The moral maze of ‘Baby Reindeer’

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If there is one word that can describe the phenomenon that is Richard Gadd and Netflix’s Baby Reindeer (2024), it is ‘obsession’. Rarely does a show generate fan responses which hit so squarely upon its own central theme. It’s true – I am obsessed with Baby Reindeer. Critics are obsessed with Baby Reindeer. Anyone who hasn’t watched it yet will probably become obsessed with Baby Reindeer. More scarily, every bored, truth-hungry and outraged armchair detective willing to go to any possible length to obtain ‘justice’ is obsessed with Baby Reindeer. So when my obsession with the show prompted me to contact Gadd on Instagram in an attempt to congratulate him whilst moral and legal debates continue to rage over the identity of the show’s characters, I was left questioning why Baby Reindeer provokes this kind of obsession- and, in a show concerned so much with the dangers of indulging our darkest obsessions, why it incites this very same tendency in its viewers?

In its aftermath, the speculation and fascination with the ‘Baby Reindeer’ and its ‘true story’ have reached heights unheard of for a one-off, short Netflix black comedy

‘This is a true story’ opens the first episode of Gadd’s brilliantly unconventional black comedy about his experiences of stalking and abuse during his twenties. Having been only briefly introduced to the fictionalised Gadd, wannabe comedian and dead-end barman Donny Dunn, and yet to meet Jessica Gunning middle-aged stalker Martha Scott, the bold claim to factual events keeps the viewer hooked on the story from the outset. But this connection to real happenings has sustained the show’s interest long after the final credits roll onscreen. In its aftermath, the speculation and fascination with the Baby Reindeer and its ‘true story’ have reached heights unheard of for a one-off, short Netflix black comedy. The show has attracted much praise, but less than a month on from its release, the subject of the conversation has become far more sinister – that of the identities and whereabouts of the abusive real-life people behind the show’s characters. Armchair investigators all over the internet, spurred on by the details from the show, have managed to identify Gadd’s stalker and level accusations at various celebrities for being his suspected abuser. A quick look at Facebook, X or TikTok reveals hundreds of posts tracking evidence for the identity of the show’s characters, along with the endless noise of unsavoury comments, speculations, bizarre opinions, and ranting. 

The effects of the online investigation haven’t just been talk. The woman frequently identified by the show’s viewers as Gadd’s stalker has threatened to sue Netflix and assures journalists that it is actually her who is the victim, while a misidentified celebrity is threatening legal action against those who accused him of being one of Baby Reindeer’s abusers. As the real fallout from the show continues to unfold, yet another uncomfortable line of thought has been levelled at the show – is Gadd a hypocrite? In telling the story of obsession, abuse and stalking, is he encouraging the obsession, abuse and stalking of the characters he portrays? Aja Romano of Vox recognises that by investigating the show the viewers are missing the point, but that this outcome was predictable. She asks: “should he have known better, or should we?”

In Aja’s question lies the answer. We should have known better, and the point of Baby Reindeer is to tell us that. The show’s star Jessica Gunning has quite rightly said that those desperate to uncover the real story “haven’t watched the show properly”, but its warning goes deeper. In an interview for Netflix Gadd says he wanted to explore “the messy side of stalking, the side of stalking which isn’t necessarily black or white”. He is aware that he can’t “control how [Baby Reindeer] is going to be received” and this makes it “kind of uncomfortable”. What Gadd is doing is brilliantly honest and nuanced, even if it is problematic. He has made a show which calls attention to a viewer’s attitude towards it. Are we not, by pouring over the details of the show’s ‘real’ characters, as bad as Donny following Martha back home, or indulging his obsession by listening to her voicemails? If the viewer is to simply re-enact what led to Baby Reindeer’s ordeal in the first place, have they really watched the show?

The genius of ‘Baby Reindeer’ is that it undercuts its difficult themes with a remarkably reasonable empathy

It might deserve more targeted criticism if it wasn’t so self-aware. There is a scathing irony in the words ‘this is a true story’ being typed out in the same font as Martha’s messages, as if Gadd knows the show is as much his delusion as it is hers. He is also holding himself accountable: by playing himself, it suggests to viewers that everything which happens in the show is fictional, bar his own unique perspective on events. Like Gadd, the viewer will only ever know their own truth; drilling down into what is ‘true’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ just leads into the endless grey area that made Baby Reindeer so intriguing. As Donny says in the final episode, “I devoted my life to unpacking the mystery of Martha, why she was the way that she was. I’m not sure I ever got close to finding the answer”. 

Online, the dangerous obsession with Baby Reindeer is simply testament to the relevance of the show’s perspective. All too many fans are willing to participate in Gadd’s fascination and follow him down the self-destructive rabbit-hole. What Baby Reindeer brings to the table more than anything else is an honest self-awareness, one that that ended up anticipating its viewers’ tendency for unhealthy obsession, and by the online aftermath of the show, was proved right. Perhaps Gadd didn’t realise quite how many viewers would fall into his same exact trap; perhaps he underestimated the ubiquity of his own fixations. But suggesting that he dilute the truth of the show’s events is akin to shutting down the reality of his experiences. Arguably, Gadd has done what is admirably courageous for a victim of abuse, and kept his story no more than just that – his story. The genius of Baby Reindeer is that it undercuts its difficult themes with a remarkably reasonable empathy. If we can expect this kind of perspective from a survivor of abuse, then the least we can do is expect it from ourselves. 

Image credit: Marcus Löfvenberg via Unsplash

One thought on “The moral maze of ‘Baby Reindeer’

  • “drilling down into what is ‘true’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ just leads into the endless grey area…”
    Right and wrong, perhaps. But true is true, not a grey area. And you can’t get to what’s right and wrong without knowing what’s true. Did she write that many emails, attack his trans girlfriend in a bar, get found guilty in court? That’s stuff that either happened or didn’t happen. If it didn’t happen like that, and he left it so easy for “Martha” to be identified, then he’s a fraud, and guilty of defamation.
    “suggesting that he dilute the truth of the show’s events is akin to shutting down the reality of his experiences”
    Again, it either happened the way he presents it or it didn’t. If it did, fine. “Martha” has to deal with that. If it didn’t, then Gadd is the one messing with the truth and shutting out reality in favour of his own emotional needs.
    Gadd can’t tell the audience to not bother whether the story is true or not. The way he made the show makes that essential to how we should respond to it. AND I NEED TO KNOW.

    Reply

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