After an armful of Emmys, an iconic photograph of the same, a Vogue cover, and a James Bond punch-up job, the logical next step toward world domination is a pivot to production. Phoebe Waller-Bridge may have forged a singular path from one-woman show to unlikely awards sweep, but the writer-actress chose a relatively conventional way to capitalize on her Fleabag success: a blockbuster overall deal with Amazon worth a reported $20 million a year, both to create her own shows and develop others. The hope, presumably, is for Waller-Bridge to become one of Amazon’s answers to Netflix’s Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy or Warner Bros.’ Greg Berlanti—creators who’ve leveraged their own hit shows into a steady stream of productions with less hands-on involvement but a wider range of styles and collaborators.
The Amazon deal has yet to bear fruit, but this weekend marks the premiere of an early preview: Run, the HBO limited series created by Waller-Bridge’s longtime friend and creative partner Vicky Jones. Run is the first TV production for DryWrite, the theater company the two cofounded. Jones directed the original stage version of Fleabag, which will be revived in streaming form this month to benefit coronavirus relief efforts, and served as a writer on Killing Eve, the BBC America series Waller-Bridge adapted from Luke Jennings’s Villanelle novels. Waller-Bridge serves as an executive producer on Run in addition to playing a small supporting role in its later episodes.
But Run isn’t the only entry in the Waller-Bridge extended universe on the docket this spring. The third season of Killing Eve wasn’t set to premiere for another two weeks, but in an unintentional side effect of the ongoing crisis, the spy drama and Run will air side by side on Sunday. Waller-Bridge remains a distinct influence on the homoerotically tinged cat-and-mouse game between Sandra Oh’s bored bureaucrat and Jodie Comer’s psychopathic assassin, though she hasn’t run the show since its triumphant first season. Season 2 was supervised by Emerald Fennell, now known as Camilla Parker-Bowles on The Crown and writer-director of the buzzy Sundance hit Promising Young Woman; Season 3 was passed on to playwright and Fear the Walking Dead alumna Suzanne Heathcote. Still, taken together, Run and the latter seasons of Killing Eve offer a tentative answer to the multimillion-dollar question: Can the Phoebe Waller-Bridge aesthetic exist apart from her distinct writerly voice? And if so, what does it look like?
Run may not be as direct an extension of Waller-Bridge’s persona as Fleabag, but it’s still easy to see what drew her to the material: dry wit, female misbehavior, and attractions so incendiary they make whole lives go up in flames—all the motifs woven through her short-but-sweet CV. Even a brief synopsis of Run checks every box. Two college exes, Ruby (Merritt Wever) and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson), share a pact: At any given time, if one texts “RUN” and the other replies within 24 hours, both have to drop everything, meet at Grand Central Station, take a cross-country train to Los Angeles, and decide at the end if they want to spend the rest of their lives together; the two otherwise have no communication. It’s the kind of stupid plan two 19-year-olds would dream up after watching Before Sunrise. The surprise is that, in their mid-30s, both are desperate enough to actually go through with it.
Run is designed as a two-hander, but one that’s weighted, subtly yet perceptibly, toward Ruby’s point of view. It’s Ruby we’re with when she gets Billy’s “RUN” text, in the bleak, cavernous parking lot of a suburban Target. And it’s Ruby who’s found herself in a considerably more banal, and therefore accessible, kind of desperation. Once an aspiring architect, she’s now stuck with a husband and kids she may love, but not quite as much as her fantasy of the life she could’ve led. Billy, by contrast, is a slick motivational speaker undergoing a precipitous fall from grace. His predicament is more high stakes, the details of which are kept more obscure than Ruby’s—not that we need to know much about Ruby’s situation to understand her instinct to hit “eject” at the first opportunity.
From the jump, Billy and Ruby’s caper turns into a hard lesson in the impossibility of a fresh start. There’s no time for the high of a reunion to fade, because it’s never really there in the first place. Of course Ruby can’t simply abandon her family with no notice and expect them not to mind; of course Billy can’t just walk away from the multimillion-dollar business he’s come to deeply regret. Traces of their real lives follow them on to the train—sometimes literally, in the case of Billy’s disgruntled assistant Fiona (Archie Panjabi). Ruby finds herself pleading on the phone with her husband Laurence (Rich Sommer, a nice-seeming person who nonetheless specializes in playing insecure dicks), trying desperately to have her adventurous cake and keep her comfortable stability, too.
Underneath the lives of these two star-crossed lovers are the lovers themselves, who predictably find themselves unable to pick up where they left off. (Sometimes quite literally; there’s a great deal of physical comedy wrung out of when and how Ruby and Billy will finally have sex.) The pair find themselves unable to agree on basic ground rules. Billy imposes a moratorium on personal questions, but it’s less to preserve a sense of whimsy than to keep Ruby in the dark about the shit he’s in—even as he judges her for being similarly secretive. Ruby, for her part, is a ball of chaos incapable of parsing her own desires. Wever is fantastic, hewing far closer to her frenzied scene-stealing in Marriage Story than her radiant calm in Unbelievable. Gleeson is dashing as a comrade in dysfunction, but this is her show.
Run is operating firmly in the vein of Catastrophe, You’re the Worst, and other romantic comedies about unhealthy people trying and largely failing to form healthy relationships. But Ruby and Billy’s clearest precedent is Fleabag and the Priest, a tempting comparison made mandatory by Waller-Bridge’s appearance (along with an unconvincing American accent) late in the season. Run’s central duo have an awkward, warm chemistry all their own, with a sometimes uneven tone that ranges from naturalist to slapstick. It’ll remind you of Fleabag, but not so much that Run can’t be enjoyed on its own terms. The series are distant cousins, not mismatched twins.
Killing Eve has had a tougher time emerging from the shadow of its own creator. In its first season, the show’s draw was its singularity—of Villanelle as a character, of the circumstances that brought her and Eve together, and most of all, of the slippery, magnetic, ever-shifting bond the two shared, built on an unstable foundation of mutual understanding. In its second season, Killing Eve started to show signs of strain as it struggled to balance that singularity with the demands of multi-volume television. In its third season, it finally buckles.
There’s a conundrum in fiction known as the genius problem: the difficulty of writing characters meant to be so exceptional they threaten to surpass the imaginations of mere mortals who are very much not the president of the United States, or Sherlock Holmes, or a songwriting savant. With Killing Eve, Villanelle is the genius—at killing people in elaborate and inventive ways, yes, but also at defying our expectations for what she’ll do next. Villanelle is a voracious, impetuous ball of id who abhors boredom and changes outfits by the hour. Which poses a problem when she, and her show, starts to become predictable, or worse yet, unconvincing.
In the final episodes of Season 2, Eve and Villanelle are drawn into the orbit of Aaron Peel, a tech baron who happens to share Villanelle’s total detachment from human emotion. Presented with the choice of Aaron (a kindred spirit with unlimited resources) and Eve (a mess Villanelle has had plenty of time to observe and tire of up close), Villanelle chooses Eve. It doesn’t make much sense, except in the context of a show that needs to keep the two together—just not too together, hence Eve’s subsequent rejection of her killer crush. Season 3 starts at Killing Eve’s increasingly untenable status quo: Villanelle working out of yet another gorgeous apartment in yet another European city; Eve once again at the end of her rope. Both are somehow still in the orbit of MI6 and the shadowy crime outfit The Twelve, undercutting the credibility of both organizations and flattening the stakes. (What do these women have to do to convince their supposedly ruthless handlers they’re more trouble than they’re worth?)
The more visible Killing Eve’s story seams become, the more it loses the spark that made it such an addictive rush. Season 3 sees several new additions, including Harriet Walter as Villanelle’s estranged mentor and Gemma Whelan as the surprisingly emotional daughter of ice queen Carolyn Martens. Both characters’ existences feel clumsily retconned, an impression fortified by the story choices. The whole point of Villanelle is that she’s utterly sui generis, with no need for an inspiration or origin story—and yet the season sends her back to the drab Russian town where her journey began. Meanwhile, a major character death is clearly engineered to get Eve back in the game after her last brush with Villanelle pushed her out.
Killing Eve has the unenviable task of trying to duplicate a Waller-Bridge original while Run is merely working in the same vein. Killing Eve is premised on a crackling electricity between Eve and Villanelle that verges on the combustible. It’s lightning that the show can’t manage to put back in a bottle. Other shortcomings could be forgiven if the Eve-Villanelle relationship still scanned, but despite Oh and Comer’s best efforts, there’s a je ne sais quoi that’s no longer there. Run goes to show the spirit of Waller-Bridge can be summoned in traces. Maybe it just can’t be replicated.