Run, a new HBO series masterminded by the director of Fleabag’s inaugural stage run, Vicky Jones, has an intriguing, sexy premise: Ruby Richardson, a housewife with two children, has maintained a curious pact with her ex-boyfriend, Billy Johnson, for the last 17 years. If the ex-lovers text each other the word “RUN,” they are to head immediately to New York for a train trip across America, deciding after seven days whether they want to be together or part ways and never speak again. At this moment, in what is presumably meant to be 2020 minus the pandemic, both of them are thoroughly unhappy. Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) is a motivational speaker with a minor drinking problem; Ruby (Merritt Wever) once had dreams of being an architect and now does not appear to dream of much at all. When we first meet her, in her car outside a Target, she is talking to her husband on the phone in a sweet, supplicating voice, her face at odds with the “I love you” that’s emerging from her mouth as if the audio and image were not synching.
Seconds later, Ruby gets the fateful text, the soundtrack leaping as if this is the beginning of a horror movie. In her eyes, it is a chance to end the stifling horror of her daily life. There is a pleasant, loony tension in the earliest episodes of Run, a kind of fizzing combination of excitement and unease. The sheer stupidity of everyone’s decisions, in light of the fact that recklessness and spontaneity are currently as much a relic of the recent past as sex with distant exes, gives the pilot in particular a jolt of electricity: Ruby and Billy, who have not laid eyes on each other since college, are amazed to learn that they are capable of such insanity and equally amazed to learn that they still want to jump each others’ bones. Gleeson and Wever have such immediate and astounding chemistry that I ended up googling “Domhnall Gleeson Merritt Wever relationship?” less than halfway through the episode; three minutes later, both characters had retired to separate bathrooms on the train to masturbate. The actors bring a lived-in quality to the relationship, a shorthand that feels convincingly like the singular, invented patois of two people who were once in love. It made me think of something the director Celine Sciamma said last month, in an interview with The Independent. “A relationship is about inventing your own language,” she insisted. “That’s what you mourn for when you’re losing someone you love. This language you’re not going to speak with anybody else.”
If reuniting has allowed Billy and Ruby to rekindle their shared language, it has also served to demonstrate that both lovers are kooks. Picture, if you dare, the person you were either dating or in love with at the tender age of 19, and then think of blowing up your life to join them on an AmTrak train for seven days: It is, as ideas go, unhinged, a sign that both participants are at best desperate, and at worst a little mad. There is tremendous scope for a two-handed comedy-cum-psychodrama in the series’s premise—an extremely perverse version of The Trip, if both Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon were incredibly depressed and also very, very horny for each other. That Run chooses to swerve off the tracks into another genre altogether, eventually turning into a crime caper, is a pity.
The show becomes a thing that’s neither fish nor fowl, not quite erotic enough or funny enough to be a hot, raunchy rom-com and not quite plausible enough to be truly thrilling. The result feels like at least a partial waste of two characters whose unfurling psychic damage is more interesting than any of Run’s convoluted twists. Ruby, in particular, is fascinating for the fact that she has left behind two children, an act that is seen as uniquely upsetting and transgressive when the parent who is fleeing is the mother; her dissatisfaction is not the hip brand of ennui that appears in so many New York–set dramedies about young, well-dressed people, but a force that curdles everything it touches. Wever’s face, softer and less angular than most actresses’, registers hurt the way fresh snow registers footprints. “I thought seeing you again would make me happy,” she tells Billy, in one of numerous arguments, “but it just makes me sad.”
This week, there has been some ire on the internet over a promotional interview for Run in which Jones says that Fleabag acted as “a tipping point for feminism.” I have nothing new to add as a rebuttal; I can only suggest, gently, that there may have been other examples of similarly unlikeable women in films and in television before 2013, and that there may also have been other women in films and in television who had casual sex, and masturbated, and said “fuck” and “wank” a lot, even if they did not necessarily say those things in such nice voices.
Because Ruby is sardonic, and because she is abandoning her life for something she perceives as better, or at least more stimulating, there will probably be op-eds and think-pieces about whether Run has some feminist subtext, being as it is another project from the Fleabag team. (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who also has a cameo in the show, is on board as executive producer.) One of the things that irked me most about the show was, in fact, the way Ruby’s hatred of her body and its various imperfections—her “flappy vagina” and her face that “clearly” no longer looks 19—had to be used as a plot point in the first place. Gleeson, gawkier and younger and a little less sophisticated in 2013, was not asked to seem amazed by the fact he was marrying Rachel McAdams, a bona fide movie star, in About Time.
More interesting to me than Jones’s faux pas was another promotional interview, this time with Merritt Wever in the L.A. Times. Wever, who had one of the funniest scenes in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story last year, is a skilled comedienne and two-time Emmy winner with a shy, unstarry air. In Run, one of her most evident qualities is a disarming sultriness: She oozes sex appeal whenever Ruby turns it on, lighting up from the inside out at will. Still, she professes to believing she would never play the lead in a romantic comedy, only the heroine’s hilarious sidekick. “I’d love to go in for it,” she recalls saying to her agent. “But girls like me don’t get parts like this … I’d always been told, explicitly and implicitly, that that wasn’t an option for me. I think I internalized that maybe more than I had ever understood before this audition process.”
It is true that Wever does not necessarily resemble a typical leading lady. It is also true that this should be irrelevant. The fact is that Ruby Richardson should always have been played by a girl just like Merritt Wever, which is to say one who’s funny, sexy, sometimes melancholic-looking, as adroit at skids and pratfalls as she is at registering emotion, and extremely capable of breaking hearts. That this has turned out to be news to her, to say nothing of the industry that employs her, may explain why I cringed internally at the show’s numerous gags about her character’s seething self-hatred. Certain knowing critiques of the way that women loathe themselves can end up looking, from some angles, like the very thing they claim to be critiquing: jokes about our wobbling bodies, our lined faces, and the dumbness of our specifically feminine fixations. There are other ways to prove a woman’s real.