Netflix’s Psychological Thriller Baby Reindeer Has a Fitting and Surprising Ending

Spoiler alert: This article discusses all episodes of Netflix’s Baby Reindeer.

A woman enters a London bar, crying softly with her eyes on the floor. She claims to be a powerful lawyer, but also says she cannot afford a cup of tea. So the bartender, who also works as a comedian, gives her one for free since he is interested in this suddenly chatty stranger. This isn’t a setup for a joke, though the encounter will soon escalate into the woman, Martha, stalking the bartender, Donny. Their relationship forms the foundation of Netflix’s Baby Reindeer, a darkly comedic psychological thriller based on and adapted from his award-winning one-man show.

At first, it seems like we’re in for a type of TV series that has become too popular on streaming services: a true-crime drama about a regular person whose life is ruined by a monster with a human face. In the premiere, Martha is made to look as pathetic and then as unhinged as possible. I started to despair at the thought of yet another hit show (Baby Reindeer has reached the No. 1 spot on Netflix’s TV rankings) that mines mental illness for cheap horror-comedy thrills. But Baby Reindeer turns out to be a murkier, more insightful, and sadder show than early scenes let on. It’s a Trojan Horse of sorts, drawing in viewers with the promise of schlock, then starting serious conversations instead about sexuality, abuse, shame, and how unprocessed trauma can poison even healthy relationships.

Martha’s stalking unfolds as expected. She becomes a regular at the bar. She finds Donny’s email address and sends hundreds of obsessive, bizarre, agrammatical messages. She turns up at his comedy shows, follows him home, comments on every single Facebook post he’s ever made. It doesn’t take him long to discover that she’s experienced at this; newspaper articles detail her stalking history. Yet as Martha’s behavior grows increasingly frightening—there are threats, things get physical—Donny does little to stop her. It takes him six months to walk into a police station, and even then, he neglects to mention that she’s groped him, attacked his girlfriend, and might well have the first name that comes up when you google stalker. “Why did I freeze?” he asks in voiceover narration. “Why did I just let it happen?” He’s referring to the moment when Martha sexually assaulted him one night, though he might as well be talking about their entire relationship up to that point.

These are the questions that truly fuel Baby Reindeer (which is titled after Martha’s nickname for Donny). The answers are nothing short of devastating. We learn Donny’s backstory slowly, and little of it adds up. He lives with the mother, Liz, of his ex-girlfriend, Keeley, who moved out when they broke up. He falls in love with a woman, Teri, who he met on a trans dating site where his profile includes a fake name and bio; Martha knows who he really is, but, for a long time, he lies to Teri. In the harrowing fourth episode, we discover that, years ago, as a fledgling comedian bombing his first Edinburgh Fringe Festival engagement, he met a successful TV writer named Darrien. Darrien became Donny’s mentor, but instead of getting him work, he plied his so-called protégé with drugs like GHB, meth, and heroin, and raped him repeatedly, over the course of a series of benders, while he was intoxicated or passed out.

All of a sudden, Donny’s seemingly inexplicable behavior begins to make sense. He recounts how Darrien’s abuse forced him into a crisis of sexuality: “I started to feel this overwhelming sexual confusion crashing through my body.” So he self-medicated with anonymous, often dangerous sex, choosing partners of all identities. Teri is the first person, after his benders with Darrien ruin his relationship with Keeley, he really falls for. Yet the sexual dysfunction that followed the abuse and his fear of being judged as queer or perverted make Donny incapable of fully reciprocating her love. Teri rightly perceives that, while he’s closing parts of himself off to her, he’s getting something out of Martha’s stalking. “How do you identify, sexually?” she asks him. “Bi, maybe?” he replies. “Because I feel like a fraud no matter who I sleep with.”

Gadd goes deep into Donny’s crisis, never flinching as he wades through dark emotions. Yet this is not really a story where trauma gives way to redemption. Yes, Donny eventually has a career breakthrough, when a physical fight with Martha and a crowd that fails to respond to his hacky prop comedy drive him to confess his whole saga—stalking, Darrien, and all—onstage. He comes out as, well, not straight to parents who immediately accept him and learns, in a heartbreaking scene, that his father suffered sexual abuse while growing up in the Catholic Church. He finally gets the ammunition he needs to get Martha arrested, and she goes to jail.

But Baby Reindeer makes sure that we never see him as just an innocent victim or an empowered survivor. The extent to which Donny indulges Martha and prolongs their relationship, even after she’s hurt the people he cares most about, could make you queasy. There is no happy ending for Donny and Teri; by activating her old insecurities about her gender presentation, he has rendered their love impossible. The person he goes back to, instead, is Darrien. Maybe his original intention is to confront his abuser, but when Darrien offers him praise for the bravery of his viral breakdown video and offers him a paid writers’ room job, Donny accepts. Then he cues up some of Martha’s old voicemail messages, walks into a bar, orders a double vodka and Coke, tears up at her story about why she calls him Baby Reindeer, and discovers he has forgotten his wallet. “Don’t worry about it,” says the bartender. Echoing Donny and Martha’s first meeting, he adds: “It’s on me.”

It’s a full-circle ending whose sadness sneaks up on you. Gadd believes, I’m fairly sure, that people can change their lives for the better; it’s no small thing that Donny is embraced by his parents and welcomed back into Liz’s home. Yet it stings that predators like Darrien and Martha still have a place in his world—that he’s still actively choosing to, literally and figuratively, return to them. When he essentially becomes Martha in the series’ final moments, he isn’t exactly transforming into a stalker. But there’s symbolic resonance in the idea that cycles of abuse are self-perpetuating. We’ve watched Donny get hurt, but we’ve also watched him hurt people as he secretly nurses wounds he’s not ready to expose to sunlight. A Hollywood ending in which he transcended years of abuse to emerge as the picture of mental health would have been a lie.

That Baby Reindeer is able to get from its familiar premiere to this place of emotional honesty and profound insight, while bringing such a large audience along for the ride, is remarkable. It means that viewers who might not have tuned in for shows explicitly about rape, like or , or the love lives of trans characters (, ) or the blurriness of sexual orientation (, ) are watching television that raises serious, nuanced questions about those topics. What’s more, it grounds those questions in the largely true tale of a straight-passing man—one told with a minimum of sanctimony and psychobabble. Stories