'Baby Reindeer' review: Netflix's new series is both troubling and troublesome The new series, based on creator and star Richard Gadd's one-man show, depicts queer sexuality as something that happens to people.

Review

Netflix's 'Baby Reindeer': A dark, haunting story bungles its depiction of queerness

Richard Gadd as Donny in Baby Reindeer. The new Netflix series is based on Gadd's autobiographical one-man show. Netflix hide caption

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Netflix

Richard Gadd as Donny in Baby Reindeer. The new Netflix series is based on Gadd's autobiographical one-man show.

Netflix

Note: You can't really talk about this series without discussing a major revelation that occurs in episode four of its seven-episode season. So be warned: Spoilers ahead.

There's a reason that the first scene in the first episode of Baby Reindeer, now streaming on Netflix, plays like it's a classic setup to a joke: Woman walks into a bar.

Creator and star Richard Gadd is setting our expectations exactly where he wants them set; he needs us to think that the story he'll tell us over the next seven episodes will conform to the narrative contours of dark comedy.

He's already tipped us off that the comedy in question will be dark indeed, via a framing device that opens the show: We see his character Donny Dunn filing a police report that he's being stalked by a woman named Martha (Jessica Gunning).

Cut to six months earlier: Martha enters the pub where Donny tends bar. Everything that follows is meant to place us inside Donny's head. As he tells us about her, we can't help but see her as he does: A sad, fat, pitiable middle-aged woman who's clearly lying about her life. She's not the high-powered lawyer she says she is – if she were, surely she could afford to buy a drink. And why would she spend all those potentially billable hours bellied up at Donny's bar whenever he's working a shift? And why would she proceed to send him thousands of unhinged messages and stalk him, his girlfriend, and his family?

Right, we think. We know what we're in for: Baby Reindeer is the story of one hapless young man getting cruelly stalked by a mentally ill woman, who, it turns out, has a history, and a criminal record, for doing so.

Moreover, it's a true story. True-ish, anyway, as Baby Reindeer is based on Gadd's autobiographical one-man show.

But Gadd soon complicates our understanding of events. It turns out Donny is a struggling would-be comedian; we watch a series of his cringeworthy sets before sparse, stone-faced audiences. He seems depressed and friendless – his work colleagues at the bar are hostile louts; he's living with his ex-girlfriend's mother on the outskirts of London.

Plus there's the nagging fact that while Donny may not actively encourage Martha's fawning attention, he is awfully passive about shutting down her determination that they could get together, even as she grows more insistent, and more threatening.

Also, as the cop asks him at the start of the first episode. Why did he let it all go on for six months before filing a formal complaint?

Jessica Gunning as Martha. Netflix hide caption

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Jessica Gunning as Martha.

Netflix

The rug-pull

The answer to that question is what Baby Reindeer is truly about. It's where the conventional and familiar trappings of dark comedy and psychological thriller fall away to reveal the show's true, beating heart: Sexual abuse, and its lingering aftermath.

It isn't until episode four that we learn that five years before Martha entered his life, Donny met a successful television writer named Darrien (Tom Goodman-Hill) who gave him career advice, promised to set him up with opportunities, and supplied him with drugs. During those sessions, while Donny was helpless to stop him, Darrien would sexually abuse him.

This, the series proceeds to argue – far too tidily – is the answer to everything. It's why Donny became the depressed, self-loathing man we've come to know. It's why his comedy career stalled. It's why he's since chosen to degrade himself by having meaningless sex with both men and women, doing more drugs, and by developing an interest in "extreme" pornography.

It's also, of course – or so the show would have us believe – why he was so disarmed and flattered by the attention Martha gave him, which seems (compared to the drug-filled sexual cesspits he once frequented) pure and wholesome and, not for nothing, reassuringly straight. At one point Donny guiltily admits to us that, at his very lowest point, he even started to find Martha – imagine that! a fat woman! – sexually arousing.

It's this aspect of Baby Reindeer – Gadd/Donny's ultimate willingness to confront his abuse and explore its aftereffects – which has earned the show its most fulsome praise from critics and audiences. But in practice, the series repeatedly and clumsily conflates the horror of abuse with the simple fact of queer sexuality. Purely for dramatic purposes, Baby Reindeer implies that Donny's sexuality conforms to the laws of cause (the abuse) and effect (queerness). Worse, it does so in a way that seems specifically designed to reassure those audiences who believe queerness is something that happens to people, something that can be triggered from the outside.

Catching queerness like a cold

Let me be clear: Baby Reindeer is not making any kind of broad sexual/political case that same-sex abuse leads its victims to experience same-sex desire. Neither is it saying that all putatively straight men who get sexually abused by other men will henceforth be attracted to trans women.

But it does want us to believe – in fact it entirely depends upon us believing – that Donny, for one, experienced same-sex desire only after his abuse – desire it goes out of its way to depict as filthy and degrading. It does, too, want us to believe that Donny failed to make any romantic connections with women or men after his abuse – until he met Teri (Nava Mau) on a trans dating site.

Gadd himself identifies as bisexual, which makes it all the more puzzling and frustrating that, again and again, the series takes absurd pains to present Donny as someone who is not at all like the kinds of queer folk who (shudder!) willingly have sex with each other and (shock horror!) use recreational drugs and (gasp!) watch porn.

Rest assured, straight audiences: Donny's queer sexuality was something forced upon him – a fact that his stoic father (Mark Lewis Jones) understands and underscores because, as he tearfully explains to his son, "I grew up in the Catholic Church."

It's a jaw-dropping scene, but not for the reason it wants to be. It's meant as a moment of startling honesty and searing empathy between father and son.

It plays like a tasteless, homophobic joke.

Sticking the dismount

For all its queasy discomfort with, and prissy diffidence about queer sexuality, there is one thing Baby Reindeer gets absolutely, hauntingly right: Its ending.

As the series concludes, Martha has been jailed for stalking Donny. In a thinner, less resonant series, our hero would take this as an unalloyed victory, as vindication. But smartly, Gadd shows us a Donny who has acknowledged his abuse but has only begun to effectively deal with it.

Donny, instead, wallows. He walks the streets, playing Martha's tender/terrifying voicemails in his headphones. He sets out to confront his abuser, only to cave and accept a job working for him. He shambles through his life alone, until he enters a pub (Man walks into a bar) and realizes he can't pay for his drink. The handsome bartender comps him out of pity, just as Donny did to Martha in the first episode. The end.

... OK, that pity-drink callback at the very end is a bit on-the-nose, but the series' refusal to afford Donny a clear, uncomplicated, once-and-for-all victory is a smart one. Had the series ended with a sense of triumph and finality, it would have been dramatically satisfying but emotionally dishonest. Human psychology is more complex than that, and the damage done by abuse more insidious.

When we leave him, Donny is still trapped by his past, because he hasn't yet done the work he needs to do. He still believes he deserves to be trapped, defined, by what happened to him.

But the series plants the seeds for the change that we know is coming: When he's alone in that room of his, he's turning his experience into the one-man show that will become Baby Reindeer. It's that process of transmutation and creation that will ultimately allow him to process his abuse and turn it into something that engages with the wider world, and grant him the ability, finally, to heal.

Maybe, in the process, he will manage to move past finding other queer folk and fat people disgusting. Baby Reindeer suggests that Richard Gadd hasn't quite managed to do that, yet.

But I'm holding out hope for Donny.