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Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson star in Run
Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson star in Run

Pop CultureApril 13, 2020

Review: Phoebe Waller-Bridge returns with Run, an outstanding rom-com thriller

Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson star in Run
Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson star in Run

A rom-com thriller? Produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge? Sign us up. Sam Brooks reviews Run, which arrives on Neon tonight.

Picture it: You don’t like your life very much. You have a shitty dead-end job, a husband you’re fond of but no longer love with, and kids to whom you feel obligated but not necessarily devoted. While you’re waiting outside work one day, you get a text: “RUN.”

This happens to Ruby Richardson (Merritt Wever) in the opening scene of Run, which starts on Neon tonight. The series follows Ruby and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) as they run away from their separate lives. Specifically, they’re enacting a long-dormant pact they’d made: if one of them sent ‘RUN’ to the other, they would drop everything immediately and travel across America together.

Run comes with high expectations for one big reason: It’s the next show with the Waller-Bridge name attached to it, albeit less closely than Fleabag or Killing Eve. While she’s an executive producer and appears in a small role, the show is actually created by one of her closest collaborators, Vicky Jones, who directed the original stage show of Fleabag, worked as a story editor on Crashing (an early PWB show) and Fleabag, and wrote an episode of Killing Eve. She’s in the family, is what I’m saying.

The Phoebe Waller-Bridge brand is about as strong as you can get in prestige television, even if none of the PWB shows seem especially similar on the surface. But there are parallels. All three shows she’s created – Crashing, Fleabag and Killing Eve – have earned rave reviews, with the last two taking home Emmys. And although Fleabag is the only one with PWB all over it (writer, creator, lead actor), a playful approach to genre and an incredibly self-aware voice run through all three. These are shows that know the tightrope they’re walking – and manage not to just walk it, but do tricks on it, through sheer gumption alone. It’s why some scenes in Fleabag, be they a late-night confession or a suburban wedding, feel as high-stakes as a literal life-or-death chase in Killing Eve.

Through sheer gumption alone, the stakes of Run feel as high as those of Killing Eve. Photo: Supplied.

Run is walking (ha) the highest, riskiest tightrope of them all. It takes the circumstances of a rom-com and plays them out like a thriller. The first few episodes follow the pair entirely on a train, basically as strangers to each other, as they slowly reveal tidbits of their lives since they dated in college. Fibs are told, new flaws are revealed, and it’s clear that neither are who they were 16 years ago. Every moment we feel the weight of the lives these people have left behind, and each detail increases the shadow looming over the protagonists’ heads.

The thriller aspect hooks us in – making it bittersweet that episodes are coming week-by-week rather than in one bingeable go – but the real brilliance of Run is in how it fits this moment. By pure, awful serendipity, it arrives at a time when all of us want to run away for a while, even if just to experience the excitement of being out of the house. Run starts with the thrill of running away and layers on the realities of what would happen if you were to suddenly ditch your life. What regrets would you feel? What would you do for money? How would you explain yourself? The more we know, the more we know what everybody has to lose when this, inevitably, goes wrong. Because it has to, right?

Run’s biggest asset, concept aside, is its two leads. Domhnall Gleeson has been quietly delivering knockout performances for some time, whether as the romantic lead in underrated Richard Curtis film About Time or in, uh, less subtle roles like his General Hux in Star Wars. In Run, he plays a motivational speaker, an inherently unlikeable character, but Gleeson brings a magnetism to the role that can only be described as, well, Hot Priest-ian. This is crucial because without it, we might wonder why the hell anybody would be interested in a motivational speaker.

Merritt Wever is reliably amazing as the harried Ruby Richardson in Run. Photo: Supplied.

But the real killer here is Merritt Wever. Three times over, she’s proven herself as one of television’s greatest and most versatile actresses – as an increasingly jaded nurse on Nurse Jackie, a mining town widow in Godless and especially as a huge-hearted, dogged investigator in Unbelievable. She adds another string to her bow in Run, and I think it’s her finest performance yet. Her Ruby is alive. She nails the surface stuff, especially the jokes, but what makes it a truly brilliant performance is that she constantly allows us glimpses of Ruby’s inner monologue. Her face is like a brain, and on it we see all of Ruby’s self-contradictions and complexities. We see it in the opening moments, when Ruby is tossing up whether to ‘RUN’. She’s on the phone to her husband and her voice sickly sweet, but we can see that she’s utterly exhausted. She doesn’t just make Ruby’s choice understandable to us, she makes it feel like it wasn’t a choice at all.

The pair work together beautifully to answer the show’s main question: Why is this so important to them? Wever and Gleeson have a chemistry – frankly a heat – between them that’s so rarely seen on screen. We don’t just buy that these people would drop their lives for each other, we wonder why the hell it hasn’t happened earlier. It’s the kind of chemistry I haven’t seen since, well, Fleabag and the Hot Priest, and Run doesn’t play this as an incidental nice-to-have, but as a core part of its DNA. This relationship matters because, fuck, if you had someone you had this sort of chemistry with, you’d drop everything too.

Run could be seen as a risk of a show. It blends two fundamentally different genres – the cuddly rom-com, the chilly thriller _ and relies on the audience buying into a premise that has to get the balance between realism and suspense just right. It’s about as experimental as mainstream prestige television gets. But when you’ve got talent as assured as this – one of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s closest collaborators at the helm, two great actors fronting it, and a rock-solid supporting cast – it’s not exactly a risk. It’s a dead certain hit.

New episodes of Run arrive each Monday night on Neon. Five episodes of this show’s first season were watched for review

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