It can be frustrating when people try to sell you on a new TV series by saying, “Well, you have to give it about five episodes — but by Episode Six, it really gets going.” Even in self-isolation, time is finite and so is my patience — I don’t want to waste precious hours slogging through something in the hopes that maybe it’ll eventually get marginally better.
With that in mind, I’m happy to report that you won’t have that problem with Run, the new HBO limited series that premieres Sunday. If anything, the show has the opposite issue. Although the network only made the first five episodes (out of seven) available to critics, I feel relatively confident suggesting that, if you want, you can just watch the first three and then bail. Maybe Run will right itself, but after a terrific opening, it runs out of gas, moving from a funny, thoughtful, sexy exploration of second chances and regret into something a whole lot less satisfying. For a show about characters trying to make up for lost time, Run squanders a golden opportunity.
The premise sounds perfect for a high-octane crime thriller. Ruby (Merritt Wever) is in her parked car somewhere in California when she receives a text from someone named Billy — all it says is “RUN.” Suddenly, she’s incredibly anxious, nervous about what to do. But she also acts like she’s prepared for this text — as if she knew, one day, it might come — and, after some hesitation, she types back “RUN” and then burns rubber out of the parking lot. Soon, she’s at the airport, frantically buying a ticket for the next flight to New York. She then hops on an Amtrak train, where she meets Billy (Domhnall Gleeson), who’s waiting for her. And off they go.
Created by frequent Phoebe Waller-Bridge collaborator Vicky Jones, Run may start with sweaty intrigue, but quickly it becomes apparent that these two characters aren’t involved in espionage or some elaborate heist. Part of the series’ fun is slowly piecing together who Ruby and Billy are — and what they’re up to — but to give a slim outline: They used to date in college and now, 17 years later, they’ll fulfill a pact they made long ago. Essentially, if one of them texted “RUN” and the other texted “RUN” back within 24 hours, they’d drop everything and reunite on that train leaving New York. Why they made that pact — and what they plan to do on the trip — is for you to find out.
Run touches on several fantasies that many people have probably had. On one level, the series is meant to be a real-world take on the Sleepless in Seattle/An Affair to Remember idea of former lovers meeting up at some predetermined time and place. (Or, in less grandiose terms, imagine if that one person you kiddingly swore to get together with if you were both 30 and single took you up on that pledge.) Run tickles a curiosity we’ve all harbored: Who in adulthood isn’t curious about what their college sweetheart is up to now?
And like Richard Linklater’s wonderful Before trilogy, this limited series savors the romantic notion of stepping outside your mundane normal life to go on a brief, exciting, unpredictable sojourn with a beautiful woman or handsome man. Not only haven’t Ruby and Billy seen each other in over a decade, it appears they haven’t spoken in that time, so as we’re getting up to speed with who they are, they’re simultaneously figuring out who the thirtysomething version of the person they used to know is. The mysteries upon mysteries only make the suspense more of a turn-on.
Initially, Jones seems to be aiming for a sophisticated, bittersweet tone, observing as Ruby and Billy separately let the reality of their reckless decision sink in while becoming reacquainted with the person sitting across from them. Billy is a successful motivational/self-help guru, while Ruby is an architect with a husband and kids. As you can probably guess, both of their lives are actually more complicated than that — they’re holding onto secrets and lies that slowly will be revealed over the show’s run — but when Run is really working, Jones and her stars walk a fine line between soberly exploring how these universal daydreams would actually play out and offering a vibrant, heightened reality in which their adolescent pact reinvigorates lives that have lost their spark.
We’d all like to think that our ex still longs for us — that we could do things better this time if we just had a do-over — but then our rational mind takes over, throwing cold water on those reveries. Who could seriously just chuck everything aside and hit the reset button on a whim? That’s why it’s great that Wever and Gleeson play their characters as flirty pragmatists: Deep down, Ruby and Billy don’t entirely believe this reunion and its ultimate agenda will pan out — that’s not how the world works — but for the time they have together, they’re going to do their best to believe otherwise. And despite the years apart, these two clearly still have a connection — a combustible, sarcastic back-and-forth that underlines the ample sexual tension — even though Billy’s afraid he’s become a worse person as he’s gotten older and she’s concerned that she’s put on weight since they were a couple.
What was always so affecting in the Before sequels — particularly 2004’s Before Sunset — was how Jesse and Celine viewed each other as a way of measuring themselves. Time had moved forward, but with this one person, everything was frozen in some perfect past, which allowed the characters to gauge how they themselves had changed (or not) in the interim — and if they were happier with that new version. There’s something inherently self-centered about this fantasy scenario — I want to see if I’ve still got it — and Run jousts with that fact in funny ways.
Although you can instantly sense Ruby and Billy’s chemistry, you can also see why they probably drove each other crazy. Once they start reminiscing, they realize they don’t remember certain key elements of their old relationship the same. (She insists they never fought; he disagrees.) And as they catch each other up on their lives, an interesting question comes up: Are we seeing Ruby and Billy as they are now? Or as older versions of the people they were in college? That’s not merely an academic musing — it’s a very real consideration after they have sex and Billy notes that it’s “different” than when they were younger. What changed? Her or him? Or just life and circumstances?
Wever and Gleeson are such smart company — her character bubbly but also a bit needy, his cocky but also a bit insecure — that simply spending time with them as they reminisce and gently jab one another is an absolute delight over Run’s first three half-hour episodes. Jones wants us to wonder how long these characters’ blissful Never-Never Land can last — when their train ride will reach its inevitable final destination — and unfortunately, starting with Episode Four, I do think the spell begins to dissipate.
But to explain why would constitute a spoiler, so let me just say that the series shifts tone, and genre, in a way that feels unearned and inauthentic to who these people are. You could argue that Run takes this idea of an unrealistic fantasy to its logical conclusion, but with two episodes to go, I found myself increasingly unengaged with the artificial stakes that get introduced. In the process, Jones undercuts her premise’s very real poignancy. We’ll always pine for the roads not taken in our lives — Run shortchanges itself by choosing the wrong direction to go with its story.