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RUN, HBO’s new prestige show premiering April 13, constantly threatens to fly off the rails. It’s about a former couple who, after 17 years apart, escape their normal lives to go on a cross-country adventure together. Ruby is married with two kids, while Billy is a motivational speaker who really shouldn’t be one. When they last saw each other in college, they made a pact that if either texted the word “run” to the other, and received the same in response, they’d drop everything and return to one another. But time has changed them both, and their recollections of each other might as well be about other people entirely. As things begin to spiral out of control, Billy and Ruby have to question what they’re actually running from, and whether or not it can ever be outrun in the first place.
Much of the dynamic and tension comes from the fantastic leading duo. Played by Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson, Ruby and Billy are complete wrecks. From the very first scene, where Ruby fidgets in anxiety after receiving the text, it’s clear that they’ve flirted with this before. Hopping on the first train outbound from New York, the series puts the lovers on a fast moving metaphor they can’t escape from. The cramped spaces and dimmed lighting amplify their mutual, even desperate attraction, and Gleeson and Weaver play up their natural chemistry beautifully. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and the danger with them. After all, who hasn’t fantasized about running away at some point in their lives?
But RUN isn’t satisfied with just the fantasy. Not when there’s a morning after that’s much more delicious. Once the adrenaline cools off, Ruby and Billy are left to pick up the pieces. Just twelve hours into their escape it becomes clear that things have changed for good. Both with them and the lives they’ve upended. The writing by Vicky Jones (coming off a stage production of FLEABAG) is sharp, honest, and deeply affecting in its precision. Wever and Gleeson feast on the rich characters in every scene; playing and teasing each other first sexually, then hurtfully moments apart. Before the first episode was halfway through I accepted entirely that these two had a long and complicated past together. As the series unfolds, we learn just how messy that history is.
These are not good people. Not by a long shot. I found myself liking both less and less the further the series progressed. Choices are made that have far long reaching consequences, and it’s just as much selfishness as it is desperation that fuels them. When Ruby bumps into the equally messed up Fiona (the great Archie Panjabi), the result is like throwing gas into the flames. At seven episodes the series does feel a little overstuffed with hijinks; especially since the first hour is reserved entirely for character building. The first five episodes screened to critics loosen up the plotting as they go along, and it’s uncertain just how the finale will pull everything together. Like Ruby’s and Billy’s unplanned escape, this doesn’t feel like a story that can go on forever.
It’s this spiral that is equally captivating as it is frustrating. As things get progressively worse — not to mention outlandish — it also becomes harder to accept some of the plot twists on the way. In fairness, they kept me coming back for more, and the snappy pacing helps a lot. But between episodes a sensation creeped in that maybe not all of this makes sense. Each time that the series slows down something new bounces in from around the corner; and each time it’s something bigger and more extravagant than before. One such encounter had me audibly ask an empty room just how many lunatics there are in the vicinity at any given moment.
Yet sure enough, just as the series felt like it was losing me, it toned itself down again and let Ruby and Billy take the stage. Just like that I was hooked all over again.
One could argue that this is exactly the point. We can press pause on the madness that Ruby and Billy cannot. If they could, they’d probably see the warning signs hurtling past them along the way. But passion is blinding, danger doubly so; and the morning after can never come if you just keep running from it.