Baby Reindeer Review: A Thorny Interrogation of Trauma, Power, and Empathy

A devastating portrayal of a man both traumatized by and dependent on his abusers’ approval and attention.

Baby Reindeer
Photo: Ed Miller/Netflix

Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer finds stand-up comedian Donny (Gadd) living with his ex-girlfriend’s mother (Nina Sosanya) and working at a Camden pub to supplement his failing career. When, one day, Martha (Jessica Gunning), an overweight middle-aged woman who claims to be a successful lawyer but can’t afford a cup of tea, sits down at the bar, Donny offers it to her on the house. That cup of tea will initiate a years-long “relationship” that will initially flatter Donny’s ego but later prove to be both degrading and petrifying.

The series was adapted from Gadd’s autobiographical one-man stage show of the same name, and the actor-writer lends Donny such a piercingly unique voice. Gadd narrates his own horror story with a snappy matter-of-factness, like he’s reluctant to ruminate on one stomach-churning detail for too long before moving on to the next, and a self-awareness that’s never navel-gazing.

Throughout, Martha bombards Donny with thousands of increasingly deranged emails, tweets, and voice messages, which serve as a second form of narration throughout the series. These messages—at times childlike, at times sexually explicit and violent—are windows into Martha’s soul and highlight her deluded interpretation of her mundane interactions with Donny.

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The depths of Gadd’s self-flagellation can be excruciating to witness. Throughout the seven-episode series, we watch as Donny castigates himself—and is castigated by others—for having humored Martha out of pity and insecurity, for having been flattered by her attention, for having enjoyed her enjoying his jokes. As Donny admits after their first encounter: “It’s a patronizing, arrogant feeling, feeling sorry for someone you’ve just laid eyes on.”

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These moments reveal the crux of Donny’s emotional interiority. In one sense, we’re seeing a man sensitively unpack the complex power dynamic between him and his abuser with the benefit of hindsight—one a mentally ill older woman and yet a predator, the other a good-looking young comedian with his life ahead of him and yet the prey. In another sense, we’re witnessing a victim in the throes of deep, masochistic shame.

The roots of this shame, we’ll learn, can be traced back to Darrien (Tom Goodman-Hill), a successful comedy writer who, years previously, exploited Donny’s ambition to satiate his own need for power. This, and Martha’s persistent harassment, plummet Donny into a profound sexual confusion that infects his budding relationship with Teri (Nava Mau), a trans woman.

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Gunning’s performance is a large part of what makes the show the horrifying and compelling thing it is. Particularly haunting is her squeal-like laugh, which perfectly encompasses the duality of Martha’s innocence and unhinged brutality. This, coupled with Gadd’s devastating portrayal of a man both traumatized by and dependent on his abusers’ approval and attention, make for a thorny but nuanced interrogation of trauma, power, and empathy.

Score: 
 Cast: Richard Gadd, Jessica Gunning, Nava Mau, Tom Goodman-Hill, Shalom Brune-Franklin, Nina Sosanya, Michael Wildman, Danny Kirrane, Amanda Root, Mark Lewis Jones, Alexandria Riley, Thomas Coombes, Hugh Coles  Network: Netflix

Amelia Stout

Amelia Stout is TV researcher and freelance writer whose work has appeared in Londnr Magazine and Doris Press.

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