Voice-over onslaught in Baby Reindeer

The storytelling in this new Netflix series about a failed comedian who is stalked and harassed hinges on its voice-over which refuses to recede.

Published : May 29, 2024 21:17 IST - 7 MINS READ

A still from Baby Reindeer

A still from Baby Reindeer | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Our cinema has destroyed us as much as we have destroyed our cinema. Our demands are both mirrored and modified by the art we consume, we create; we have all caved in to this dialectic of doom. When the columnist Kyle Chayka looks at our viewing patterns and sees the emergence of “ambient television”, that is television that can be played in the background as we waive our attention, choring elsewhere, he is gesturing at both our split consciousness and the forced magnetism of the thing being consumed itself, aware that it is made for an audience who will not see, truly see, what has been made. So everything has to be verbalised, every affect clarified, nothing must remain subterranean or ambiguous. And god forbid there be ambiguity, we must also know that it is, indeed, ambiguity—that, too, must be clear.

Unsurprisingly, Richard Gadd’s highly acclaimed Baby Reindeer begins as most Netflix dramas and most storytelling begin these days: with its conflict clearly articulated at the outset before bending back into a flashback that explains how we got here. A cowardly narrative choice, this has been so mainstreamed it seems to have become the most natural expectation from stories today—to ask and have answered, at the very beginning, why it deserves our attention. (This is also a frustration filmmakers have confided in private conversations, the way feedback from platforms is crippling their vision, forcing them to put the “meat” upfront in their story.)

Also Read | Animal and the alpha beta

Gadd, who is both creator and writer, also stars in the lead as Donny Dunn, a character based heavily on his life’s experiences. Dunn is at the police station to report stalking and harassment from a strange, large, and imposing woman, Martha (Jessica Gunning). The policeman refuses to take him seriously. Why would he? The statistics of assault fly in the face of his accusation. The lanky Dunn has to explain how it came to be.

The ever-present, prescient voice-over

Baby Reindeer is not as simple psychologically, though, and the show keeps hinting at this complexity as some sort of cinematic virtue. Dunn works at a bar to make ends meet, and this is where he first encounters Martha. Since she has no money, he offers her a cup of tea on the house. She is a bit fidgety and strange, but he encourages her as she flirts with him. He gives her his email, not his number. Soon, there is a flood of mail, ranging from the randy to the rundown. A question hangs over this interaction. Why is he pursuing this conversation?

We have by way of an answer another cowardly narrative choice, the ever-present, prescient voice-over: “I felt sorry for her. That’s the first feeling I felt. It’s a patronising, arrogant feeling, feeling sorry for someone you’ve just laid eyes on, but I did. I felt sorry for her.” The show does not allow us to reach this starched conclusion or even allow the possibility of the question hanging excitedly, unresolved, over the show itself. Besides, it presents the most agonising archetype of our generation: the self-aware man, whose self-awareness does nothing to nudge his actions towards that awareness.

“Is the voice-over the voice of truth or do we have to be suspicious of it the way we must be suspicious of any artist who speaks of their life, given as they are, so easily, to self-mythologising? It is this instability that makes Baby Reindeer a show that is psychologically astute. ”

The show explains this posture more fully as the episodes pile up in both trauma and psychoanalysis.  Here is a man who is so hollowed out of self-respect that the slightest pleasurable spark towards him sends him slobbering. This is fascinating because it destabilises the first voice-over, about him feeling sorry for her. Did he really feel sorry for her, or is he using his sympathy as a scaffolding to hide his bruised ego that is now being burnished? Is the voice-over the voice of truth or do we have to be suspicious of it the way we must be suspicious of any artist who speaks of their life, given as they are, so easily, to self-mythologising? It is this instability that makes Baby Reindeer a show that is psychologically astute.

A suffocating subjectivity

It is also this instability that has to be forcefully read into the show because otherwise it is buoyed by a suffocating subjectivity, Dunn’s voice-over expressing every itch, every strange decision. The show does not want you to stew in discomfort even as it depicts precisely that. So when it comes to the central decision, that of Dunn returning to the famed television writer and name-maker Darrien (Tom Goodman-Hill) who shows interest in him and his comedy even after Darrien has drugged and assaulted him, he makes us comfortable about his unreasonable decision. In our heads we ask why he did this. In the show we hear his “I should have… I wish I had… I would love to tell you…”

That between intention and action there exists a gulf is a symptom of life itself. That we need to be reminded of it, because we are so used to them aligning in our cinema, is Baby Reindeer insuring itself against being misunderstood. It wants us to know that he, too, does not really know. The frustration only builds when Dunn thinks he knows and begins to treat himself as an object over which to perform therapy. When he is raped, his inner make-up fundamentally, brutally, changes. He now starts having sex with men, being passed around: “I started having reckless sex with people of all genders in this desperate pursuit of the truth…. If I am passed around like a whore, I might at least shed this idea that my body is part of me somehow. Like who cares if it happened before. It’s happened a ton of times now, so what does it matter?”

The strange clarity of this is only comparable to the strangeness of the desire to produce clarity in and about such a situation—anytime anyone gestures at “the truth”, emotional or otherwise, something stinks. He immediately backtracks: “But it does matter. It mattered because… he’d been vindicated somehow”—he being Dunn’s rapist, and the vindication being Dunn’s bisexuality, which he now has to confront. The thing about such statements—grand and clarifying and terrifying in their clarity as they might be—is that their clarity is deeply suspect because it turns everything into a symptom of a diagnosis, making the body a machine that works on reason, with clear cause and effect. When the voice-over takes over this role and performs it, another kind of violence is enacted upon the story: that of streamlined subjectivity.

Also Read | Why Netflix reality show ‘Dubai Bling’ is a voyeuristic ode to a post-global city

It is what makes Baby Reindeer increasingly stifling to watch because it hinges so much of its storytelling on its voice-over, and its voice-over refuses to recede, to doubt itself and take a beat. It is a relentless onslaught of perspective. So, when Dunn does go to the police station to report Martha’s stalking but refuses to report all the other things she had done that would alert the police—groping him, attacking his girlfriend—it is because “I couldn’t stand the irony of reporting her but not him,” that is, his rapist. Dunn continues: “There was always a sense that she was ill, she couldn’t help it, while he was a pernicious manipulative groomer. To admit to her was to admit to him, and I hadn’t admitted him to anybody yet.”

The voice-over—trailing behind every decision, every utterance, making sense of it, padding incoherence with reason or, at best, awareness—is a smokescreen. The voice-over wants to convince us of its moral pedigree, even as the character flirts with the immoral; the voice-over and character are, after all, part of one body, and we cannot, truly cannot, cast an aspersion on one without the other. And it is this self-aware “I Made A Mistake” voice-over that keeps protecting its protagonist, and it is here you sense the story’s, and the protagonist’s, stumbling, agonising insecurity: an unwillingness to be, truly, despised. 

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

More stories from this issue

+ SEE all Stories
Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment