Even some of the greatest television shows of all time don’t have the best pilots. “It doesn’t get good until the x episode,” is something we tend to hear when that first episode didn’t do its job. Well, no one will have to say that to get people to watch HBO’s Run. When a first episode hits all the marks as the Run pilot does, it feels like an effortless story unfolds in front of you. However, there are gears turning silently behind the curtain that are making that pilot work. Taking a look at the mechanics of a perfect pilot episode won’t ruin the magic, but it will help you appreciate aspects that you weren’t thinking about while watching.
Made by queens of sexual tension Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Vicky Jones (Fleabag, Killing Eve), Run throws the audience into two ex-lovers’ plan to run away with each other. After hanging up with her husband, Ruby (Merritt Weaver) gets a text from Billy (Domnhall Gleason): “RUN.” She replies with the same word, and they meet on an Amtrak train in Grand Central Station. We find out the two made a pact to drop everything and travel across the country together. Their chemistry is uncanny. This isn’t a “will they, won’t they?” onscreen romance. They will. It’s just a matter of when. In the meantime, they do their best to forget the lives they ran away from, but they don’t succeed.
One burden that pilot episodes bare is the weight of exposition needed to get the show on the road. There’s significant world-building involved that can take up a lot of time. Run spends about a minute to set up Ruby’s “Ordinary World” so the audience can move past it. She’s parked outside of a Target on the phone with her husband. She plans on going to yoga, with her brand new mat, but her husband asks her to go home to be there for the delivery guy. Reluctantly, she abides. These details tell us everything we need to know about her. She’s a thirty-something married woman, whose one thing for herself is shopping at Target and going to yoga, but even that gets interrupted for her. The look on her face after she hangs up with her husband tells us she hasn’t known her own joy in years.
Then the text arrives.
That’s all it takes to set up the show! From there, we’re on the move and the exposition is sprinkled throughout. The first half of the well-known screenwriting saying “Start late, get out early” is on perfect display in the pilot episode of Run. Where some writers would choose to show Ruby in her home, a scene with the kids, or maybe a scene of her complaining to one of her girlfriends about her hum-drum life, the audience doesn’t need that. We enter at the latest point possible to gather what she is running from and why.
Another part of the show that adds to quick-witted tempo is the settings of each scene. Putting scenes in interesting places always adds more to a show, and Run is no exception. They are hardly ever dormant locations and when they are, the characters are on the move. The show opens in a car, leads to an airport, then a train station shop, and finally a train. The constant movement adds to the tension between characters in a sly enough way that it’s not obvious. We watch Ruby run through airports and train stations before ever really knowing what she’s running to, and we never get a second of breathing time to think about it until Billy shows up on the train. Even once they’re on the train, they are positioned in front of the windows, whisking by rural Pennsylvania at high speed. The subtle background imagery keeps the feeling of running alive even after Ruby has sat down in her train seat.
These settings keep the characters confined in close quarters, which is good considering all they want to do is get up close and personal. They can walk to a different car on the train, or escape to the bathroom to relieve some tension, but they can’t really escape the decision they made to run away until the train stops. Keeping Ruby and Billy confined to the train also puts them close by people at all times as well. The one thing they wanna do — each other — they can’t because they are always sitting close to another innocent couple traveling to Pittsburgh or near a porter. The proximity to other strangers makes for great comedy and agonizing tension between the two.
One cardinal rule of screenwriting of any kind is keeping the plot simple and making the characters complex. Essentially, Run is just a show about two people running away with each other. What makes it so interesting? Ruby and Billy. Ruby leaves behind a safe and secure (albeit boring) family to meet Billy again. Billy is a very charming motivational speaker and a certain success, but he has his own secrets, too. His text to Ruby came after suicidal thoughts and deep despair. It’s also clear that Ruby’s family and Billy’s career will not be easily left behind. All of the potential complications Ruby and Billy could bring to the story are hinted at in the first episode, which is what every pilot should achieve. Ruby feels guilty for deciding to leave her family. Billy is definitely in a rut and worried about seeing someone who may recognize him.
There is a lot of promise in the first episode of Run, and there’s much more to come. Jones and Waller-Bridge have packed thirty minutes full of sexual tension, moral questions, and Grade A dialogue when most shows struggle to find those in a full hour. If you haven’t indulged yourself and watched Run‘s pilot yet, there’s still time to catch up before the next episode airs on Sunday at 10:30 PM EST on HBO.