Baby Reindeer exposes the similarities between victim and perpetrator
Baby Reindeer exposes the similarities between victim and perpetrator

Baby Reindeer exposes the similarities between victim and perpetrator

Posted on 24 June, 2024




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Original language


In the first scene of Baby Reindeer, a man enters a police station and decides to report the stalking that a woman is carrying out against him. “What did you do to provoke her?” is the policeman’s question. A question that in itself would make everybody frown.

Yet, the man knows that he actually did something to cause the situtation in which he now finds himself trapped: he felt pity.

A natural feeling, which in most cases leads to acts of kindness, is the trigger for Baby Reindeer‘s story. Someone might ask if it wouldn’t be better to mind your own business, then, when they see someone in difficulty. Or whether a victim of abuse should really be blamed for it.

But every feeling, every story has two sides to the coin, and, in the case of Baby Reindeer, no one is one hundred percent innocent: neither the abuser nor the victim.

Netflix distributed the TV minishow, popular on the web thanks to word of mouth from the public, in the first half of 2024. Created, written by and starring Richard Gadd, it was produced by Clerkenwell Films and is based on Gadd’s theatrical play of the same name staged in 2019.

A deer in the headlights

This time a woman enters through a door, and her name is Martha. The door in question is that of the bar and cafe where Gadd’s character, Donny, works as a bartender. Played by Jessica Gunning, Martha is a middle-aged, dowdy woman who claims to be a prominent lawyer, rich, with huge houses, yet she can’t afford to pay for the cup of tea she just ordered. Donny then decides to offer it to her, after feeling sorry for her, someone who isn’t clearly doing very well.

From that moment on, Martha shows up at the bar every day, and she orders something she won’t pay for every day. Donny indulges her in her chatter, laughs at her jokes, and compliments her. His colleagues tease him by saying that the two are practically in a relationship now. And Martha believes it since he is too afraid to go against the other employees, preferring to submit to their bullying. The situation gets then out of hand, and Martha, delusional, begins her stalking. Donny would like her to stop, he tells her several times that there is only a bland friendship between the two of them, but Martha every time doesn’t understand or pretends not to understand him.

Yet Donny even goes so far as to accept her Facebook friendship request, implicitly giving her authorization to continue her behavior. And the longer she goes on, the more Donny will struggle to get out of it.

The cycle of victimization

(Warning: spoilers ahead!)

What’s special about Baby Reindeer is that several times throughout the TV show, it doesn’t seem like Donny actually wants to get away from Martha. He is inconsistent in his behavior. And the audience discovers every inconsistency from the precise point of view of Donny (and therefore Gadd) himself since, as in Fleabag, it is the narrator who speaks directly to the spectators.

Baby Reindeer in fact transcends the classic story of a stalker and his victim, as viewers could have seen in TV shows like You. It delves into the human and psychological complexities that describe the cycle of victimization.

When Donny, on stage, has a breakdown and starts talking about his life, he admits: “I loved one thing in this world more than I did her – right? – one thing. And do you know what that one thing was? Hating myself.”

With its nuanced portrayal of guilt, Baby Reindeer challenges the dichotomy between good and evil – especially in a work about true events.

Baby Reindeer
Courtesy of Ed Miller/Netflix © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

Even though Donny is the victim, Gadd does not present him as such in a one-dimensional way. Episode 4, which chronicles Donny’s life five years earlier, offers an intense portrait of the circumstances that shaped his mental condition. Viewers understand why Donny makes certain decisions in the face of Martha’s harassment, even feeling flattered, sometimes, by her disturbing attentions.

I think it shocked a lot of people. A lot of people who worked on the show found it incredibly hard to read and do. I hadn’t admitted some of it to anyone. I think I’d obviously said that I’d been sexually abused and various other awful things that had happened to me before, but I hadn’t gone into that [level of] detail, and it was quite confronting.

Richard Gadd to Netflix

Not only does Baby Reindeer highlight Donny’s darker sides to answer why he doesn’t distance himself from the stalker immediately but instead indulges her; it also highlights Martha’s, those who can create empathy in the viewer. Martha is a criminal, of course, but there’s a reason she behaves the way she does. From a certain point of view, she is also a victim. Gadd certainly does not suggest that Martha – and those who behave like her – should be justified in their actions, but rather encourages the audience to conduct a deeper analysis, not to stop at appearances. Everyone has a story, every action comes from past traumas, and everyone, in their own way, is a victim of something or someone else.

The other side of the fence

When the show ends, the theme of the psychological game carried out throughout the narration is openly manifested. Martha goes to jail for stalking. Normally, the victim protagonist should celebrate. Donny, on the other hand, although happy at the beginning, takes refuge in the only other person who had heavily abused him in the past (even raping him), who had already made him question his sexuality, and who had made him fall into depression. It’s as if Donny, having overcome one abuse, is continually looking for another. Ten minutes sitting on a court bench is not enough to solve the road to self-acceptance and overcoming tragedies.

Baby Reindeer
Courtesy of Ed Miller/Netflix © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

Donny wallows in pain. And, in the end, he ends up exactly where Martha found herself at the beginning: in a pub, ordering something that he cannot pay for and which is then kindly offered by the bartender. This is certainly not to suggest that Donny will become a stalker himself, but to make people understand how, ultimately, anyone could find themselves on either side of the fence almost without realizing it. More than judgment, then, perhaps sometimes people simply need understanding.

The great gift (I will not call it a trick) of Baby Reindeer is that we come to understand why it has taken so long for Donny to report his abuse. It’s not because the abuser is a woman, and it’s not because she’s extremely overweight (although my God, she can move fast when she’s angry). It’s because, in his heart, Donny believes he deserves it. We feel empathy for him rather than impatience, and we come to feel empathy for Martha as well.

Stephen King in his article for The Times

Real life effects

The fact that Baby Reindeer is based on a true story has set in motion various dynamics both on the web and in everyday life.

On the one hand, the argument that men can also be victims of violence has come back into vogue. Being made fun of, being belittled, not being taken seriously. Men, too, face obstruction if they decide to take matters into their own hands. After Baby Reindeer, as happened after the trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, the number of men who decided to report their situation increased.

On the other hand, however, people created a less supportive, more investigative, and, paradoxically, more stalking mechanism. Web users have managed to trace the true identity of one of Baby Reindeer’s ‘bad guys,’ ‘Martha,’ exposing and targeting her. Gadd’s will was to change some events and keep the identity of the people involved hidden (apart from his own), but his will was lost in the name of thrilling online detective work. As a consequence, the real Martha said that she was the persecuted one, going so far as to sue Gadd and Netflix for $170 million.

This is always the risk in stories based on real events: getting caught up in morbid curiosity and creating controversies. It also happened with the TV shows Dahmer, or The Watcher.

Baby Reindeer
Courtesy of Netflix © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

Surely, Baby Reindeer will not have a second season, as its story has concluded, and let’s hope there won’t be a need following any legal battles. Its importance remains that of highlighting the psychological dynamics of the abuser and the abused and giving a voice to those who, until now, thought they had none.


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