A romantic reunion. A cross-country trip that’s brimming with secrets. Side pairings, angst, and sexual tension. The plot of the HBO series Run reads like hot slow-burn fanfiction or a really good romance novel. If you’ve ever read either, though, you know how easily those types of stories can go wrong. How sometimes, even with all the most tantalizing elements imaginable, a thrilling love story doesn’t always click together.
This, unfortunately, might be the case with Run, which is an adventurous romance helmed by Vicky Jones with her erstwhile collaborator Phoebe Waller-Bridge executive producing.The two have worked together on both Fleabag and Killing Eve, and while both those shows thrive on a sizzling undercurrent of palpable chemistry (not to mention very clever writing), Run goes through the motions of a great and interesting romance without ever fully becoming one.
The premise is strong, as is the cast. In the opening scene, Ruby (Merritt Wever) gets a text from her former lover, Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) that simply says “RUN.” After a moment’s anxious hesitation, she replies, “RUN,” setting in motion a chain of events that will soon spiral out of control. Though the secrets revealed in the five episodes available for review vary from shocking to insignificant, they’re doled out as cliffhangers and emotional punctuation, so the less that’s said about the finer plot details, the better. Suffice it to say that the two soon find themselves far from their regular lives, traveling by train and engaged in a tete-a-tete that cycles through stages of fondness and hostility.
Herein lies the problem: Ruby and Billy seem to hate each other as much as they like each other. Their acid-tongued exchanges perhaps sting deeper than they’re intended to, while their moments of intimacy and empathy leave less than the desired impact.This may very well end up being the point of the series — that nostalgia isn’t love; that escape from one’s chosen life isn’t easy –but it’s still not particularly enjoyable to watch in the meantime.
Ruby, in particular, is written as a woman who’s indecisive, insecure, inscrutable, and angry — all real qualities worth exploring in a well-rounded character, yet they’re presented here on a relentless loop with rare glimpses of anything else. Billy, while more affable, also possesses more secrets, and each revelation, framed so that we know about them well before he tells Ruby, makes him less easy to root for.
Gleeson and Wever, though perhaps lacking the ideal chemistry levels for a story like this, are both excellent as always. If anything sustains the series, it’s the lead actors’ game ability to tackle challenging material. Wever is offbeat, energetic, and occasionally very funny as a woman whose frantic indecision manifests itself in her every movement.And if he hasn’t already, Gleeson here proves himself a perfect romantic lead, giving a charming and lived-in performance as a motivational speaker who always manages to say the wrong thing. He shifts from eager coyness to masked hurt effortlessly, conveying all the microscopic emotions that come with infatuation through a language made entirely of smiles and sidelong looks. The central performances, above all else, lend hope that there’s a salvageable story in here waiting to be recovered.
On a technical level, Run is also a frustratingly mixed bag. Claustrophobic, close-up filmmaking doesn’t let the emotion of each scene breathe, but some choices of imagery and scene choreography are undoubtedly arresting. The dialogue is strong, but the pacing is strange. The plot twists rarely satisfy, but the episode end-notes leave you wanting more. A strong soundtrack sets a romantic tone that the scenes at hand, vexing and off-kilter as they sometimes are, never quite match.
If wanting to love a thing were the same as loving it, I could tell you that Run, with its talented cast and crew and buzzworthy premise, is HBO’s next must-watch series. As things currently stand, it isn’t, but it’s a decent enough romantic adventure during a time when homebound audiences are dreaming about romantic adventures, and if it ends up with a second season, there’s a chance it could still find its sweet spot. As with Billy and Ruby’s pact, it’s up to you whether or not you choose to give in; run with it, or don’t.