"Baby Reindeer" is groundbreaking in how it advances the discourse of the "open wound"

Richard Gadd created a comedy act mining his own experiences that became a series unlike anything we've seen before

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published April 27, 2024 1:29PM (EDT)

Richard Gadd as Donny Dunn in "Baby Reindeer" (Netflix)
Richard Gadd as Donny Dunn in "Baby Reindeer" (Netflix)

The following contains major spoilers for "Baby Reindeer" from Episode 4 through the finale.

"Baby Reindeer" is a show that's been desperately needed. In a digital world that constantly trots in and out of cultural trends with blistering frequency, it can seem difficult to pin down the definition of "meaning." Perhaps even trickier is deciding what merits it. 

It feels altogether disconcerting, then, to say that sexual assault and trauma are partially definitive of the zeitgeist. And yet, it's unfortunately omnipresent, crouching in the shadows over years until it's cast into the light, usually through the courage and strength of a beleaguered survivor.

It would be remiss to exclude the importance, not only of survivors' stories, but of the conversation more broadly from our group chats, classrooms, offices, Slack channels, etc. Thankfully, much of the prevailing discourse around sexual abuse in recent years has been seismically charged, owing to the rise of the #MeToo era.

Like Bell, Donny was methodically groomed by a person he looked up to and was reliant upon.

However, the topic of sexual assault still retains a certain social precarity. Like many other pressing societal ills, it's delineated as quasi-illicit, hardly considered dinner-table-friendly discussion fodder, particularly where it concerns men. The notion that men can be sexually violated is often construed as a joking matter or shrouded in shame and homophobic stigma, as a result of toxic machismo ideology. This is unsettling given that almost one in three men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetime, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While still notably less than the number of women facing similar conditions, recent studies indicate there is a glaring lack of research into adult male sexual victimization. As such, those stories are few and far between in popular culture and in the real world.

That's where "Baby Reindeer" steps in. Sometimes, it takes viewing something harrowing onscreen to push us to a place where we're ready to both contemplate and talk about its reality.

In Netflix's limited series, creator and star Richard Gadd chronicles his emotional journey of being stalked by and sexually assaulted in real life through his portrayal of a fictionalized version of himself, struggling comedian Donny Dunn who lives in London. In the show, Donny is aggressively pursued over several years by a woman named Martha (Jessica Gunning), who nicknames him "baby reindeer." Compounding this situation is Donny's difficult past, in which he was subject to repeated abuse by television comedy writer Darrien (Tom Goodman-Hill), who entices him with empty words about helping launch his career. 

Richard Gadd as Danny Dunn and Jessica Gunning as Martha Scott in "Baby Reindeer" (Netflix)Predatory groomers masquerading as well-meaning mentors are unfortunately somewhat commonplace, at least in terms of what we've seen on streaming services as of late. In March, Investigation Discovery debuted "Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV," an explosive docuseries that unearthed alleged systemic abuse at children's television network, Nickelodeon. Among the most shocking revelations presented in "Quiet on Set" came when former Nickelodeon actor Drake Bell publicly aired the monthlong sexual abuse he endured as a minor from his former acting and dialogue coach, Brian Peck. Like Bell, Donny was methodically groomed by a person he looked up to and was reliant upon, professionally speaking.

Regrettably, we're already familiar with the idea that a child can be groomed and sexually assaulted. Already established cinematically with films like "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" and "Mystic River," Bell's groundbreaking disclosure propelled such depictions into a tragically realistic context.

"Baby Reindeer's" advancement of the conversation around sexual assault and how we think about it is two-pronged: it highlights systematic grooming and abuse done not only to a male character but to an adult, showing viewers that anyone in a vulnerable position can be taken advantage of.

Five years before his first encounter with Martha, Donny meets Darrien, a "Buddhist, polyamorous pansexual," at the Edinburgh Fringe comedy festival. They strike up a genial conversation at a bar, and Darrien showers Donny with flattery, presumably to gain his trust. Emboldened by the confidence Darrien gives him and the sense of finally having a quantifiable dream, Donny begins spending time at the writer's apartment. Except they don't really talk about Donny's pitch ideas or screenwriting — instead, they spend each session getting ridiculously high on coke, MDMA, heroin, crack and eventually, acid. Darrien gives Donny a macro dose of the stuff and assures him that he will act as his "guide," before breaking into an unsettling "Amazonian jig" set to percussive music. 

Darrien takes advantage of Donny's addled state, violating him in various ways during their hazy hangouts before ultimately raping him one day. The brutal assault leads to the breakdown of Donny's relationship with his girlfriend Keely (Shalom Brune-Franklin) and, unsurprisingly, his psychological state.

Later, when Donny's sexual predilections appear to shift, he's plagued by thoughts of shame. "I started to feel this overwhelming sexual confusion crashing through my body," he says while looking at men on the tube. "I could never tell whether these feelings were because of him or whether they always existed deep down. Did it all happen because I was giving off some vibe I wasn't aware of? Or did what happened make me this way?"

Through Donny's internal monologue, "Baby Reindeer" painfully articulates the intricacies of trauma — his self-blame is an all-too-common yet enduringly complex response to sexual assault. His response to this cocktail of confusing emotions is to date all sorts of people, devoid of love and intimacy, as he endeavors to find answers. 

People who are abused sometimes hurt others.

That all changes when Donny meets Teri (Nava Mau), a transgender woman whom he quickly falls for. Despite their connection, however, Donny is jarred by a barrage of new conflicting feelings. "With every hand-hold or lingering stare," he says, "came a crushing sense of anger and shame that I was falling in love with her. That I couldn't hide in anonymity anymore.

"And perhaps most bitter of all, that I might not feel this way if he [Darrien] hadn't done what he did," Donny adds.

Baby ReindeerRichard Gadd as Donny Dunn and Nava Mau as Teri in "Baby Reindeer" (Netflix)This sentiment powerfully captures a complex portrayal of how trauma perpetuates cyclically;  people who are abused sometimes hurt others. Embattled and unable to surmount his anxiety, Donny repeatedly pushes Teri away and breaks her trust. Their relationship had already begun shakily when he met her on a dating app under a  false identity, posing as a construction worker named Tony. Though he eventually comes clean to Teri about the guise, he is unable to share his trauma with her despite difficulties with physical intimacy, leading her to feel rejected by him. This tension is only exacerbated by Martha, who becomes enraged by their coupling, leading her to physically attack and hurl nasty slurs at Teri when she finds them together in a bar after one of Donny's comedy acts. Though he has more than enough reason to sever ties with Martha, Donny is unable to wholly lose her presence in his life, mired in a mixture of fascination, empathy and guilt. 

Bell in his testimony for "Quiet on Set" similarly expounded on the devastating toll his abuse had on him, as he devolved into struggles with substance abuse and his mental health. In 2021, Bell pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of child endangerment and a misdemeanor charge of disseminating harmful material to a juvenile after a then-15-year-old girl (notably the same age he was when Peck assaulted him) alleged that the former actor had groomed, sexually assaulted and sent sordid messages to her when she was underage. Bell denied the claims.

Toward the end of "Baby Reindeer," Donny confesses in detail his abuse and self-loathing to a crowd of people at the finale of a comedy competition. "That's what abuse does to you, you know?" he says through tears. "It made me this sticking plaster for all of life's weirdos. This open wound for them to sniff at."

Baby ReindeerJessica Gunning as Martha Scott in "Baby Reindeer" (Netflix)In "Baby Reindeer" Darrien is the primary abuser. But Martha crosses a number of boundaries as well. Her emails to Donny are both aggressive, violent and intensely sexually explicit. Without receiving consent, she gropes him under the garish glow of yellow lamps alongside a narrow canal. Later, after infiltrating Donny's home by posing as a new member of Keely's mom's (Nina Sosanya) cooking club, she leaves a semi-nude photo of herself on his desk. 

And yet, as viewers learn by the end of "Baby Reindeer," Martha's serial-stalking tendencies are a perpetuation of pain she weathered as a child, in an ostensibly unstable home. Though her background does not excuse her extreme behavior, it provides insight into the complexity underpinning her obvious mental illness. Donny knows this, too. It's part of why he feels ironically prickled about reporting Martha, and not Darrien, to the police. 

"There was always a sense that she was ill, that she couldn't help it," Donny narrates. "Whereas he was a pernicious, manipulative groomer."

This knowledge elucidates why Gadd "was very keen for Martha to be layered." Speaking to Netflix, he explained that through her character, he wanted to "show this side of stalking, that it is a mental illness. And show the fact that there was someone there who was doing a bad thing, who wasn't necessarily a bad person, that just had a lot of trauma in their life that they were going through."

For all the things "Baby Reindeer" gets right —and there are many— perhaps its most salient success is its depiction of trauma's non-linear effects. As the show aptly illuminates, the fallout from abuse is circuitous, weighty and irrefutably something that deserves greater attention from us all. 

"Baby Reindeer" is now streaming on Netflix.

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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Baby Reindeer Commentary Drake Bell Netflix Quiet On Set Richard Gadd Sexual Abuse Sexual Assault Trauma Tv