How Netflix’s Stalker Series ‘Baby Reindeer’ Became a Viral Sensation

Ed Miller/Netflix
Ed Miller/Netflix

Baby Reindeer is not the sort of show you’d necessarily expect to take over Netflix. It’s not a sensational true-crime drama, a flashily produced adaptation of pre-existing IP, or a genre show about a gaggle of adorable kids venturing into the Upside Down. Instead, writer-actor Richard Gadd’s surprise viral hit is a shattering, deeply humane, and personal story about his experience with a stalker.

Really, Gadd’s seven-episode series unfurls two parallel narratives. In the present, he’s dealing with Martha—a relentless stalker whom he met while working at a bar. At the same time, the ordeal also forces him to process an even more traumatic experience that happened five years beforehand, when he was an aspiring comedian in his early twenties.

In the series, which is currently the No. 1 show on Netflix in the U.S., Gadd plays Donny Dunn—a fictionalized version of himself. Speaking with the streamer’s editorial site Tudum, Gadd confirmed the show’s introductory text, which states that the series is a true story.

“In a weird way, I first started feeling like this could be a good story during the whole ordeal itself,” Gadd told Tudum. “It was one of the most intense periods, when I was listening to these voicemails. I’d go to sleep at night and these voicemails—her words would bounce around my eyelids. I remember thinking, ‘God, if I was ever to speak about this onstage, I’d fire the words around. Put the voicemails in a big cacophony and fire it.’”

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At the same time, what’s perhaps most surprising about Baby Reindeer is how staunchly Gadd avoids sensationalism. As he pointed out during his Tudum interview, televised stories about stalkers tend to frame the experience as somehow sexy. This series decidedly does not.

As Martha floods Gadd’s email inbox and, eventually, his phone with message after message, Gadd invites us all to wonder why the hell (as a police officer asks him) it took six months for his character to report her behavior. The answer lies in his ongoing pain from the past—scars from a horrific experience that Martha, for all her scary behavior, seems to see more clearly than anyone else.

A photo including Richard Gadd and Nava Mau in Baby Reindeer on Netflix

Richard Gadd and Nava Mau


From the beginning, it’s obvious that Donny is getting something out of Martha’s attention. As his girlfriend eventually puts it, “I think it fits you perfectly, having her in your life—seeing you as the thing you try so hard to be. She’s the embodiment of all your nasty repressions bottled up into one human being.”

Donny might find Martha’s relentless attention frightening, but on some level, he also seems to welcome it as a helpful distraction from deeper, darker wounds. As time goes on, however, the reality of Donny’s situation becomes too intrusive (and terrifying) to ignore.

Baby Reindeer doesn’t necessarily have all the bells and whistles one might expect from a Netflix phenomenon, but in spite of all conventional wisdom, subscribers have flocked to the miniseries. Since its premiere on April 11, the show has climbed to the top of the streamer’s U.S. chart while drumming up high praise on social media. Some viewers have described the British show as the best they’ve seen on the platform in years, while others have aptly compared it to Michaela Coel’s stunning miniseries I May Destroy You.

Gadd, who wrote the series, told GQ that he kept his retelling as truthful as possible. As shocking as the story itself might be, the personal aspect—just like Coel’s personal inspiration for I May Destroy You—has deepened its resonance with viewers.

“Any time it veered too much into embellishment I would always want to pull it back,” Gadd told GQ. “It’s extremely emotionally truthful. Of course, this is a medium where structure is so important, you need to change things to protect people… but I like to think, artistically, that it never moved too far from the truth.”

As faithful as Gadd might’ve been to his own life on the page, the real story’s real impact lies in his performance. From his character’s desperation for others’ approval to his soul-crushing, silent shame, Gadd never veers away from reminding us that everything Donny experiences, and everything he does, is deeply human—even and perhaps especially when his choices clearly aren’t in his best interest.

The same can be said for Gadd’s co-star, Jessica Gunning, who arguably had an even tougher task in front of her while playing Martha. It can be all too easy for a character like Martha to become the butt of the joke, but while speaking with Tudum, Gadd emphasized that with this story, he aimed to “show the layers of stalking with a human quality I hadn’t seen on television before.”

A photo including Nava Mau as Teri in Baby Reindeer on Netflix

Nava Mau


Gunning doesn’t downplay Martha’s menace or her erratic nature, but she also underscores her vulnerability wherever possible. Just like Donny needs to be seen in a positive light, Martha is frantically grasping for companionship. At the same time, viewers also see that for all the fantasies she harbors about her relationship with Donny, and as unquestionably wrong as most of her behavior might be, she can also instantly recognize a pain in him that others take months to see, if they ever spot it at all.

Although there undoubtedly is a villain in Donny’s story, the triumph of Baby Reindeer is that it never lets us believe that Martha is that person. By the end, even Donny makes clear that he doesn’t see her that way. The more Donny examines the hurt he’s tried to avoid for years, the more he comes to understand the humanity of his own stalker. The entire series, and particularly its clever, symmetrical final moment, are a radical call for empathy. Brief as it might be, this show will probably follow most viewers for a long time after they turn it off.

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