secondly, he still accepts her Facebook friend request as his inbox overflows with her often-incoherent thoughts sporting that fake iPhone claim (which is sometimes misspelled, too), Martha's behaviour towards him can't be mistaken for anything but that of a stalker and he finally types her name into Google to discover that she has a history.

Martha's harassment spans years, expanding to impact Donny's ex-girlfriend Keeley (Shalom Brune-Franklin, Love Me); her mother Liz (Nina Sosanya, Good Omens), who Donny lives with; therapist and trans woman Teri (Nava Mau, Generation), who he's been dating; and his parents (The Way's Mark Lewis Jones and The Sixth Commandment's Amanda Root) in Fife. About six months in, when he initially reports it to the police in an anxious state — the scene that opens the Netflix show — he hardly receives a helpful response, as part of Baby Reindeer's digging into expectations around masculinity. Donny's own actions, his missteps included, are as much under the microscope as Martha's. So is trauma, dating back long before the show's title was constantly uttered and emailed his way as his unwanted admirer's pet name for him.

It was in 2019 that Gadd premiered the stage version of Baby Reindeer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a setting that's also pivotal to the TV iteration. Six years prior, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny) did the same with Fleabag, which wrapped up its television run mere months before Baby Reindeer's stage debut. Gleaning that shared path can't prepare audiences for Gadd's tale, though, which reaches further than the mental illness of his indefatigable pursuer, and into abuse, shame and self-loathing. Accordingly, it's worth recalling that I May Destroy You also charted the path from Edinburgh to television, as inspired by a lecture that Michaela Coel (Mr & Mrs Smith) gave at the city's television festival that touched upon her own experiences.

Also telling: the fact that Baby Reindeer is shot like it's a horror film (and paced as such). From off-kilter angles and vantages to unnerving closeness, directors Weronika Tofilska (His Dark Materials, and also the co-writer of Love Lies Bleeding) and Josephine Bornebusch (Bad Sisters), plus cinematographers Krzysztof Trojnar (Foresight) and Annika Summerson (Censor), don't let viewers get comfortable for a second. Watching is compelling — compulsive, in fact — but never easy, as befits the story that's being relayed. Unlike most scary movies, this isn't a clearcut tale of an attacker and a victim, at least when it comes to Martha and Donny. Gadd is unsparing in unpacking what motivates Donny's reactions, heart-wrenchingly so, and his regrets. When he asks "why did I freeze?" and "why did I just let it happen?" about a specific incident with Martha, he's also posing questions that beat at the heart of the entire miniseries.

As he reckons with himself, doing so with vulnerability and nuance but never holding back, Gadd turns in a remarkably raw performance that feels as emotionally uncomfortable for him, understandably, as it is for the audience to witness. Baby Reindeer's candour extends in all directions, Donny's flailing early comedy shows — anti-humour and props are his thing — and the shattering time spent with an older mentor (Tom Goodman-Hill, Anne) among them, with Gadd brilliant at every turn. Gunning is equally outstanding. The sheer depth of the intricacies to Martha, some sparking terror, others sympathy and more still eliciting everything in-between, are stunningly drawn both in the writing and in Gunning's portrayal. Pressing play on Baby Reindeer means not being able to stop thinking about Gadd, Gunning, Donny and Martha from that second onwards, or about this profoundly and piercingly honest show.

Check out the trailer for Baby Reindeer below:

Baby Reindeer streams via Netflix.

Published on April 19, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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