Baby Reindeer’s Ending is the Perfect Cap for this Staggering Netflix Series

It's frustrating, but it's real. Spoilers.

Richard Gadd in a yellow jacket with antlers in the poster for Netflix drama Baby Reindeer
Photo: Netflix

Warning: contains spoilers for the Baby Reindeer finale and references to sexual assault.

In the final moments of new Netflix drama Baby Reindeer, lead character Donny tearily orders a drink in a bar. When he finds himself unable to pay, the barman takes pity and says that the drink’s on him. That’s when Donny realises that he’s in the same position as his stalker Martha. When they first met, he felt sorry for her and gave her a free cup of tea at the pub where he worked. Now he’s the one that anonymous barmen feel sorry for as he sits alone and crying.

Baby Reindeer isn’t suggesting that Donny is now about to unleash a campaign of obsessive harassment on that barman, as Martha did to him, but it is making the point that Donny and Martha have more that unites than divides them. It’s the perfect final thought in this complex drama about empathy, complicity and the things we do to escape pain.

The ‘mistakes’ Donny made with Martha are laid bare in Baby Reindeer, which is a fictionalised account of a true story previously told in a theatre show by creator Richard Gadd, who plays Donny. Driven by the dysfunctional solace Donny found in Martha’s attention, he didn’t establish boundaries or report her harassment for months. Though he clearly was her victim – as her eventual criminal conviction showed – this isn’t a clear-cut victim tale. It’s something thornier and much more exposing.  

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The drink at the bar wasn’t the first time Donny had mirrored Martha in Baby Reindeer. Parallels are drawn between them through the eyes of his ex-girlfriends Keeley and Teri. After Martha is convicted, Donny continues to obsessively catalogue her messages to him, telling Keeley “you really do get a sense of how mad she was,” while coming across every bit as unhinged. In an earlier episode, Teri had described Martha as “a fantasist who’s constructed an entire identity for herself” – the dramatic irony being that she didn’t know Donny had done exactly the same by posing as a builder named Tony on the dating app where they met.

There’s remarkable empathy in Baby Reindeer’s choice to show where Donny and Martha overlap, and remarkable frankness in the scene that precedes that final moment. Before Donny walks into that bar, he’s at an extremely low ebb and so chooses to listen to a playlist of Martha’s voicemails tagged as ‘complimentary’. Through his earphones, he hears his now-convicted stalker – the woman who violently attacked his girlfriend, harassed his family and sexually assaulted him – tell him how attractive, talented, special and funny he is. At his lowest point, Donny finds comfort in Martha telling him that he shines.

It doesn’t matter whether or not Gadd pressed play on those messages in real life; it’s a neat TV way to express how his damaged psyche finds validation from his stalker’s attention.

Confronting Darien O’Connor

Donny needs bolstering in those final scenes because he’s just visited the man who, years earlier, drugged and sexually assaulted him over a series of attacks that culminated in rape. After publicly sharing his experience of abuse in an unplanned monologue at a comedy competition (in reality, Gadd wrote and performed a celebrated Edinburgh show about it), Donny goes to his attacker’s flat. Fresh from glimpsing the violent revenge fantasies he’s scrawled on notes posted around his bedroom wall, we anticipate a confrontation. Is Donny about to really lay into this piece of shit? Will he expunge all the rage, self-hatred and doubt he’s suffered since the attacks, and come away a new man?

No, is Baby Reindeer‘s gut-twistingly honest answer. Donny marches in to his rapist’s flat… and does nothing. He finds himself right back in the same screwed-up power dynamic from years earlier and behaves just as he did back then. He doesn’t castrate the man, he accepts a drink and an offer of work from him, and even apologises for having disappeared from his life. Even when his rapist comes close to acknowledging the assaults when he describes Donny’s confessional viral video as “very brave”, and promises that their new venture “won’t be like last time”, Donny is unable to do or say a thing. He leaves the flat and breaks down in the street outside.

It’s crushing, for Donny and for us, but it’s also one of the most truthful scenes on screen about the poisonous power sexual abusers continue to hold over their victims. A cathartic confrontation between Donny and his rapist might have been the expected TV version of events, but this frozen regression is the honest one.

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All in all, those scenes – the role reversal at the bar, the dysfunctional comfort taken from the messages, and the non-confrontation – are the perfect cap to Baby Reindeer. It’s an exposing drama that lays bare unflattering truths about the warped ways people can try to regrow their self-esteem once it’s been thoroughly destroyed. It’s frustrating to see Donny’s attacker go unpunished, but it’s real. Abuse is something Donny, like his father, will live with forever; it can’t be wiped out in one satisfying-to-watch but ultimately unrealistic blow-up.

Why Martha Calls Donny “Baby Reindeer”

The Martha thread is given a more TV-friendly ending. In court, she pleads guilty on all counts and is sentenced to prison and a restraining order. Thanks to Jessica Gunning‘s extraordinarily mercurial performance throughout, you’d need a heart of stone not to feel for her in that sentencing scene. She’s behaved monstrously, but Baby Reindeer never loses sight of the damaged person underneath her behaviour. (It’s not laid on thickly, but fleeting references to a very unhappy childhood, her mention of a dad using the non sequitur “with his big hands”, and her laser-like insight into Donny’s unspoken suffering, are there to make us wonder if sexual abuse is also part of Martha’s sad story.)

The drama’s penultimate revelation before Donny realises that he’s symbolically taken Martha’s place, is a more typical one for TV. A mystery – if it ever really was a mystery that needed solving – is solved, and after seven episodes, we find out why Martha calls Donny “Baby Reindeer”. It turns out to be a Rosebud from Citizen Kane kind of deal. The only good thing about Martha’s childhood, she tells Donny on voicemail, was a cuddly toy she had of a baby reindeer of which he reminds her. “You are the spit of that reindeer,” she says, “same nose, same eyes, same cute wee bum…” Martha projected all of the comfort she took from that toy onto Donny, and he took succour from hearing her say how much he means to her.

It’s an oddly neat rom-com climax for the tricky drama that’s gone before it, but whatever the truth of it, like the rest of this finale, it’s pulsing with real feelings and it works.

Baby Reindeer is available to stream now on Netflix.