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Merritt Wever puts a defiantly relatable spin on the Hitchcock blonde in ‘Run’
Merritt Wever puts a defiantly relatable spin on the Hitchcock blonde in ‘Run’

Opinion I Why ‘Run’ is the Hitchcock-loving romance we need

This series, executive produced by ‘Fleabag’ creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a full-fledged romance that doubles up as tribute to the master of suspense

Alfred Hitchcock once claimed he cast blonde actresses because they photographed better in black and white. Whatever the pretext—and Hitchcock’s predilection for blonde leading ladies continued into his colour films—the results are unforgettable. Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren starred as women of allure, the flames to the director’s suspenseful tinderboxes. A “Hitchcock blonde" appears picture-perfect but is enigmatic beneath the innocent/icy surface, a woman who confounds audience expectations with hidden motives. She is an unattainable woman meant to make us curious.

Now, for the first time, she’s insecure about her weight. The scrambling comedy-thriller series Run (Disney+ Hotstar)—created by Vicky Jones and executive-produced by Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge—is a full-fledged romance that doubles up as tribute to the master of suspense, each of its episodes upending long-revered Hitchcock tropes. There may be no greater—and more delicious—subversion than watching Merritt Wever, the hilarious and humane performer from Unbelievable and Marriage Story, put a defiantly relatable spin on the Hitchcock blonde.

Wever stars as Ruby Richardson, a woman looking appraisingly at a man she knows only too well, who is, for some reason, pretending to be a stranger on a train. She has just fled—from her life, her children, her husband—based on a three-letter text. RUN, it said, in block letters, like a one-time password to an unexpected alternate life, and she is now a world away on a moving train, wondering if sex with the sender of the text will be as good as it was back in college. “You have taken from life so in return you have to give of your flesh," she says, half-heartedly and half-jokingly trying to justify how her body now looks (compared to how it was back in college), before half-giving up. “Or something."

Her partner in this cardiovascular romance is Billy Johnson, a best-selling motivational speaker profoundly embarrassed about what he does, played by Domhnall Gleeson. When Ruby makes up a clichéd line to illustrate a point, Billy actually wonders if she’s quoting him. Gleeson is a twitchy, tentative delight, looking into Ruby’s handbag when she’s away and shushing an unseen co-passenger. To Billy—who is longing visibly to be recognized, if only to moan about how embarrassing it is—it’s as if the whole world is treating these two runners as protagonists.

They aren’t. A witness describes them, as if naming an alt-rock album, as “a needy blonde and a guy in a woman’s coat". Accurate as that may be, their chemistry is off the charts. It’s in the way Wever looks at Gleeson, forever sizing him up, forever pushing the line between deft wickedness and deadpan mockery, forever coming in close and then drawing away—so she can close in again. She’s like that while kissing him too: moving in close but then halting, making him reach forward and commit to the moment. Making him work for it.

He’s less confident but maybe more conflicted, given the guilt he feels about Ruby’s flight away from family, not to mention the skeletons in his laptop.

In the second episode—the finest—with the two of them in a Swiss Army knife of a tiny cabin that folds into various things and requires Billy, in Ruby’s words, to “twizzle himself in mid-air" to reach her, he turns away from sex out of guilt. This offends Ruby, who then proceeds to torture Billy for offending her. A stranger can never twist the knife quite as well as one who knows the old wounds well.

The show doesn’t bother with backstory, less concerned with telling us how they met and how they were first drawn to each other and more eager to have us know that he spent a term bandying about the word “hirsute" in college thinking it meant “therefore". This clever approach brings the audience in close, through old in-jokes and shared history, making us feel like we are eavesdropping on something raw and intimate.

It is, therefore, a problem when the show tries to expand beyond these characters into something more cartoony—involving characters like a shy taxidermist and an adorable policewoman named Chief Deputy Sheriff Babe Cloud. The actors are well-picked, and everyone’s Fleabag favourite shows up with a most unexpected accent, but this takes away from the immediacy, the on-the-go propulsion of the show. It’s the wrong kind of narrative MacGuffin for this stylish show that goes from shoplifting a dress to properly North By Northwest-ing through fields.

Watch Run for Wever. This is a marvellous performance, an observant and nuanced portrayal that creates a heroine to root for. In Ruby Richardson, Wever gives us a superbly fleshed out character, realistically torn about her decisions. Indecisive yet moving forward, she surprises herself as much as those around her. “Blondes make the best victims," Hitchcock said. They also have more fun.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

@rajasen

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