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In ‘The Baby,’ Killing With Cuteness

by News Desk

The British horror-comedy “The Baby” contains its fair share of blood, supernatural machinations and demonic possessions. Since its premiere in April on HBO, the limited series has delivered a steady stream of gore, grisly deaths and ghosts.

But viewers who’ve experienced caring for small children can tell you that some of the show’s most chilling moments are rooted in domestic mundanity.

There’s the coven-like mommy clique piercing your soul with their judgmental stares. Or the jump-scare of a revolting diaper reveal. Then, there’s that one stuffed animal which, if lost, can cause more sleep-related terror than Freddy Kreuger.

The show’s protagonist, Natasha (played by the actress Michelle de Swarte), gets a crash course in both the ordinary and the otherworldly when a mysterious infant is thrust into her life. The freewheeling bachelorette is forced to care for the baby after it literally falls from the sky and into her arms.

She soon learns that the creepy crawler is an immortal serial killer with psychic and telekinetic abilities — for decades, he has sucked the life forces from a string of single, childless women. Despite the baby’s wide-eyed stare and gummy smile, he’s a physical manifestation of rage, with a heartbreaking origin story marked by violence and, as is revealed in the penultimate episode, abandonment by both his birth mother and father.

In between scenes filled with crying, stroller-pushing, spoon-feeding and impaling, the show touches on themes of generational trauma, bodily autonomy and the expectations society places on women — subjects that could hardly be more topical as restrictive abortion legislation makes its way through numerous state legislatures. The eighth and final episode of “The Baby” is set to air Sunday.

Before the arrival of her nameless ward, Natasha struggles with the fact that her drinking buddies are settling down. This mirrors the real-life experiences of Siân Robins-Grace, one of the show’s creators and its head writer, who harbored mixed emotions when her close friends began starting families.

“I didn’t really deal with it very well,” she said in a recent interview. “I was so surprised by how painful I found it.”

She spoke of sorting through those feelings with the co-creator Lucy Gaymer while they were on a 2019 trip to Machu Picchu in Peru. The London-based duo hiked and talked, ultimately hatching what became the show’s pilot. This was their first time collaborating. Previously, Robins-Grace had been an executive producer on Netflix’s “Sex Education,” while Gaymer had worked primarily as a TV production manager. Filming took place across England between June and November 2021.

On a video call from their vacation on the Greek island of Corfu, Robins-Grace and Gaymer talked about the growing trend of maternity-based thrillers, their shifting perspectives on parenthood and what “The Baby” has to say about reproductive rights. They were joined in the conversation by two of the show’s executive producers, Carolyn Strauss (“Game of Thrones,” “Chernobyl”) in Los Angeles and Nicole Kassell (“Watchmen”) — who also directed the pilot episode — from New York. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Please excuse the pun, but can you describe how “The Baby” was conceived?

SIÂN ROBINS-GRACE It really struck me how an experience that a lot of women are united by — having children — can create so much distance as well. And I was struck by the polarizing effect that babies can have on your life. These poor little creatures are just getting born, and they’re not asking for it, but they create all this drama.

LUCY GAYMER I had this idea: What if the inciting incident was a baby falling out of the sky and a woman in her 30s, who knows she didn’t want children, catches the baby? I’m in my 30s, Siân’s in her 30s, and we’re unsure about which version of motherhood feels exciting or relevant to us. That place of confusion is where the idea started.

Over the course of writing and filming the series, did your perspectives on parenthood shift?

ROBINS-GRACE The process of making the show allowed me to really explore the depths of my ambivalence. It hasn’t given me any more clarity, but it’s helped me sit in that ambivalence more comfortably. I think that’s one of those things that feels quite taboo, but we try to explore it in the show.

NICOLE KASSELL Siân’s reactions to her friends having babies — I remember feeling that way. There is that abandonment when your friends move on. Or, if you’re the first one to go forward, it’s like, “But you’re going to lose all your friends!” I loved the exploration of ambivalence because it took me years to decide to have a baby, and it took me six years to decide to have a second baby.

GAYMER One of the things I’ve learned is that I definitely want a lot more people around than what’s often seemingly available. The nuclear family is very clearly not what I want.

ROBINS-GRACE Yeah, the show definitely looks sideways at the conventional nuclear heteronormative family structure and identifies ways in which that can be a really violent space for people trying to raise children.

CAROLYN STRAUSS The show explores all these questions, but I don’t feel like it makes a judgment about the act of parenting. It looked at it, but didn’t necessarily come to any conclusion.

How do you feel “The Baby” fits in with the recent spate of films and TV depicting motherhood as a horror show?

ROBINS-GRACE It’s really a queer and feminist take on horror, because it comes from the perspective of “the other” living within a violent society. There’s a very interesting trend in horror that has happened in the last few years, which is what Jordan Peele calls “the social thriller,” where the monster isn’t a dude with a hook for a hand or a vampire — the monster is your environment. We’re stepping in with a conversation that’s framed by the idea of a social monster. In Episode 7, we do identify a “boogeyman,” but then it turns out to be a straw man. Then, suddenly, all of the conventions of horror just fall away, and you’re like, “Then who’s the baddie? And if there’s no baddie, what is this all about?” Ideally, we would like the audience to be left with that question, looking for answers.

KASSELL It’s always fascinating to see how things come in waves, whether it’s westerns, sci-fi or tornado movies. This trend feels like the cracking open of the female perspective, or the mothering perspective. All these topics haven’t been explored because the media gatekeepers have been male, largely. It’s a refreshing feeling, having these experiences be fully explored rather than idealized, like in a Calgon commercial where it’s like, “Oh, that woman’s having a stressed out day. She deserves a soak in the tub!”

STRAUSS It’s interesting, though, because it feels like half the world wants more of these conversations and half the world is turning the clock back. It does feel like the show is hitting at this point in time that is particularly important.

Siân and Lucy, what has it been like to be living in Britain and seeing your show roll out in America just as the fight over abortion rights started to dominate the nation’s headlines?

GAYMER We’ve been talking a lot about what feels like the mystic timing of the show coming out with this going on. But, then, we’ve also been reflecting on how this is going on in a couple of European countries as well.

ROBINS-GRACE It is a grim coincidence. It’s not something we anticipated at all when we were making the show. However, the show is preoccupied with questions of reproductive justice, of which abortion is one very big piece. But reproductive justice is also a question of who gets to choose to have children, who gets to raise their children safely and who has control over that. So the wider conversation has to take into account health care, disability rights, trans rights, poverty, education, race. All of this speaks to how we love each other and make families together. All of those other pieces are so important that it wouldn’t be a rich conversation to just reduce the show to an allegory of abortion rights. Also, we shouldn’t reduce abortion rights to the question of just one moment of choice.

You said you didn’t anticipate this kind of timing. In hindsight, would you have written anything differently?

ROBINS-GRACE No. All the characters in the show are engaging with the question of family care and reproduction, and it’s problematic for all of them in different ways. We wanted to be part of the conversation about politicizing family care and reproduction from a female perspective, and it’s happening at this moment in America. Hopefully, we’re contributing to it.

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