There are plenty of things to mention about Run. We could examine how well it uses its confined train set, and how thoughtfully it introduces minor characters to poke at specific elements of its main duo’s relationship. It’s really well-paced, so the emotional stuff flies along at breakneck speed and then comes to these sudden, juddering halts. Some shows are rhythmic in predictable, comforting ways; Run keeps changing time signatures so that you never get to a place where you feel like you know what’s coming next.
But the most important thing, the key to why all of this works, is my God the chemistry between these two people. My God! Sometimes TV shows are built in a way where good performances are nice but the main engine of the series is clearly something structural, something about the way the plot works. Think of Westworld, for instance: Evan Rachel Wood is very good as Dolores, but a different actor playing the same character wouldn’t have that much impact on the overall experience of the series. Or think of a more traditional mystery. Sure, we all have our preferences about who plays Poirot and how they’re doing it, but Murder on the Orient Express is fundamentally the same whether it’s Suchet or Branagh. (Please let it not be Branagh.)
Run is built differently. Two people abandon their lives to ride on a cross-country train together under mysterious circumstances, and Run asks us not only to root for them, but to think of this decision based on a single-word text they send to one another as plausible. It’s not! Almost none of us would do this thing! This is not the kind of TV show that gets described as “emotionally grounded,” and nothing about Run makes any sense at all unless Ruby and Billy are uncontrollably, undeniably, peel-the-paint-off-the-walls hot for each other. But miraculously, that is exactly what happens. Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson look at each other so intensely that their attraction achieves escape velocity, pushing past the giant gravity well of how bonkers all of this is and rocketing off into deep space.
They fumble around in this roomette trying to take one another’s clothes off, and I absolutely believe that Billy has just been waiting for the moment to text Ruby and ask her to drop everything for him. I watch Ruby strip off her clothes and bang her head on stuff and tell Billy to sort of “swizzle” his body up onto the top bunk, and I completely accept that the moment she got a text from him, she would leave her life.
The thing that makes their chemistry so believable, too, is that it’s not as simple as “wow these people really want to bone, huh!” They can’t stop accidentally hurting each other. It keeps happening physically as they twist around in this awkward, tiny train room, but they also keep slicing and dicing one another in bigger, more painful ways. Billy backs off from sex with Ruby, because the memory of seeing her husband and kids is fresh in his mind. Her marriage is impossible for him to get over; she managed to have this whole personal life that he didn’t, and at the same time, her decision to leave them for him has turned her into a person he’s not sure he wants her to be. He tries to shake it off and follow along with her enthusiasm and is brought up short by the glimpse of her C-section scar. Billy doesn’t want her to be the person she is in this train roomette, and he also doesn’t want to be the person who sparked her into becoming this.
But Ruby doesn’t understand his hurt in that way, doesn’t realize he’s found out these details about her life. Instead, she’s wounded that he doesn’t want her now, that her body isn’t the same as it used to be, that she’s become unappealing to him. This is absurd, which Billy points out quickly — that little snippet of dialogue about the plastic surgeon is one of my favorite bits of the episode, such a fast, effective look into how well Billy and Ruby do get each other, even in the middle of deeply misunderstanding what the other person feels. Run does a lot to help support their chemistry with little hints at their history, too. Ruby’s concern about her physical appearance is totally silly, except when Billy later looks her up on Facebook, all the evidence is there. She’s got a page full of posts about going to yoga, #workouteveryday hashtags, and cutesy “Live, Laugh, Love” images to back up how fully she has become, or least how well she’s pretended to become, this exact kind of person.
Billy is thrilled to be here on this train with her, and he’s equally consumed with guilt. Ruby’s phone won’t stop ringing and Billy can’t help but wonder if it’s her poor abandoned children, begging to know where their beloved mother has gone. (It is … sort of. It’s Ruby’s husband, Laurence, with more perfect dialogue about how he has no idea what the kids’ schedule is and he needs to take them to school and also “where is the school??”) While Billy can’t stop obsessing about the life Ruby was leading without him, Ruby is frantic to make this rupture real, to do some act with Billy that will turn this into an irrevocable break with her life and blow up her marriage forever. She’s here! She is on this train, she’s escaped this perfect housewife prison, and she needs to have some sex to prove to herself and everyone else that things can never go back to normal.
Ruby ends up trying to jump an improbably hot guy who comes strolling out of the nearest train bathroom. Billy feels 60 percent betrayed, 30 percent sure she’s not actually going to do it, and 10 percent completely thrilled by her. She does not have sex with him, but Mr. Amtrak 10 is unexpectedly good at the “sexy talk” Ruby refuses to do with Billy. Watching her face as she listens to this stranger describe touching her body emphasizes just how much this break from Ruby’s life is about her body, how far her head has drifted away from her physical self. She’s all yoga and running and needing a physical sexual experience, because her head has drifted so far out of the game and the idea of talking about the sex she wants to have is excruciating. Billy, meanwhile, is all brain. He’s laying all his feelings out for the Amtrak bartender and hoping against hope Ruby will come back for him.
She does. Everything smooths out again. Ruby, Billy, Amtrak 10, and the excellent wry bartender spend the night playing a drinking game Billy calls “Mm Water,” and by the morning it’s clear they’ve all lost the game. When the train arrives in Chicago, Ruby and Billy still have no idea what they are to each other, but it may be nothing and this whole thing might be over. And then, even though Ruby hasn’t actually done the marriage-destroying adultery she’s been trying to do, she discovers that her bank cards have been cut off, Laurence has announced her departure to his entire voicemail box, and the life she was trying to blow up has indeed blown up.
• Three cheers for Rich Sommer as Laurence. He only appears in a phone call, a voicemail box message, and a handful of Facebook pictures, but I still know exactly who that guy is.
• Run does not get into it yet, but we spend a lot of time understanding where Ruby’s come from and very little time on what Billy’s whole deal is. At the moment he texts “RUN,” he’s weeping on a bed and talking to someone named Fiona, but we’re still not sure why. Fiona calls him on the train, but Billy insists she’s not his girlfriend. Ruby’s situation is emotionally complicated but situationally pretty simple: She was trapped in a marriage and left. I suspect Billy’s deal might be much more twisty-thriller-y complex.
• Surely we can all agree Ruby’s sexy-talk guy is an Amtrak 10 and also a real-world 10?