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The Truth Behind Baby Reindeer: A Writer's Journey into Authentic Vulnerability

Updated: May 12

Everybody's talking about Baby Reindeer.

We're looking at the truth behind the show but we promise it's all from a writer's perspective. We're not here to unmask anyone.

UPDATE: In a bizarre twist, the identity of the real Martha has been revealed and she has appeared in an online interview. Whatever your thoughts on this new development (and there are many, just check Twitter), we'll be sticking to just talking about the storytelling techniques employed.

Poster for the TV series, Baby Reindeer, featuring the main character, Donny, locked in a beer glass by his stalker, Martha.

*Note: spoilers ahead*

Written and performed by Richard Gadd, it's based on his own true story of being stalked by a woman for several years. This experience, traumatic in itself, forces the main character to address a buried trauma of sexual assault that occurred years previously,

It's quite unlike anything we've seen on television before.

Written with remarkable candour and wit, audiences worldwide have responded to its unflinching honesty. Despite the sometimes harrowing subject matter, it's a story that you simply cannot look away from.

Why has this show been so successful?

After binge-watching the series and reeling from a story that is intense and gruelling, I was keen to explore the reasons for its success (it currently has a critics' score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes).

From a writer's perspective, what makes it such great television?

  1. The unusual hook: An innocuous act of kindness unleashes an unhinged stalker upon the main character. But in an interesting role reversal, the stalker is female. This dynamic isn't something we see very often.

  2. The struggling, complex characters on a collision course: We start with Donny, an underdog main character whose life is a mess. And it's about to get so much worse. Although a "likeable" guy on the face of things, we are privy to his many flaws and the hurtful actions he inflicts on others. We also have first-hand access to the writer/protagonist's inner world of self-reflection and self-criticism via voice-over narration. Similarly, Martha (the stalker) is written and played with incredible range and nuance by Jessica Gunning. She's not a stereotypical female villain in the vain of Glenn Close's character (aka the bunny boiler) from Fatal Attraction. Martha is clearly someone with a mental illness whose life has gone wildly off the rails.

  3. The emotional truth: There is fearless authenticity behind every story point; no scene feels "off" emotionally. It's a piece written from personal pain, but with the easy narration of the main character holding us by the hand, we get through even the most distressing scenes. Although there's an element of dark humour, it's the honesty of the protagonist's admissions that connects us to the character and engages us at a deeper level.

  4. The stakes: Literally everything is at stake here. Donny's own mental health, his career, the roof over his head, his romantic life, the revelation of his sexual assault and sexual identity, his personal safety and that of his loved ones. We are perpetually on the edge of our seats and locked into the story as a result.

  5. The story of redemption (kind of): this is by no means a typical "Hollywood" happy ending where all the loose ends are resolved. Although there's a certain chilling circularity to the final episode, we understand that the protagonist still has a long way to go in terms of healing. And we have to wonder, is he even on the right path?

As writers, plumbing our most vulnerable moments is par for the course. But we don't necessarily have to lay bare our most traumatic experiences on screen as Gadd does to get audience response.

The lesson here is that we must strive for emotional authenticity. Being brutally honest with ourselves–deeply interrogating our own motivations and feelings–is key to writing something that will resonate with an audience.

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