Run, series finale review: it had charm, sex, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge – but was anybody watching?

Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson in Run - HBO
Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson in Run - HBO

Did Run (Sky Comedy) run out of steam? Billed as “From the minds behind Fleabag”, the lovers-on-the-lam comedy thriller arrived on our screens in mid-April with a snappy premise and an attendant blaze of publicity. Six weeks of lockdown later, it slightly limped over the finish line like a London Marathon jogger with seized-up hamstrings and serious chafing.

The seventh and final episode found rekindled old flames Ruby (Merritt Wever) and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) approaching the end of their journey. After hitching a ride through the snow on a logging truck, they hopped back on their cross-country Amtrak train from New York to Los Angeles.

Billy had vowed to hand himself in as a suspect-cum-witness in the grisly death of his assistant Fiona (Archie Panjabi). However, when the train guard assumed the couple had been locked in their sleeper cabin all night, they realised they had an alibi and might just get away with it.

All that remained was the trifling matter of deciding their future together. Self-help guru Billy assumed that suburban housewife Ruby would return to her family life in suburbia. She surprised him by saying she wanted to stay. Were they finally being fully honest with each other, though?

When Ruby borrowed Billy’s laptop and realised he’d embarked on their romantic adventure purely as the pitch for a new book, she called the police herself. Amusingly named sheriff’s deputy Babe Cloud (Tamara Podemski) - accompanied by her one-night stand Laurel (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) - was hot on their heels anyway.

The train terminated in LA with the couple separated. Before he could be arrested, though, Billy interrupted Ruby's family reunion, explained that everything had changed and begged her to acknowledge that he truly loved her. Wordlessly, she walked away. Roll credits on the series.

Was this a satisfying finale? Not really. It was not only rushed and muddled in terms of chronology and geography but crucially, the ending felt like a cop-out. Ruby went back to her old life far too easily, undermining the journey of self-discovery she’d been on for the past six episodes.

She and college boyfriend Billy had fallen for each other all over again. She’d had lots of sex, told lots of lies, seduced a stranger, shoplifted a designer frock and fled a crime scene. Trudging reluctantly back to boringly beige husband Laurence (Rich Summer) felt like a betrayal of viewers, let alone Billy - even if it left the door ajar for a second series.

Few 21st century TV programmes have been as ecstatically raved about and enthusiastically picked over as Fleabag. By comparison, Run barely made a dent in the cultural conversation. Nobody has been talking about it on social media or around office watercoolers - and only partly because most of us are drinking from our kitchen taps instead right now.

Sky Comedy don’t release ratings but my suspicion is that viewing figures are lamentably low. In the US, Run lost half its launch audience. So how did it become such a letdown?

Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson in episode 5 of Run - HBO
Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson in episode 5 of Run - HBO

Well, the channel on which it aired didn’t help. Sky Comedy only launched four months ago. Many viewers don’t realise it exists at all and few watch it. Consider the other shows on its roster: Black Monday, The Brink, Sunnyside and AP Bio. No? Me neither.

If Run had been broadcast on Sky1 or Sky Atlantic, it might have had more of a fighting chance. Neither did it help that it came along at the same time as the BBC’s all-conquering adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Perhaps there was only room for one will-they-or-won’t-they couple in our viewing schedules.

The main issue, though, has been with the uneven quality of the series itself. It came burdened by expectation due to its pedigree: made by prestigious US powerhouse HBO, created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s longtime collaborator Vicky Jones, with Waller-Bridge executive-producing and among the starry cast. Many programme-makers would kill for solid reviews, a small but loyal following and a series that kept viewers guessing until the end. From this thoroughbred stable, that wasn’t enough.

Domhnall Gleeson as Billy - HBO
Domhnall Gleeson as Billy - HBO

Its leads were promisingly heavyweight. Wever is a double Emmy-winner who moves freely between acclaimed indie films and prestige TV dramas. Gleeson has been reliably excellent in a string of hit films: Ex Machina, Brooklyn and The Revenant, not to mention the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises. They were both convincing in Run but that elusive chemistry never quite caught fire.

Then came that bold, brilliantly attention-seizing premise. Two former sweethearts made a pact that if they ever texted “Run” to each other, they would drop everything and travel across America together. Seventeen years later, they pressed “send”. It was romantic, reckless, escapist and unpredictable but couldn’t sustain that initial sizzle, let alone its frenetic pace.

The high-speed train journey provided narrative momentum but the plot became repetitive. Oddly for something running on rails, it lost its way. How many times could one of them get off the train in a huff and be pursued by the other? How many times could they have a blazing row, followed by make-up sex? Quite a few, it turned out. The rapidfire dialogue was always full of wit and spark but the story went around in circles.

Jones’ genre-mashing style was bracingly subversive but the fact that Run defied categorisation became a curse as much as a blessing. It was pitched somewhere between sitcom and drama, between thriller and romance, between black comedy and goofy farce. It couldn’t make its mind up, which made it hard for viewers to get a handle on.

Lauren and Babe’s nascent romance was sweetly screwball but Waller-Bridge’s guest appearance seemed needlessly gimmicky, as if she’d requested a role as far away from Fleabag as possible, just for the giggles. A gay taciturn taxidermist with a creaky American accent but definitely no crush on a Hot Priest or guinea pig café? Where do I sign?

Ultimately, Run was all premise and promise. It had huge charm and was perfectly watchable but never quite as good as it should have been. It wasn’t catastrophically bad but not tell-your-friends great either. Falling into that middle ground, like falling out of a barn onto some spiky farming machinery, proved fatal.