Mostly because of the way Run was promoted — its trailer, the press releases calling it a comedy/thriller — I knew that at some point, the show was going to have to pull off a pivot. The first two episodes are these tight, tense, claustrophobic installments almost entirely about two people and their not-really-a-relationship. There are a few other people, but they’ve all been functions more than characters, like the older couple Billy and Ruby first talk on the train, or the bartender, or Mr. Amtrak 10. They’ve been ways to externalize the questions about Ruby and Billy. There are outside pressures, too. We know they have lives they’ve abandoned, and Billy’s life especially has some mysterious elements Run keeps under wraps. But mostly, the first two episodes of Run were about Billy and Ruby, circling each other and ignoring the rest of the world.
The thing about a thriller is that at some point, the rest of the world needed to enter the show in a meaningful way. Or at least some kind of plot element, some third character, some external stressor that would actually drive Ruby and Billy to have a story beyond “will they chuck everything to be together circle yes or no.” In episode three, Run starts to turn the corner, moving from pure romantic tension and into something more plot-driven, and it does that by finally introducing Fiona.
When they get to Chicago, Ruby discovers her husband has cut off all her bank cards, and not only that, the train ticket that would take her from Chicago back home to Los Angeles isn’t in her bag anymore. Billy has it, naturally. He convinces Ruby that they should just take one day, one full 24-hour period to do this thing, whatever it is, and then decide whether they should return to their previous lives or make some drastic life-altering changes. He also tells Ruby they need to turn off their phones for the day. Ruby goes along with this promise; Billy flagrantly breaks it almost immediately and then repeatedly throughout their day.
For Billy, the problem is that someone named Fiona keeps blowing up his phone. Not just that — she’s been tracking him, explaining that they need to meet, cheekily pointing out that he’s in Chicago and not Scotland, generally refusing to ignore his efforts to blow her off. Billy and Ruby decide to get a hotel room, and Billy gives Ruby some cash to buy some fancy clothes so they can make the night special. And then, as Merritt Wever wriggles around on the floor of a dressing room, trapped inside her too-fancy dress, she gets unexpected help from the person in the next room over, played by Archie Panjabi. (Dear Archie Panjabi: I know you’re in Run now. I know you’re playing an entirely new character. Because this is still set in Chicago and you’re wearing a cool jacket, though, in my head you are still Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife. Please tell me what happened between you and Julianna Marguelies.)
She introduces herself to Ruby as “Alice,” and after she convinces Ruby to do a bit of light shoplifting, she’s there to talk Ruby down from the short panic attack she suddenly has about running away from her kids. While all this is happening, Billy is mysteriously withdrawing all the thousands and thousands of dollars he has from his bank account. Then, in one last attempt to get rid of his Fiona problem, he ditches Ruby briefly to go meet with this woman who’s been stalking him. Shockingly, Fiona turns out to be Alice, the nice/strange lady from Ruby’s dressing room.
There are two questions: Does all this Fiona stuff work? And at the same time, does the show still work? For me, at this point, the answer to that first question is “not really?” Panjabi’s charismatic, and honestly if I were struggling in a fancy dressing room inside a too-expensive dress and she told me I had great tits, I would probably do exactly what Ruby did. I would probably stuff a dress into my bag and then run three blocks before having a panic attack. Like Ruby and Billy’s chemistry and its vital importance to Run as a show, Fiona works mostly because Panjabi’s persuasive at being this character. But her introduction is not artful. You can feel the moment in the script where someone got out a big bright Sharpie and wrote “thriller plot goes HERE —>.” The reveal that Alice is Fiona does have some small punch of surprise, but if there are only three or four characters in the story and one of them is as-yet-faceless, it doesn’t carry much weight to suddenly realize she’s someone you’ve already seen.
The other issue with Fiona is that she feels like a distraction from the thing the first two episodes of Run have primed us to care about: Billy and Ruby. For all the clunkiness of her presence, Run is still magnetic in the moments when Ruby and Billy finally talk about more of what brought them to this point. There’s Ruby’s story about the mortifying time when she quit architecture school and lied about it to her family. There’s the episode’s opening flashback, when we learn that actually Ruby had texted “Run” long before the events of this series, reaching out to Billy for an escape hatch on the morning of her wedding day and then never hearing back from him.
Plus, we finally get some information about what caused Billy to text “RUN” at the start of the show. He was at the beginning of a three-day-long event, about to kick off a very successful tour in his career as a lifestyle guru / motivational speaker / whatever the heck he is. Within the first ten minutes, he called a woman onto the stage and asked her about her problems. But instead of generic concerns about her love life or her career, the woman told Billy that she was grieving for her husband, who’d just killed himself after interpreting something Billy said as an invitation to go off his meds. Instead of blustering his way through it, Billy throws up his hands, admits it’s all a show, and walks away from everything.
The real task for Run in the next episodes will be whether it figures out how to synthesize the thriller stuff with the undeniable appeal of Billy and Ruby. Because although the show doesn’t make a huge point of it, it’s so sad and effective that both of these people fell apart in such similar, disastrous ways. They have both been great at lying to themselves about who they are, both managed to carry off a passable performance as totally different versions of themselves. All the place-setting of the first two episodes now feels like a mathematical proof: These people are really only visible to each other, ergo, we need them to be together. Will it still feel that way once they’re running side by side rather than toward each other? We’ll see.
• Continuing Run’s streak of great guest stars, Deirdre Lovejoy shows up for a brief appearance as Ruby’s mother on her wedding day. What good casting! They have the same cheeks!
• I would watch Merritt Wever do any kind of physical acting; so much of her work is in the eyes and mouth, so when it radiates outward into big physical scenes it feels like an extra special surprise. I mention that specifically here because I rewound to watch her falling out of a dressing room trapped inside her own clothing like … four times.
• There are moments when it’s hard to believe in Billy as a powerful, cultish motivational speaker. His body language around Ruby lacks so much of the shoulders-back confidence you’d expect of someone in that job, and around her he can come off as uncertain, deferential. But then you see him in a scene like the one where he’s persuading the bank employee to empty his accounts. All that deference gets weaponized; it’s actually uncannily good at reflecting people back at themselves, twisting it and reshaping it just slightly for his own purposes. It’s easy to get blinded by Wever’s brilliance in this show, but Gleeson is also just crushing it.