Baby Reindeer: Netflix smash hit tackles narcissism in today's world

By showcasing the narcissism that afflicts today’s societies and by bending most artistic rules, Richard Gadd’s seven-part Netflix series emerges as a table-topper.

Jessica Gunning and Richard Gadd in Baby Reindeer (2024)
Jessica Gunning and Richard Gadd in Baby Reindeer (2024)

Baby Reindeer: Netflix smash hit tackles narcissism in today's world

When Richard Gadd created his self-portraiture TV show Baby Reindeer, which tells a tale of suffering, he would not have guessed that it could achieve such immediate worldwide success and impact. Yet according to statistics from the global streaming platform Netflix, Gadd’s seven-part mini-series was its most-watched show for several weeks, with nearly 10 million viewing hours in its first week and almost 90 million in the third.

Judging by social media posts, the audience truly engaged with the show’s characters, expressing empathy for Donny Dunn (Gadd) and, at times, even for his stalker, Martha Scott (played by Jessica Gunning). They also voiced anger and resentment at Darrien O’Connor (played by Tom Goodman-Hill), who, in Episode 4, is shown sexually assaulting Donny.

The assaults included rape and were perpetrated under the influence of drugs during an earlier relationship after Darrien had agreed to mentor Donny, who was then a young comedian. The episode comes with a trigger warning for viewers. Baby Reindeer is grittier and closer to our lived reality than other works, which are often meticulously crafted. It shows just how small the world has become.

Tracing the plot

Viewers are told that this is a true story. Indeed, it is Gadd’s story or based closely on it. A Scotsman in London seeking fame and success who, like others, ends up working in a bar in the cold, indifferent heart of a capital city, oblivious to their dreams. It is in the bar that he meets Martha. His everyday act of kindness towards her (he gives her a free cup of tea because she is distraught) prompts her continued and unwanted attention. Soon, she is stalking him, physically and online.

Martha is English, unemployed, and on welfare benefits, meaning that she lives from state handouts. This gives her all day, every day, to pursue her prey.

Donny’s life before Martha included a period of sexual, intellectual, and spiritual violation at the hands of eccentric screenwriter Darrien, who exploits Donny’s need for validation during one of his soulless comedy tours.

Baby Reindeer gets closer to reality because it avoids and averts ‘artistic logic’. It contains narrative gaps that may be explained by Gadd’s own journey in writing it, transforming his real-life tormentors into characters on a screen. Some viewers have tried to identify the real people behind the characters, especially Darrien, whom Donny thinks must have sexually assaulted hundreds of others. He suspects Darrien will continue doing so as if nothing changes.

It has shone a light on a form of abuse that does not often get highlighted. Whereas the #MeToo movement was about women being sexually assaulted by men, Gadd’s story shows that men can just as easily be sexually assaulted, too, by predators who exploit their professional power and success.

The first half of Baby Reindeer is light and funny in places, but the second part gradually breaks from this and increasingly ventures beyond the confines of traditional art. This mirrors Gadd’s own breakdown. After he loses his girlfriend, and with Martha threatening him, his comedy night performance proves too much. When a joke fails to land, he breaks down on stage, telling all before leaving. Within hours, it goes viral.

From stage to screen

Baby Reindeer began life at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won two awards, before moving to London theatres, where it won more awards. It transferred to the West End in early 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic scuppered it. Gadd has been honing his talent for off-the-wall offerings. In his 2016 show Monkey See Monkey Do, he recounts his experiences while running on a treadmill and being chased by a gorilla puppet.

Baby Reindeer directors Weronika Tofilska and Josephine Bornebusch add a delicate visual identity to the work, presenting a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. From the frustrated ambition of Donny to the pathological obsession of Martha to the wisdom of Teri (a transgender psychologist Donny secretly dates), all could be the focal point of the story. Viewers begin following Donny’s life without knowing his upbringing or childhood, making it difficult to understand his character. His parents are only briefly introduced in the last two episodes, shown in a somewhat positive light.

The same is true for Martha. We see her become obsessed with Donny and take over his life, and we hear what she has done to others before him, but we do not know about her past, what made her like this, or whether she has sought help.

In Baby Reindeer, a character’s early years are almost neglected despite them holding the key to the behaviour shown on-screen. Eventually, Donny calls the police. Martha is arrested, sentenced, and jailed. It turns out that she has past convictions. Donny manages to bear witness to his suffering but does not transcend it. Nor does the show offer any kind of moral to the story, despite the psychological abuse, sexual assault, and stalking. Perhaps this is why it resonates. Often, we survive things without learning from them.

The show’s themes

One of the stronger themes of the show is narcissism (a self-centred personality type). Donny, a struggling comedian in need of the audience’s love, says Martha is “the only one who saw me as I wanted people to see me”. She encourages him, believes in him, and directly nurtures his narcissistic needs. It is an issue of today. We live in an era that emphasises self-presentation. Nobodies who present well on platforms like TikTok suddenly become somebodies.

In his book Individuation and Narcissism, Mario Jacoby explains how there is a difference between needing to find meaning in one’s life and achieve something (benign narcissism) and pathological self-absorption. The latter exaggerates the image of the self, preventing it from seeing others except as a reflection of oneself. This is narcissism as a disorder.

In The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch argues that people’s pursuit of superiority over others is necessarily narcissistic. “The logic of individualistic impulse pushes the struggle for happiness onto the narcissistic path, which is a dead end,” he says.

“Narcissistic survival strategies now manifest themselves in the form of liberation from the repression of past conditions, leading to a ‘cultural revolution’ that reproduces the worst features of the same collapsing civilisation it claims to criticise.”

Most agree that societies play a role in shaping people’s dreams and delusions about success and self-realisation. Baby Reindeer certainly taps into this quest for success and fulfilment, most aptly expressed in the end.

Richard Gadd and Nava Mau in Baby Reindeer (2024)

Psychological analysis

Dr Kirk Honda, the psychotherapist behind the Psychology in Seattle YouTube channel, examined the show’s characters, diagnosing Martha with narcissistic personality disorder. Others suggested borderline personality disorder or bipolar depression. Honda feels that doctors avoid diagnosing women with narcissistic personality disorder because global culture tends to see narcissism as a male trait, not a female one, despite half those afflicted being female.

Martha wants to ‘possess’ Donny and destroy those around him. She also has outbursts of anger when faced with anything that challenges her distorted version of reality, her ability to isolate him, or her plan to strip him of any possible legal protection. Donny is not just isolated by Martha. Colleagues seem indifferent to his plight, as do the police, who initially fail to press charges against Martha despite her having past stalking convictions, including of a police officer.

His abusive relationship with Darrien also isolated Donny. When he finally does go to the police, it is to report Martha, not his rapist, Darrien, who is respected by society, one that maintains the power holder’s status and ensures their immunity. Darrien’s crimes (and the manner of them) echo the deviance and immunity of convicted criminals like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, men whose actions suggest they never expected to be held legally accountable.

Art and reality

In real life, Gadd’s stalker was never caught and brought to justice, even though both he and his family members endured her harm for a long period.

Baby Reindeer could not have achieved the impact it has had without the expressive power it leverages, whether it be the visual imagery or the heightened intimacy of the characters delivered through the sincere performances of the actors.

Foremost among them is actress Nava Mau, a transgender woman from Mexico who portrayed Teri. She manages to express the plight of trans individuals even in one of the world’s more progressive and socially liberal societies. What consoles us in Baby Reindeer is what consoles Gadd in his tragedy: that art alone can share one’s pain and make one’s voice heard.

In this age of narcissism, the global success of works like Baby Reindeer suggests that we also live in an age of impactful personal testimonies. Amidst the many failings of modern societies, this seems like a triumph.

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