Scary children have long been a staple of the horror genre: The Exorcist, The Omen, Orphan… the list goes on and on. But a new HBO show takes the archetype of the cursed child and ages it way down, until the object of our nightmares is just a baby. The baby, to be precise.
HBO’s The Baby introduces us to Natasha, aka Tash (Michelle de Swarte), a woman who has no desire to have children. She gets saddled with one anyway when a baby literally falls out of the sky and into her arms. Who are the baby’s real parents? Why is he so attached to Natasha? And most importantly, why does almost everyone the baby meets die a painful death? These are the mysteries The Baby seeks to unravel.
Despite being marketed as a horror-comedy, The Baby lacks particularly meaningful laughs or scares. This is a story about a killer baby and the complications of motherhood: It should be weird and captivating! Instead, The Baby meanders through a series of predictable horror set pieces, only just beginning to pick up steam in the latter half of the six episodes made available for review.
“The Baby” tackles motherhood head-on
Credit: Ross Ferguson / HBO
At its core, The Baby is about motherhood and the myriad ways in which having a child can change your life. Tash emphatically does not want a child, nor does she even like being near children. It’s her worst nightmare when the baby arrives in her life. In the eyes of the people around her, her identity becomes tied to his.
The baby’s presence in Tash’s life is a clear allegory for the all-consuming nature of parenting, but in Tash’s case, it goes deeper. She did not want or plan for this baby, calling to mind the loss of autonomy of women forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. Early episodes rely on pretty surface-level observations about this idea, but to its credit, The Baby digs deeper into this as it goes on. It also never falls into the trap of Tash suddenly discovering she’s a mother at heart and developing maternal skills. She is firmly in the “I don’t want kids camp,” and that’s more than OK. The Baby is also full of characters who do want kids; that’s also more than OK.
‘The Baby’ is most effective when it examines different people’s connections to motherhood.
The show is most effective when it examines different people’s connections to motherhood. An early scene sees Tash clashing with her friends Mags (Shvorne Marks), a new mother, and Rita (Isy Suttie), who is three months pregnant. This conflict, laid out with tight performances and just-uncomfortable-enough dialogue, is a defining moment for Tash. She sees children as a strain on life and friendships. For their part, Mags and Rita don’t understand why Tash can’t simply be happy for them.
We don’t begin to understand Tash’s complicated relationship to motherhood for a few episodes, when we learn more about her family. While Tash would never dream about having a child, her sister Bobbi (Amber Grappy) desperately wants to adopt one with her partner Sam (Genesis Lynea). Both Tash and Bobbi’s thoughts about having kids stem from their own childhoods and their thorny relationship with their mother Barbara (Sinéad Cusack). The dynamic between these three women is arguably more fascinating than the killer baby, but its development is stilted due to the show’s tonal inconsistency.
A disappointing horror-comedy
Credit: Rekha Garton / HBO
With a concept as exciting as “cursed murder baby,” it’s a shame that The Baby doesn’t take bigger risks with its horror or its dark comedy. The brunt of the humor rests on de Swarte’s reactions to the bizarre events of the series. She delivers the hell out of her one-sided conversations with the baby, and even the awkward way she holds him elicits a chuckle or two. But de Swarte’s strong leading performance isn’t enough to distract from the fact that there’s very little funny material in the script itself.
In terms of horror, The Baby does a solid job building tension as the baby begins his killing spree, especially thanks to composer Lucrecia Dalt’s disconcerting score. It’s not long before you come to associate the baby’s wide-eyed gaze and cooing with oncoming doom. And if he begins to cry? You’re in big danger.
Unfortunately, The Baby‘s horror tricks plateau early on, with fairly clichéd jump scares and dream sequences doing a disservice to the bigger ideas The Baby clearly wants to explore. Horror intersects best with The Baby‘s key themes of motherhood and autonomy in the show’s fifth episode, which delves into the baby’s origins. No spoilers, but that episode made me feel a deep physical dread. It’s a horror high that the rest of the show doesn’t quite reach — although given how much The Baby has to say and how much potential the concept has, I’d be happy if episodes 7 or 8 prove me wrong.