Hello and welcome to the Vulture recaps of Run, a show executive-produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and starring Merritt Wever that follows a suburban mom who abandons her life to reconnect with a former boyfriend — a show, that is, designed in a lab for me.
The first few minutes of Run are some of the most compact, elegant pieces of character building I’ve seen on TV for a good long while. We meet Wever as Ruby, who’s sitting in an endless shopping complex parking lot, steeling herself before she walks into a Ralph’s to buy groceries. She’s already miserable, but then her phone rings. It’s her husband, Laurence, who asks what she’s doing and wonders if she can please come home because the speaker guy needs someone there to complete the delivery. Ruby protests mildly. She was going to yoga! She has a new mat and everything! But no, Laurence needs her at home for the speaker guy. She hangs up the phone a scant second sooner than would be strictly polite. She whips off the “I’m a put-together lady” scarf that’s tied around her neck. She stares, in barely controlled despair, toward the Target sign that looms in the background. Then she gets a text, which reads “RUN.”
In total, it takes about a minute and a half, and so much gets done in that little time. It helps that the basic outline of Ruby is a familiar trope: bored, late-30s white housewife, husband who doesn’t understand her, unbearable sameness of suburban America, etc., etc. This is not a character springing into being without some familiar cultural context. The thing that gets me is how swiftly Run manages to communicate the real depths of Ruby’s anguish. That scarf, for instance — it’s as though she’s got a collar around her neck, one that she chooses to put on herself every single day. It’s the perfect inanity of Laurence’s demand about being there for the speaker guy. It’s how stupidly, physically stuck she is when she gets the text and then tries to open the car door, only to find she’s blocked in.
And, of course, it’s Wever’s excruciatingly great performance in this scene. She holds her mouth in a way that makes you believe this woman has been forcing herself to smile for a decade, and finally the muscles in her face are starting to give up. She looks out the window of that car with the thousand-yard stare of someone about to do something incredibly painful, even though that painful thing is running to Ralph’s.
Run has to establish Ruby’s misery. The idea of her running away from her husband (and, as we see by the end of the episode, her children) makes her a tricky protagonist to root for, and without this first minute and a half, it’d be very easy to find Ruby fundamentally despicable. It’s a tough premise for a series. What if the first action of your story was the ending of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House and your protagonist was Nora just at the moment she decides to leave? How do you make it clear from the beginning how unhappy this woman is, in a way that doesn’t alienate her?
One more favorite thing about this opening sequence: Ruby makes a run for it when she gets that text message, and there’s no way she would’ve made such a dramatic break from the status quo without this out-of-the-blue message from Billy. But even before she gets the message, she’s whipped off that scarf-collar in fury. Unconsciously, she was already trying to get out of there.
Then comes the mysterious and flushed helter-skelter dash through the airport, through the train station, on some mission we don’t yet understand. Until we do understand, which comes at the precise moment Ruby decides to duck into a beauty store at Grand Central Terminal, shakingly holding up a lipstick to test the shade, frantically spraying her head with dry shampoo. Whatever else this is about, it is about Ruby and someone she wants to look good for. So then, still nervous, she gets on the train, and the person who sits down next to her is Billy, who we slowly put together is an ex-boyfriend from college she hasn’t seen in many, many years.
This show works because Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Billy, have some kind of defy-the-laws-of-nature chemistry with each other. It’s uncanny. From the moment they sit down together, their bodies act like dowsing rods for the other person. Even as the episode develops and they have a big blowout argument, their attraction is so obvious that I suspect it alone could create enough energy to power this entire train all the way from New York to Chicago.
Billy, somewhat abashedly, has spent the last several years becoming a big-time motivational speaker/life coach type and written a book called Amazing. Period. which Ruby mocks relentlessly (and correctly). Ruby doesn’t say much about her life because of the moratorium they’ve decided to put on personal details. Everything is so intense, they both have to excuse themselves at different points to go masturbate in a tiny train bathroom. They flirt in the roomette. Everyone knows what direction this is heading.
The problem is that Ruby can’t quite forget her own guilt about running, especially when she sees the increasingly frantic messages from Laurence. And as it tends to do, her guilt immediately spins outward, causing her to question why exactly Billy started this by texting “RUN” in the first place. The moratorium on personal details is nice in theory, but it collapses at once, not because Billy and Ruby have a burning curiosity about each other (although they do) but more because neither of them can forget their own personal details.
In the last scene of the episode, Ruby gets off the train in search of better reception so she can stop Laurence from contacting the police. As the train departs again, Billy gets increasingly frantic that she’s left altogether, abandoned the whatever-this-is to go back to her life. He’s devastated, until he finally sees her, out of breath, standing near an entrance where she’s clearly sprinted to get back onto the train. He’s so relieved that she didn’t leave him, so completely happy that she has abandoned her life to be on this train.
Then she drops her phone, and he reaches to pick it up, glancing at her lock screen photo in the process. There she is, posing cutely with not just a husband but also two kids. No one blames Nora from running away from her husband in A Doll’s House, but it’s a lot harder to love women who leave their children.
• Run is, without question, the Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson show, but there are three great guest stars here that do a lot with very tiny roles. Annie Golden and Stephen McKinley Henderson play an older couple who chat briefly with Ruby and Billy on the train, and they do some lovely, very endearing work with what’s essentially a thankless, scene-setting task. Huge props also go to Rich Sommer, who appears in this episode only in an iPhone lock screen photo and via two obnoxious phone calls and who immediately embodies Laurence so fully that I wanted to hug and punch him.
• What perfect blue button-down shirt is Ruby wearing? Where does it come from? I need it. Also, obviously, Domhnall Gleeson’s striped sweatshirt. I will wear them together.
• Such a perfect tiny detail that as Ruby runs into the little bathroom to rub one out, she pulls out a handful of paper towels so she doesn’t have to brace herself on a dirty public bathroom fixture.
• “Did you pull a handle off a toilet door because you thought I wasn’t coming back?” “No. Toilet door handles are really bad for germs. I find it’s best to bring your own.” “What about the flush? Or do your poops … flush themselves?”