What Netflix’s 'Baby Reindeer' teaches us about compassion

How Richard Gadd's harrowing stalker drama became a potent lesson about the challenges of empathy.

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A Netflix series about stalking doesn’t, from the outset, seem as if it would offer much in the way of compassion. Most true-crime dramas, bar a choice few, deliver a binary view of good and bad, and the type of people who fall into each camp. They are popular because it suits us to look at the world through such a black and white lens; it is easier than recognising the messy, complicated, and sometimes unpalatable state that is the human condition—the idea that on any given day, we could end up being the villain in our own (or someone else’s) story.

Baby Reindeer, a new and immediately popular Netflix show which fictionalises the experiences of the Scottish comic Richard Gadd and his stalker, arrives like a jagged bolt to show us that there are reasons for the darkest of behaviours—and that all of us are shaped by difficult experiences, both big and small.

Gadd, who wrote and stars in the series, first performed his story at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019, in the form of an award-winning one-man show. The Netflix series is an adaptation of that production, a horrifying tale about how he was relentlessly stalked by a woman for a period of four years.

His on-screen alter-ego Donnie meets Martha at the pub where he works; before long, she becomes obsessive, sending him hundreds of emails, following him, and harassing his loved ones. As the episodes go on, the two end up intertwined in a mutually self-destructive, chilling spiral of co-dependence and misery. Donnie is initially flattered by Martha’s interest, occasionally flirting with her without realising that she’s a convicted stalker already known to the police.

He feels sorry for her—a lonely woman who can’t afford a drink at the pub—but, as her behaviour intensifies, the show questions whether he is, on some level, enjoying the ego boost despite the darkness. The audience is left feeling endlessly rattled and baffled, not only by the actions of his erratic stalker but also by Donnie. Why doesn’t he just go to the police? Why doesn’t he stop talking to her? Is he encouraging her?

"We all have the potential to make terrible, self-sabotaging decisions if our circumstances were different"

Our questions are answered with searing compassion, explained in the harrowing events of episode four, one of the most disturbing yet important scenes I have ever seen on television. Donnie’s path of self-destruction is the result of barely concealed, deeply imprinted shame and trauma. Martha is drawn with equal sympathy and nuance: she is shown as vulnerable, lonely, and mentally ill, while simultaneously menacing, violent, and vindictive. At times we feel sorry for Donnie, his life upended by the frightening, choking acts of another, and at other times for Martha, who is a sad byproduct of her own suffering. We are all, the show says, sculpted by life events; we all have the potential to make terrible, self-sabotaging decisions if our circumstances and histories were different.

Jessica Gunning as Martha in Baby Reindeer
Jessica Gunning as Martha in 'Baby Reindeer' / Image Credit: Netflix

“We see the world in very black and white terms these days, and sort of good and bad. I think everyone tries to pull some sort of moral point out of things,” Gadd told Attitude. “I never wanted Baby Reindeer to have an agenda. I just want it to be a window into the lives of people who have a lot of issues. And I think life is so complicated. I almost want the nuances to come back into it a little bit. What I quite like is when you go through Baby Reindeer, I hope that people are on my side, they’re on Martha’s side, and then they hate us both, but then they feel sorry for us both, and that’s life. It’s the human condition.”

"It’s easier for us to work within simplified categories of dark and light rather than face the grey"

It’s a complex view of morality, and one that aggravates our need for order and a soothing, explainable ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’. It’s easier for us to work within simplified categories of dark and light rather than face the grey. Human behaviour can’t be categorised so cleanly, and sometimes we can’t assign blame to one sole party. Such wildly opposing camps prevent us from critical thinking; they prevent us from considering the why. Neither Donnie nor Martha are what society would think of as the ‘perfect victim’: neither are impeachable innocents who have never put a foot wrong. To varying degrees, they both act in a way that is troubling, but we’re also made aware of their vulnerabilities and pain. They are both fragile victims whose experience has led them to the dark place they find themselves in.

What is asked of us, as the audience, is compassion. The show demands that we look at our similarities, rather than our differences. Sometimes we run away from our problems and find comfort or distraction in the worst of places. Sometimes shame and trauma can make us act in an unsettling, corrosive ways, especially if that shame and trauma goes unprocessed. Everyone is going through something, and none of us are what we show on the surface.

Josh Gadd as Donnie in the series
Josh Gadd as Donnie in the series / Image Credit: Netflix

Following the death of Caroline Flack in February 2020, the hashtag #BeKind circulated around the world—a plea to treat one another better. It was a well-intentioned campaign, but ultimately unsustainable. Kindness and compassion are hard to implement because they rely on us to act. True compassion requires us to understand why someone has acted in a way that we might disagree with, someone whose moral codes might conflict with ours, and to sympathise with them regardless.

Perhaps true kindness is reacting with generosity and concern to the stickier, more complicated aspects of what it means to be alive. Compassion and kindness are, in short, hard graft. It’s no wonder we don’t practise them as much as should. Baby Reindeer is a reminder of how important they are.

Feature image credit: Netflix

This article originally appeared on in April 2024.

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