It is always a joy to recommend a new, great television show. But in this time of such profound anxiety and sadness, it’s even more special — the equivalent of alerting the world that a beam of glorious light is on its way to people’s homes.
Run, the new HBO series created by Vicky Jones, who directed the stage production of Fleabag, is a beam of glorious light and a jolt of electricity. It’s also an absorbing piece of escapism about two people compelled to drop everything and escape. Those two people are played by the great Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson, a pair of leads that generate more heat than I’ve seen since … well, since Fleabag crossed paths with the Hot Priest in season two of Fleabag.
The first episode, which airs Sunday night, begins by panning over a sea of cars in a parking lot, then settling on the occupant of one of those vehicles: Ruby Richardson (Wever). While sitting in the driver’s seat of her Hyundai, outside of a Target and a Ralph’s, she takes a phone call from her spouse and promises him she’ll pick up their child and be home in time to greet the deliverer of new speakers. On the call, her voice sounds girlish and sweet but her face has exasperation scrawled all over it. She’s clearly had it, and not for the first time.
That’s when Ruby receives a text message. It’s from someone named Billy, and all it says is: RUN. After a couple minutes of consideration, she responds with the same three letters, in all caps: RUN. Suddenly Ruby’s peeling her Hyundai Santa Fe out of that parking lot, catching a flight to New York, then rushing to Grand Central Station to take a cross-country Amtrak train with Billy (Gleeson), a man with whom it is immediately obvious she has a romantic past even before they reencounter each other. During her mad scramble to catch her train, she pauses for a second, touches her lower abdomen and says, “Calm down.” Her lady parts are already quivering with anticipation.
The propulsive rush of that opening sets a tone for the episodes that follow, which can be categorized as part rom-com, part thriller, part mystery, and part drama. Every 30-minute chapter in this ongoing short story — I’ve seen five of the season’s seven episodes — is all forward momentum, a deliberate contrast with the personal situations of Ruby and Billy, who have known each other since college and, for different reasons, feel boxed in by the lives they are now leading.
We don’t exactly know what those lives involve right away, but we do know that the two made a pact years ago that if one of them texted RUN to the other, and the other responded with that same command, they had to immediately get to Grand Central and jump on an Amtrak train. Other details about their relationship come out incrementally. As their cross-country journey continues, the nature of the obligations and struggles they felt so compelled to ditch come into clearer view. So does the intensity of the chemistry between them.
Just by throwing flirtatious glances at each other across a table in a café car, Wever and Gleeson create moments that are sexier than most love scenes. They capture a very specific type of desire that exists between old lovers, one that’s intimate and familiar, but also new all over again because they haven’t seen each other in so long. They luxuriate in teasing each other, and by extension, Run teases us, taking its time to bring their attraction to an almost-boil before they act on it. I’m not saying everyone who watches this will need to take a cold shower afterward. Maybe just, you know, 75 percent of the people who watch.
What makes Run fun at first is the degree to which it’s such a fantasy. Under normal circumstances, most of us can’t drop what we’re doing with zero notice, buy a last-minute airplane ticket, and just show up to gallivant across the country with someone we’re attracted to, without telling anyone where we are. But we definitely can’t do that in the middle of a pandemic, which makes the premise of Run that much more tantalizing right now. The experience of riding the rails, drinking cocktails in the Amtrak bar, and hanging out in a cramped roomette seems extra-romantic when none of us can go anywhere, let alone at the last minute. I have never wanted to be on a train more than I have while watching Run. (Remember the quiet car? Sigh…)
The performances by Wever and Gleeson are so intertwined that it feels right to describe them as a single unit, the equivalent of an acting duet. The way they hold themselves physically in each other’s presence, it’s as though there is a magnetic force between them, pulling them close enough to kiss when all they need to exchange is words. Stand six feet apart from each other? They wouldn’t be able to do that for more than 30 seconds.
Underneath their tricks and flirty banter, though, there is insecurity and vulnerability. Ruby gets self-conscious about her body at one point. In a moment of sincerity, Billy explains why he sent that RUN text. “I had this moment of clarity that there wasn’t a single person I had ever met in my entire life that I ever wanted to see again,” he says. “And then I thought of you.” Really good actors have a way of creating a sense of history, not just by believing in the details of their characters’ backstories, but by making that sense of history feel present in the air. Wever and Gleeson do that seemingly effortlessly. The weight of what they are to each other can be felt in every single scene.
Without spoiling what happens, I will say that by the fourth episode of Run, what started out as the honoring of a tantalizing, risky pact veers into something much more dangerous. Without seeing the last two episodes, it’s hard to say whether that tonal shift fully works. Either way, Run is still very much worth watching. Kate Dennis slickly directs the first four episodes with briskness and a habitual use of tight two shots of her leads that render the intimacy between them that much more palpable. The show makes us feel like we’re right alongside Ruby and Billy on this mad, spontaneous journey. At least for a half hour every Sunday, we can all pretend that we, too, can get up and go out into the great big world whenever we want. All we have to do is type RUN and hit send.