Richard Gadd as Donny and Jessica Gunning as Martha in Netflix's 'Baby Reindeer.'

Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

This essay contains some spoilers for “Baby Reindeer.”

The Netflix hit “Baby Reindeer” has taken the world by storm with its nuanced, painfully honest portrayal of one man’s experience of stalking and abuse. In a rich irony, an alarming number of viewers have responded by ham-handedly hunting down and harassing the show’s supposed real-life subjects, despite its creator’s pleas for them to stop.

Sara Stewart

There are many important takeaways from this brilliant, hard-to-watch show — whether or not you agree with all of them. But it is very explicitly a directive not to track people down and demonize them — rather, it’s a challenge to viewers to be able to hold several contradictory truths at once. Are we capable of this kind of moral complexity? Creator Richard Gadd clearly hoped so, but the jury’s still out.

Scottish comic Gadd’s seven-part fictionalized series, currently Netflix’s most-watched series in the US, recounts the story of Gadd’s being stalked in person and online by an older woman; it also delves into an earlier sexual assault, Gadd’s on-off relationship with a trans woman and his conflicting feelings about his burgeoning bisexuality. That’s a lot of material for a half-hour series billed by some, somewhat bewilderingly, as a comedy (it’s really not).

Among the many radical things Gadd’s show does — and, I assume, the one-man live shows upon which he drew for this series also did — is refuse to wrap any plot points up in a tidy bow. There are no easy answers here, no satisfying resolutions.

Instead, Gadd presents himself as highly conflicted, opting to depict his actions and reactions in the most damning possible light, even compared to the people who are doing him harm. He dwells on his own self-loathing and the way in which it stops him from seeking help. He unpacks the shame he feels around exploring his sexuality, the evolution of which he ties, rightly or wrongly, to his traumatic abuse.

There is stomach-churningly awful behavior depicted here, for sure, but no one is written off as a one-note villain. Gadd’s character, Donny, repeatedly returns to the people who’ve violated him — a striking departure from the crime-and-retribution narrative we so often get, both in our true crime and our fiction.

“We live in a time where everyone’s trying to be perfect,” Gadd told GQ. “It’s interesting when someone holds their hands up and says, ‘I made some mistakes.’” He told the magazine he’d wanted to illustrate the reality of abuse in which the connection between abuser and victim isn’t so easy to sever: “What abuse does is it creates psychological damage as well as physical damage… Abuse leaves an imprint. Especially abuse like this where it’s repeated with promises. There’s a pattern where a lot of people who have been abused feel like they need their abusers… it was showing an element of abuse that hadn’t been seen on television before, which is, unfortunately, the deeply entrenched, negative, psychological effects of attachment you can sometimes have with your abuser.”

That’s a thesis completely at odds with our highly polarized culture, in which all too often people are categorized as either bad or good. The “main character” of the day on social media is frequently someone who’s deemed the villain du jour and inundated with hate from total strangers. Our black-and-white thinking also informs who’s allowed to be considered a victim or deemed worthy of sympathy in the public eye or, often, in court.

So Gadd’s insistence on staying in the emotional gray areas is refreshing, and doubly striking when you consider that sexual violence against men still carries a huge stigma, even in the post-MeToo era. And it’s happening more often than you might think.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “nearly a quarter of men reported some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime. Approximately 1 in 10 men in the US experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime and reported some form of IPV-related impact.”

Jeffrey Ingold, who served as the show’s LGBTQ+ consultant, wrote in The Guardian that “Baby Reindeer” accurately represents the struggle faced by male assault and stalking victims who try to report their experiences, largely due to stigma, shame and public ignorance about the scope of the problem.

“So few mainstream TV shows dare to explore the traumatic and destabilising impact of sexual assault on gay and bi men,” Ingold pointed out. “There is a hidden epidemic of sexual violence within the queer community that is rarely visible in the media. It’s hard to know the scale of the problem when (understandably) very few gay and bi survivors report their experiences to the police, and we know that almost a third of those who do feel as if they were not taken seriously by officers.”

Meanwhile, stalkers portrayed in pop culture are often depicted as one-dimensional sexy psychos. Jessica Gunning, by contrast, plays Donny’s stalker Martha in “Baby Reindeer” as terrifying, pitiable, funny, lonely, clever, violent and deeply mentally ill.

Gadd’s character admits to finding her attention flattering even as it veers into obsession. At one point, he even uses her interest in him — and his own sexual fantasies about it — as a way to convince himself he’s straight. Throughout the series, he clearly demonstrates how this kind of obsessive attention can ruin someone’s life.

Gadd is at pains to point out that his stalker isn’t evil, but a vulnerable person with extreme mental health issues. “I can’t emphasize enough how much of a victim she is in all this,” he told The Independent several years ago.

“When we think of stalkers, we always think of films like ‘Misery and ‘Fatal Attraction,’ where the stalker is a monstrous figure in the night down an alleyway. But usually, it’s a prior relationship or someone you know or a work colleague. Stalking and harassment is a form of mental illness. It would have been wrong to paint her as a monster, because she’s unwell, and the system’s failed her.”

But many viewers seem not to have absorbed a key message about harassment and the damage it does. Gadd goes to great lengths to show the devastating, relentless impact of Martha’s onslaught of messages and vitriol, both on him and on the people around him: his erstwhile girlfriend, Teri, his parents, his ex-girlfriend and her mother.

In real life, at least one person’s life has already been made materially worse by exactly this sort of harassment. A man some viewers mistakenly identified as the older television writer in “Baby Reindeer” has gone to the police after receiving threatening messages on social media.

Meanwhile, a woman who may be the inspiration for the show’s Martha has said she’s considering a lawsuit against Gadd for defamation after she’s been similarly harassed by fans of the show. There may be an argument to be made here about the irresponsibility of making a show in which a mentally ill leading character is made somewhat easily identifiable. But you have to wonder whether people were really paying attention to what Gadd’s series was attempting to say about this woman, about the cyclical and enduring nature of abuse and bullying.

Some experts are already speculating about whether the current upheaval will lead to a change in how fictionalized true crime stories are made, or whether they should all be preceded by warnings to viewers not to pursue subjects themselves (though one wonders how much difference that sort of admonition would really make).

Whatever the legacy of “Baby Reindeer” may be, it stands as one of the boldest and most forthright explorations of male victims of stalking and sexual assault. It should inspire more conversations and more art on the topic — and convince people to put down the torches and pitchforks. I’d like to say they’re of a bygone era, but that might be wishful thinking.