This is what we in the TV-criticism industry refer to professionally as “a really fucking weird episode of television.” Throughout episode four, it felt like Run was heading toward a synthesis of its romance and thriller stories. Ideally, I thought, there could be some way for it to fit the sexual tension between Ruby and Billy inside the envelope of some bigger Fiona-framed story.
And that’s sort of what happens in episode five. Fiona leaps off the train holding a giant bag full of cash. Billy and Ruby jump after her. Everyone has a confrontation in an apparently empty farmhouse. Somehow Fiona dies?? Billy and Ruby grab the money and catch a lift to the train station with Taxidermist Phoebe Waller-Bridge??? At the train station, Ruby realizes she left her phone at the farmhouse, which, by the way, was not as abandoned as they thought.
I’ve seen some TV shows cram a heck of a lot of story into vanishingly little time, and I’ve seen it done successfully. (I recapped many seasons of Jane the Virgin!) I’m not saying that the task was impossible here. But there’s a very large bridge to cross between “Billy and Ruby are on a train in a situation that’s still mostly about their romantic relationship” to “Billy and Ruby, now murderers, are in the middle of the American West with a dead badger on their laps sitting next to Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who does an almost-convincing American accent.” Very long. And while I can’t deny that this episode does somehow get to the other side, I can’t say that it crosses the bridge very gracefully.
The biggest problem is still Fiona, who never got enough characterization to explain why she’d end up in a place where she’s wielding a knife inside a stranger’s farmhouse while clutching a satchel of money. Compare her with Villanelle, the psychopathic killer from another Waller-Bridge show, Killing Eve. The outlines are a little similar, especially in how Run lines up Fiona as a chaotic-evil (but mostly just chaotic) antagonist who finds herself inexplicably obsessed with someone (Billy, I suppose) and goes to extreme ends in pursuit of her attachment to that person.
But we never understand Fiona’s side. There’s a potentially fascinating and devastating little exchange between Billy and Ruby while they’re trying to catch up to Fiona, as Ruby asks whether Billy ever slept with her. They worked together for years, he says. She’d made herself indispensable! It’d be rude not to sleep with her! Ruby nods, apparently receiving this in the same joking tone Billy delivers it. What is that exchange for? Is it to signal to us, the viewers, that Fiona’s ties with Billy are much more than just financial, so we should accept that as an explanation for her behavior? Is it to signal that Billy’s actually much more of an asshole than we’ve been led to understand so far — that he’s more selfish and thoughtless than we’ve seen? (Because that’s the message I got, whether Run intended it or not!) There’s no follow-up, and it never enters into the showdown that comes shortly thereafter, and before we have any clarity about what we’re meant to understand about Fiona and Billy’s relationship, Fiona is … dead. Impaled, several times, on the prongs of a hay rack. She was never able to ascend beyond her role as a plot device that blew up Ruby and Billy’s reunion, and her death has no meaning except to create even more tension between them.
If Run had started as a more lightly handled thriller, in the vein of something like Game Night or even Barry, Fiona’s absurd and sudden demise wouldn’t have landed with such a strange, uneasy thud. Bodies dropping in unexpected, awkward ways are par for the course in a specific genre of story. But those aren’t the expectations Run built up until this point. It’s always been a comedy, but the comedy’s been rooted in the idea that Billy and Ruby are real, rounded, internally consistent characters whose needs and traumas are things we care about. Throwing a body into the mix this suddenly, and with this little groundwork for how we’re supposed to feel … yeesh.
Everything that comes after Fiona’s death is then affected by the fact that I no longer have confidence that Run is going to treat these characters generously. That’s true even as the show seems to be doing its best to treat me, the viewer, generously by giving me the gift of Phoebe Waller-Bridge standing unexpectedly on the side of the road. PWB, Taxidermist is the most blatant “hey, we know you’re an educated HBO viewer who follows TV news so we know you know who this person is!” kind of TV gift, especially given how completely bizarre her appearance is. She’s collecting a dead badger, which is definitely not okay, and in the meantime, she’s trying to give some legitimately thoughtful advice to Billy, who she thinks needs to get to a train station so he can visit his ailing mother. It’s a fan-service-y gift, but the gift is poorly wrapped. The character is flagrantly weird in a way that shouts “look over here!,” rather than organically weird in a way that would feel in keeping with the show we’ve been watching for five episodes. She always feels more out of the fiction than in.
It’s entirely possible that Run will be able to right the ship after this very rocky installment. But I wish I were more confident about what’s coming. There are a few glimpses of threads the show’s still pulling on that do give me some hope — Ruby on the phone with Laurence, grappling with the appeal of his offer to return to their normal boring life, feels like an interesting twist on what we’ve watched Ruby struggle through thus far. And I’m still very interested in Billy’s video, which we learn in this episode is even worse than I’d thought. It’s not just that he told the story online, but that he and Fiona were explicitly pitching the idea of “Run” as a book deal. Ahh, Billy my boy. If only this show had just a little more time to spend showing us what’s going on inside your head.
While I’m not confident, I am still excited to see where Run is heading. Ruby left her phone at the Death Farmhouse, and we caught a brief image of someone running frantically from inside, so presumably Billy and Ruby are about to land in even hotter water. My anticipation about the show has changed, though. At the beginning, it was about a genuine investment in these characters. Now, I’m watching Run mostly to see how the heck it’s going to get itself out of this wild tangle.
• It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is, but a lot of my disengagement from Ruby and Billy as real people is because the second they jump off the train, the entire series feels like it detaches from anything like a real world. It’s because of Fiona’s death, sure, but … where are they? How long would they have to walk through this wilderness before they found a farmhouse, or saw PWB picking up a badger with a shovel?
• From a transit perspective, this situation isn’t impossible. There is indeed an Amtrak station in Trinidad, Colorado, that would be on the connecting journey between Chicago and Los Angeles. But the odds that you’d jump off the train and manage to land anywhere within 100 miles of an actual station in the western part of the U.S. … Billy and Ruby are quite fortunate.
• Billy, traumatized by the abrupt turn of events, can’t seem to stop bemoaning that he’s lost his coat. It was a nice coat, Billy! Personally I didn’t find it that nice, but of all the things I found unbelievable in this episode, really missing your coat even though it was pretty unremarkable is a thing I’m willing to give you a pass on.