The premise of HBO’s “Run” is a turbocharged one for a TV series and a questionable one as a life choice.
Ruby Richardson (Merritt Wever) and Billy Johnson (Domhnall Gleeson), onetime college lovers, made a pact when they were 19 years old. If one of them ever texted “RUN” to the other, and the other texted the same back, they would drop everything, meet up in Grand Central Station and take a train together across the country.
They are no longer 19. But when a 30-something Ruby, mired in a suburban ennui instantiated by the parking lot of a Ralphs supermarket, gets a “RUN” from Billy, she barely stops to think before she texts back and jets off to New York.
Is what ensues a character study? A rom-com turned fiasco? A dark-humored fugitive thriller? “Run” is a little of each, not at the same time, and one of its weaknesses in the early episodes is its lurching among tones as it pulls the emergency brake on one and launches into another. But on the strength of its nerve and two strong lead performances, it’s a jittery, often darkly funny ride, propelled by a hellbent, coal-fired plot engine.
“Run,” which begins Sunday, hurtles through a number of hairpin twists that it would be wrong to spoil. But the real twist of the series, created by Vicky Jones, is that Ruby and Billy aren’t really running off with each other. They are trying to run off with the 19-year-old versions of themselves, to rediscover the unencumbered youths they once were (the sort who would come up with an escape pact that sounds like the premise of a high-concept cable show).
The actual, adult quasi-strangers they encounter are much more dented with age. Billy has a career as a lifestyle guru that has taken a wrong turn; between that and his slick, easy charm, he may as well be wearing a “Do Not Trust” sign on his forehead.
Ruby’s domestic boredom seems more ordinary, but she proves to be as full of secrets and cons in her own low-key way. (She has a husband at home, played by Rich Sommer, who with his roles as a cheating spouse in “Mad Men” and “GLOW” had already become Hollywood’s designated Bad Marriage Guy.)
Yet when the two meet for the first time, the charge is electric and potent — enough, at least, to get them booked in a roomette on an Amtrak chugging toward Chicago. (“This is unforgivable,” Ruby says, as much from the thrill as from guilt.)
It’s when they hit the rails that the second thoughts hit, and the secrets, and the conspicuous holes in their back stories. Soon the two realize that they’re each on the lam — not with a fantasy partner but with the reality of a person they’ve spent years idealizing. “Before Sunrise” this is not. Acid-tongued and mordant, it’s more like before the fall.
Ruby and Billy start to clash so quickly that you may wonder why they ever wanted to be together in the first place. At times, especially early on, the story seems to be driven more by the premise than by a plausible motive for the couple to stay together.
But here, the charismatic leads do a lot of the lifting. Wever in particular — who stole series like “Nurse Jackie” as a supporting player and recently co-starred in “Unbelievable” — proves a commanding lead, layering her usual mild-manneredness with Ruby’s simmering fury at her life.
Gleeson (“Ex Machina”) pulls the reverse trick, giving Billy an oil-slick charm that gives way to surprising pockets of depth. Billy is a mess, but he seems to want to use the break to re-examine and diagnose his life, whereas Ruby seems more interested in taking a vacation from hers.
Jones (producing with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who has a cameo using a geographically peripatetic American accent) spins out their story with a brutal eye on the real ramifications of the duo’s impulsive decision.
The narrative is as propulsive and anxious as the feverishly strummed guitar theme. And as the other people affected by Ruby and Billy’s flight are pulled in, including a curious fellow traveler played by Archie Panjabi, “Run” becomes more of a dark-slapstick thriller. Over the five episodes (of seven) screened for critics, this is the mode it feels most comfortable in. As the train rolls across autumn-orange countryside, the couple get deeper into the heartland, deeper into who each other has become, deeper into trouble.
Apologies, but here’s the part where I mention The Thing That’s Going on Now. I don’t know at what point it becomes glib or redundant to point out the contrast between a new work of fiction made before Covid-19 and the world we’re living in. But in “Run” it’s especially glaring — all the shared transportation and close quarters and just impulsively going places is bracing in a way no one could have anticipated.
Whether you find this escape escapist is more a personality test than a critical assessment. For me, it created a kind of meta-echo of the itch that drives Billy and Ruby to make a break for it.
We’re all confined right now, after all, and feeling that confinement as a viewer may help you connect with Ruby and Billy’s urge to take off on a text and a prayer. Maybe theirs is not the most thought-through plan. But who among us is not jonesing to skip town and ride the rails, hoping the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train?