A woman travels across the US to meet a former lover in this Phoebe Waller-Bridge-backed show, written by her friend Vicky Jones. It will resonate with many, writes Hugh Montgomery.
In these strange days, one light-hearted refrain has rung out across social media: “don’t text your ex”. That’s because for many people, the near-mythical ‘ex’ is the great invisible force in their lives – one who will, for better or more likely worse, loiter in their thoughts and memories. And who, when a person has a little time to ruminate, may come to taunt them with the fantasy of a life unlived, whatever the reality of their relationship may have been. It is this universal neurosis that new HBO series Run taps into – with both comic nuance and emotional force.
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Pre-release buzz for the show has primarily centred on its executive producer Phoebe Waller- Bridge – no surprise given her international fame following the spectacular success of the Emmy-sweeping Fleabag, as well as spy thriller Killing Eve. (Though more surprising perhaps is her acting cameo in Run as a Midwestern taxidermist and good Samaritan).
But the credit should really go to its chief creator Vicky Jones – Waller-Bridge’s best friend, long-standing collaborator and a fantastic writer in her own right – who has come up with a glossier, more high-concept show than Fleabag, for which the elevator pitch might be ‘Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy, by way of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, meets a Coen Brothers thriller’.
Not that Fleabag comparisons, in this particular case, are entirely unfounded: Jones was, after all, the director of the original Fleabag stage show, as well as script editor on the TV version, and her writing shares with Waller-Bridge’s both a precision of detail and an acerbic acuity when it comes to the messiness of human relationships.
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Run does indeed begin with a text from an ex. Sitting in her car outside a nondescript out-of-town shopping complex, having just finished a phone call to her husband discussing the banal family business of yoga classes and home deliveries, Ruby Dixie (Merritt Wever) sees a message ping up: RUN in capital letters. RUN she texts back, and indeed she does: before we know it, her yoga mat dumped in the nearest airport bin, she is on a plane to New York, and meeting a not-so-mystery man on an Amtrak train: Billy (Domhnall Gleeson), her one-time lover at university. Such is the beginning of a cross-country journey fulfilling a whimsical romantic pact, it transpires – but, of course, there is more to the situation than meets the eye, and it’s not long before tensions are being exposed and secrets unearthed.
At the core of Run’s success is an utterly beguiling performance by Wever, one of the most naturally gifted actors to rise up the Hollywood ranks in recent times. Anyone who saw her anchoring Netflix’s 2019 sexual assault drama Unbelievable as a compassionate, ultra-professional cop, or stealing the show as Scarlett Johansson’s flustered sister in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, will know of her special quality. The opposite of a star, who may coast along on a recognised persona, she seems to connect with her characters in such a deep and instinctive way that you never see the actor behind them, nor doubt that they exist in the real world. Run is a real vehicle for her talents, which gives her the spotlight in a part that showcases her gift for multi-dimensionality.
A raggedly real chemistry
From the very opening scene onwards, Wever expertly conveys Ruby’s internal contradictions: at once a grounded, level-headed wife and mother fully immersed in the conventions of middle-class adulthood, and someone who feels trapped by suburban conformity and is desperate for both adventure and self-assertion. When, shortly after meeting Billy again, Ruby goes to masturbate in the toilets, we understand her urgency, because Wever has made us viscerally feel her character’s erotic thrill: not only at being reacquainted with her ex-lover, but at the whole reignition of life’s possibilities that he seems to represent.
Alongside her, Gleeson makes for a great foil: an obnoxious motivational speaker, who could nearly be of a piece with some of Fleabag’s supporting gallery of toxic male creeps, but also possessing a nervy vulnerability and a yearning for emotional fulfilment that makes him unexpectedly sympathetic.
The palpable sparks generated by these two actors are matched by a script that masterfully delineates the awkward chemistry that can exist between ex-lovers. This is not a neatly rom-com-ish conception of such a meeting, but something altogether more real and ragged. They flirtatiously prod and tease each other (“You still never miss an opportunity to wind me up,” says Billy. “It’s like riding a bike,” retorts Ruby). But underneath the badinage, there’s a nervousness to their exchanges, as they struggle to work out: what do they want to know about the lives they have pursued apart from each other, and how much information is too much? Equally, their physical interplay is halting rather than breathless: an early sex scene is rendered comical by the obstacles presented by getting up and close in a small train sleeper compartment – then painful as an argument flares up to stymie it before it has even really begun.
View image of (Credit: HBO)
And just as the eroticism is undercut by reality, so Run’s increasingly propulsive plot – the stakes of which are gradually raised throughout the five of the seven episodes given out for review – belie some serious themes. Chief among them is the notion of regret, and whether life is always destined to be haunted by the knowledge of the paths we haven’t taken.
In Ruby, we feel the pain of someone who knows she is hurting the people she loves, notably her (at this stage at least) perfectly decent-seeming husband (played by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), but is being pulled away from them, and towards mischief, by an almost-gravitational force. But it is equally clear she has no confidence that this renegade move will make her any happier. At one point, she describes how she always used to fantasise about being two people simultaneously: “the normal one” who lived with her husband and then “this fun person, who went out and had sex and did all this drunk and crazy s***t.” The show’s underlying sorrow, perhaps, is that she, like so many people, is expected to make a choice.
Run premieres on HBO on 12 April in the US, and on Sky Comedy and NOW TV on 15 April in the UK.
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