I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
You don’t need me to tell you that The Great British Bake Off (or The Great British Baking Show, as we’re forced to call it in the colonies) is the most comforting show on television. The contestants, called bakers, are all people you’d like to have as neighbors. The competition takes place in a spacious tent on a beautiful lawn, perennially dotted with lambs and ducklings. But when I think about the series, I can no longer picture cream puffs assembled in precarious towers, or bunting, or cheeky jokes about soggy bottoms and warm nuts. All I can think about is when Rosie, a baker on the most recent season and a small-animal vet, said that rabbits are her least favorite animals to work with because “they just want to die.”
To fully appreciate the power of this moment, you have to understand that this is not a show that deals with darkness. The most intense thing that’s ever happened on The Great British Baking Show? When season five’s Iain threw his Baked Alaska into a trash can and stormed from the tent in a fit of frustration. And then what? you might wonder. Well. Then … he came back and apologized.
Even Paul Hollywood, the grumpier of the show’s two judges — a kind of English Jack Donaghy, with similar self-possession and (it must be said) perfect hair, who is fond of training the piercing blue eyes of a Siberian husky on anxious bakers and dispensing the coveted “Hollywood Handshake” when he’s especially pleased — didn’t give Iain too much grief for the outburst.
The show is just so civilized, which is to say it’s all so British, a Keep Calm and Carry On poster come to pastel-colored life to soothe these vulgar times.
At least I thought it was. But that was before Rosie’s rabbit thing changed how I see the show forever.
The very picture of an English country vet, all rosy cheeks and florals, fast-talking, understated Rosie has a habit of casually referring to pig castration and pulling worms from horses’ eyes. Our animal-saving queen says the rabbit thing in answer to a question that Noel Fielding, one of the show’s two new hosts, asks during episode five. Sweet, dopey, fond-of-sweaters Noel is a goth, and for much of the series, his closest bond is with Helena, a baker who’s introduced as living like every day is Halloween.
(Helena has one of the other great moments in the series, when a judge tells her she has a fly in her hair and she deadpans, “They come to me because I’m dead.”)
But Noel seems to have a bond with Rosie, too, sidling up to her station to ask which is her least favorite animal to work with.
“Rabbits,” she tells Noel, because “they just want to die.”
As you let this sink in, you should also know that, as Rosie answers, she’s injecting dye into a clear jelly mold with a needle. A long, thick, phobia-triggering horse needle. And this isn’t the first time Rosie has used a veterinary implement in her baking. In her series introduction, Rosie insists that “baking and being a vet do complement each other” because both use a lot of “needles and syringes, catheters, bits and bobs.”
(Do they? I thought as I rewatched this recently, hunched over a bowl of SpaghettiOs in days-old sweatpants.)
Noel laughs with genuine shock. “That shouldn’t be funny,” he says, “but it is.”
Straight-faced Rosie, focused on her terrifying horse needle, doubles down: “Rabbits are not my thing. Give me an angry stallion or a snake any day.”
But why? Noel doesn’t ask, and honestly, what the hell, Noel? Chatting with bakers is your WHOLE JOB, other than shouting, “Ready, set, bake!” And here comes Rosie with this fascinating morsel, making your job easy, and you don’t follow up? Why do rabbits just want to die, and how does she know that? Is she a rabbit therapist, Noel?
I have a theory. To enumerate, allow me to turn to another surprisingly dark, British cultural export, Richard Adams’s 1972 novel, Watership Down.
For a children’s book, there’s an awful lot of fear and murder in Watership Down. After all, it’s mostly about rabbits, whose defining characteristic is that they’re afraid of basically everything. Even the rabbits’ folk hero, a trickster that Adams compares to Robin Hood and Brer Rabbit, is named El-ahrairah, which, in Adams’s made-up rabbit language, means “the Prince With a Thousand Enemies.”
So even in England, where the mightiest predators are dog-size, at best, rabbits have a thousand enemies, and each of those enemies wants to eat them. They’re terrified all the time, which is what Rosie means when she says that rabbits just want to die. God’s perfect nihilists, rabbits know that death is imminent. Whether it comes from a fox, a car, or a sardonic veterinarian who bakes in her spare time and is just trying to help them — doesn’t matter. They’re braced for it from all sides.
And the rabbits are right! Death is imminent. That’s the glorious drama of the thing! Aren’t we all just food for something, when you really think about it? The Great British Baking Show does not want you to think about it. Or does it?
With all due respect to Noel and Helena’s gothiness, I submit that it is this moment — the rabbit moment — that reveals The Great British Baking Show’s secret darkness. Famously the least cutthroat series on TV, The Great British Baking Show is usually able to distract us from the eternal, screaming conflict of predator and prey with a perfectly shiny mirror glaze. Even here, the show breezes past Rosie’s comment as though it were nothing more than a particularly dark joke, when in fact it reveals a fundamental truth, a truth the show itself knows well: Nothing, not even a Paul Hollywood handshake, will save us from the gaping maw of death.
Far from an outlier, Rosie’s terrified rabbits actually speak to one of the show’s major themes. The Great British Baking Show understands that life truly is like a great cake — beautiful, fragile, and temporary. Profiteroles don’t last forever. This truth is baked into the very center of each episode, woven through the series like the marbling of a perfect cheesecake. That’s what makes it all so comforting. Because if we’re all bounding toward the grave, at least we have The Great British Baking Show to remind us to make the journey sweet.