When Merritt Wever won a supporting-actress Emmy for Nurse Jackie in 2013 (she later got another for the Netflix Western Godless), she gave an eight-word acceptance speech before practically sprinting off the stage — “Thank you so much! I… gotta go. Bye!” Perhaps it was a moment of foreshadowing to HBO’s Run, produced by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, in which Wever’s character, Ruby, receives a one-word text that gives the show its title.
That missive prompts Ruby to blow up her life and go on a cross-country adventure with Billy (Domnhall Gleeson), a figure from her past who wonders, among other things, whether they still have their old chemistry. Boy, do they. The heat between them is palpable enough to carry this oddball mix of sexual farce and Alfred Hitchcock thriller, even if it’s never as funny as you might hope for from a team-up of Wever and Waller-Bridge.
The actual creator is Vicky Jones (though Waller-Bridge has a cameo), who sets up the premise by deliberately withholding information about both leads. We meet Ruby sitting in her car in a West Coast parking lot, very much not looking forward to her next yoga class, when Billy’s text arrives. Soon she’s on a plane to New York, then linking up with him for a train odyssey, faster than either she or we can consider exactly what it is she’s risking with this impulsive trip. And the nature of whatever is going on forces both of them to keep secrets from one another, even as they acknowledge those secrets exist.
So their flirtation brings elements of both role play and interrogation, which in turn allows the viewer to act as detective along with them. How much of what they say is real? What’s the true history between them? Should we be rooting for them to succeed in whatever their mission is, or is one or both of them a monster who’d be better served being thrown off the train while it’s still in motion?
At one point, Billy assures Ruby that people forgive all manner of sins. “Not this,” she says. “Who does this?” It’s in the transitions between lust and recrimination that Wever really shines.
Though she was tremendous as one of the detectives in last year’s Unbelievable on Netflix, Run feels more explicitly like the star vehicle she’s earned through years of endearingly loopy scene-stealing work in TV and film. (Even before the Marriage Story fight scene became a hot meme, Wever’s prompt kitchen entrance and exit had become a beloved gif.) When performers move from supporting to lead roles, they can risk losing the traits that made them so distinct, or they can simply feel overexposed. Here, more Wever is a very good thing. Ruby feels like the kind of loose, energetic, self-deprecating character she’s played lots of times, but she’s also more than plausible as the romantic (anti?) heroine of the story, and as a woman who would prove so tempting to a would-be master of the universe like Billy. She’s convincing as someone who would drive him wild with lust, but also as someone who would fret about how he’ll react when he gets a look at her “flappy vagina.” (These are two words that Wever may have been put on this earth to say.) She even sprints sheepishly.
Wever’s boundless appeal, and Gleeson’s willingness to make an ass of himself early and often, go a long way towards compensating for the dawning possibility that Ruby is right to hate herself for what they’ve done. But Run is often neither fish nor fowl in its blend of different tones and genres: rarely funny enough when it’s trying to be a straightforward comedy, nor taut enough when it shifts into mystery mode. Later episodes involve Archie Panjabi from The Good Wife as a woman whose path keeps crossing that of our two fugitives; those installments operate close enough to a thriller space that the modest humor level is more fitting. (Hitchcock movies are funny for suspense stories, but you wouldn’t watch most of them if you were specifically looking to laugh.)
I was happy to go into Run blind about what was happening and why. In the early going, that uncertainty about what the show is proves nearly as engaging as the stars themselves. But I finished the screeners HBO provided still unsure of exactly what Jones, Waller-Bridge, and company are attempting to do here, beyond providing a delivery system for raw, uncut Merritt Wever.
Which, frankly, is enough for now.
Run premieres April 12th on HBO. I’ve seen the first five of seven episodes.