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In HBO's 'The Baby,' a cursed, unwanted infant sets off an existential crisis

Michelle de Swarte as Natasha in <em>The Baby.</em>
Ross Ferguson
Michelle de Swarte as Natasha in The Baby.

A few minutes into the first episode of HBO's British miniseries The Baby, three girlfriends are hanging out playing a game of poker, when a noise abruptly interrupts their fun: The cry of a child over in the next room. As Mags (Shvorne Marks) reluctantly leaves to go tend to her infant, Natasha, played by Michelle de Swarte, complains to Rita, played by Isy Suttie, about the disruption, and how their poker nights "are sacred." When Mags returns with the baby in hand, the vibe has clearly shifted, and the banter is now preoccupied by the tiny human, much to Natasha's annoyance.

And then, another bomb: Rita announces she, too, will soon be joining the mom club, and Natasha can barely conceal her disdain. Everyone becomes irritated, the night is ruined. Soon after, Natasha's life takes a surreal turn via a series of increasingly volatile events.

Reviewing Siân Robins-Grace and Lucy Gaymer's engaging "horror comedy," which premieres on Sunday, presents an interesting challenge, because it's got big Russian Doll energy; the viewer is just as in the dark as to the rules of the realm as the puzzled protagonist who finds herself at the mercy of some truly disturbing forces. (Also similar to Russian Doll: an absurdist, macabre sensibility that will either be "for you," or not. I happen to like it myself.) The first several episodes kept me on my toes, as I tried to decipher where the story might be heading, what it might be trying to say about motherhood, adulthood, and mortality. It's best, I think, to go in knowing as little as possible – the better to enjoy and be bewildered by the mystery of it all.

But I can divulge the general premise, and here I'm not saying anything HBO's promotional materials haven't already detailed: That aforementioned unexpected chaos Natasha encounters is the sudden appearance of her very own baby, as in The Baby. It's certainly not a baby she asked or planned for – not only is she uninterested in becoming a mother, she has zero desire to spend any significant amount of her time around kids, period. Yet here it is, a baby who literally falls into her life, and won't let her go. No matter how many ways she tries to get rid of him, he boomerangs right back to her.

Not only is she uninterested in becoming a mother, she has zero desire to spend any significant amount of her time around kids, period.

And not only is the infant impossible to avoid, but also, it's cursed: Certain people who come in close contact with this baby for too long seem to be met with horrific fates. (Who winds up on its bad side, and why, is at times perhaps a bit too fuzzily defined by the show's writers.) Like other demonic youths in popular culture – think the evil kid with supernatural powers in that Twilight Zone classic episode "It's A Good Life," or the adopted girl in the bonkers 2009 film Orphan – this tot is a problem child. Even if he can't do anything beyond coo – he's The Baby! – he exerts a dangerous power over the proceedings through wide-eyed glares that are legitimately creepy enough to give a person – OK, me – anxiety just looking at him. (They did a great job casting for this role.)

De Swarte inhabits the brusque and freewheeling nature of Natasha with crackling verve, creating a character whose overreliance on snark and avoidance tactics fails to serve her throughout this disorienting role as an unintended caretaker. Even as the story gets weirder and more expansive with folklore and backstory, she grounds it in a realism that's relatable, especially as she's forced to confront some familial trauma with her estranged mother Barbara (Sinéad Cusack) and younger sister Bobbi (Amber Grappy).

I'm particularly drawn to The Baby because like Natasha, I'm a 30-something who doesn't want kids and finds herself mourning the ends of friendships as I knew them with each new pregnancy announcement. The darkly ironic conceit is a refreshingly twisted spin on the trope of "hardened adult becomes guardian to precocious kid," except mercifully, this version eschews a saccharine interpretation where the adult softens and learns to love life. Natasha does evolve over the course of the series, but from what I've seen so far, it's not so simple as learning to empathize with her friends with kids, or changing her mind about wanting a kid of her own. There's a lot more going on here.

The baby isn't just a manifestation of one of Natasha's worst nightmares, but a blunt, effective metaphor for the historical policing of women's bodies.

Regardless of one's attitude toward children, though, plenty of other viewers are likely to connect with the disheartening reality of feeling forced into parenthood because of forces completely out of their immediate control. The baby isn't just a manifestation of one of Natasha's worst nightmares, but a blunt, effective metaphor for the historical policing of women's bodies. Apt parallels to the government's stripping away of abortion access act both in the past and present — but especially now, and here in the United States where Roe v. Wade is now all but extinct — abound, and are rendered by the writers in terrifying ways both explicit and implicit.

Only six of the eight episodes were made available to press before the premiere, so I'm not entirely sure if The Baby will stick the landing, or how. But the creators show a knack for clever surprises and intense thrills, and de Swarte's Natasha is the kind of character you want to see through until the end, with baby or without.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.

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