As a champion of the art of television, I very rarely say that a TV show should have been a movie, but more and more this feels true. It’s the opposite of watching a film or reading a book and thinking, “oh I wish I could spend more time in this world and with these characters!” Instead, it’s knowing you’re taking in a lot of filler, spending time with characters who don’t really have enough going on to warrant it, and seeing a story that could have been a more focused, potent, and affecting meditation blown out into something it was never meant to be.
This latter scenario is how I ended up feeling about halfway through Vicky Jones’ series Run on HBO. The premise was intoxicating: what if you dropped everything and ran off to spend a week on a train with an old flame, in order to decide if you should stay together by the end of it? All based on a plan the two of you hatched in college? What if instead of romantic it was actually awkward and fraught with lies? What if it was somehow still sexy though, because the two people in question are played by Domhnall Gleeson and Merritt Wever?
In approximately 90 mins, which is as long as any movie should ever be (with only the rarest of exceptions), we could have spent time with these two as they wrestled with living in the past, present, and future together while being smushed in close train quarters. Those first episodes of Run were genuinely excellent, focused on a cramped space and an almost suffocating atmosphere of possibility tinged with regret. She has a family, he’s a fraud. And yet, the two have an undeniable chemistry of people who understand one another and forgive each other’s foibles because they know who they are.
The problem came with the introduction of Billy’s personal assistant Fiona, played by Archie Panjabi in a role not worthy of her talents. At first portrayed as an omniscient helper who becomes a scorned-lover-stalker, Fiona is ultimately killed by Billy either accidentally or on purpose after the three have escaped from the train. A story about the nuances of a relationship that was portrayed by the leads so beautifully turned not just into a thriller, but a messy one. Because now, it’s not about what Billy and Ruby have chosen to keep hidden from one another about their lives since college, it’s about murder. And the show has to bend over backwards to try and absolve both of them for doing something bad, trying to selfishly get away with it, and move on as if it won’t forever shadow their lives and interactions for the rest of time.
This was bad, mainly because it undercut all of the quiet work that Wever and Gleeson did in those first episodes to show, not tell, the complicated nature of Billy and Ruby’s relationships—the one they have with each other, the one they once had, and the one they currently have with the life they’re running from. Now, we’ve introduced murder which, I cannot overstate, is a big deal. The fact that the show downplays it, to a certain extent, turns a bumbling existential crisis into a very real, borderline psychopathic choice of people it’s now hard to find any reason to like.
You don’t have to love or even like the leads of a show, but if that’s the true, the show itself has to make up for it. Run does not do this. Instead, it turns once again to spend a lot of time with brand new side characters, investigating their love lives when we have no investment in them at all (even if one is Phoebe Waller-Bridge sporting, it pains me to say, a truly awful American accent). It all leads to a muddled, wholly unsatisfying non-conclusion that wants us to beg for a second season, when all I felt was disappointment that this wasn’t over. If not a movie, then a miniseries, fine. Otherwise, it has no teeth. It will just go on forever, seesawing between Ruby wondering if she should leave her family for her problematic maybe-killer ex or not.
If you excise the Fiona plot and everything to do with the Fargo-like cops and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s strange taxidermist, what you have left is about a movie’s worth of fascinating emotional exploration. Wever and Gleeson are so electric, so weird, and so compelling that while I may think I want to watch them endlessly navigate this truly wild (and yet, incredibly grounded—minus the murder) train experience, it feels like it has a natural end point. When they get to Los Angeles, they make a choice. I would love to get the chance to watch that play out again; but this time, as it should have been: just the two of them.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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