January 13, 2021

The running man

From The Fugitive to The Immortal, Run for Your Life to Run Buddy Run, classic television has told the stories of people on the run—from the law, from criminals, from death itself. The Fugitive was praised for its decision to bring to an end the premise which had sustained the series for four seasons; in this era of closed-loop storytelling, which suggests that every series contains an overall arc with a beginning, a middle and an end, it’s difficult to imagine a series that doesn’t provide some type of closure—"The Day the Running Stopped." The notable exception to this, of course, is the final episode of The Sopranos, which ends with an abrupt cut to black, and leaves the viewer forever in the dark as to what happens next. Considering the hue and cry accompanying that ending, it's probably unlikely we’ll ever see an ending like that again, or at least one left open to so many possibilities.

In a way, though, there’s something fitting about those series for which no end is provided. I’m not suggesting they do this intentionally; usually, the decision is made for them, in the form of low ratings, stars ready to move on, or recalcitrant network executives. Still, it seems to me that perhaps leaving things open-ended isn’t really such a bad idea, at least in some instances. It forces both the show's viewers and its creators to consider the existential implications of life, and how their characters fit into that scheme. Viewers, for instance, are left to fill in the blanks after the ending of a show like The Sopranos, and in doing so, they not only display their perspective on what the show was all about, they also reveal a great deal about themselves and their own way of thinking: their values, their moral convictions, their philosophy of life. 

And what do those shows themselves tell us? In providing for an end to the four-season odyssey of Richard Kimble, Quinn Martin was following in the footsteps of Route 66, which also provided for an end to the journey—at least for Tod, when he decided it was time to settle down and marry Barbara Eden. (Smart man!) That suggests our heroes were not so much running away from something, as running toward something. Tod finds that, or at least thinks he has, but we’re not sure about Linc, let alone Buz. The question remains, though: if they were running toward life, toward something that they perhaps can’t define but will recognize when they see it, what are they running away from? A life without hope, without meaning, a boring, 9-to-5 job that provides security whereas the adrenalin that is the spice of life comes from insecurity?*

*You could include Then Came Bronson in that discussion as well. 

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Is The Immortal really running away from his pursuers, or is he running away from the burden of being immortal? The setup of having the hero pursued by the heavy was not only exceedingly conventional, it was probably necessary in order to get the show on the air. But there’s a twist to the convention: Ben Richards is useless to Jordan Braddock if he’s dead; Richards must be kept alive in order to produce the rare blood that enables him to cheat death, the blood that Braddock wants. If the implication is that Braddock wants to keep Richards alive, then it also follows that by running from Braddock’s henchman Fletcher, Richards is also running from eternity, or at least natural eternity. One could say that he is running from a false life, running toward death, or the possibility of death, which is the only way a man can truly feel alive. Think of this series in another way, one which probably never would make it to television, but is intriguing nonetheless: Ben Richards, unable to experience death in a natural way and unwilling to take his own life (because he still has scruples) dedicates his life to taking outrageous risks for the purpose of helping others. It could be anything from climbing a tree to rescue an old woman’s cat to dashing into a flaming house to rescue a small child. Perhaps he takes on the mob to save the life of a young man who’s fallen into debt, or offers himself as a human hostage to prevent an international incident. There are an endless number of ways to risk your own life, after all, and if you can’t do something good with the life you’ve been given, what good is it? 

I think you get the picture here. The most existential question of all is that of the meaning of life; while Dr. Richard Kimble hoped to get his life back after being exonerated of the murder of his wife, his real-life counterpart, Dr. Sam Sheppard, was never able to recover what had been his, and stumbled through years of wrestling professionally and drinking heavily before meeting a premature death. Sam Sheppard could not return to the life he once lived—but having died as a man, he continues to live as a legal precedent, and if that precedent (Sheppard v. Maxwell) makes a difference in the lives of others, perhaps even saving the lives of others by ensuring them a fair trial, could he be said to have died at all—or did he, in some mysterious way, experience the suffering of a life lost in order to provide life to others? Does that make him any different from our alternate version of Ben Richards? And what hope does that give Dr. Kimble? Unlike Sheppard, he was able to continue interacting with others during his journey, rather than spending years in prison—will the life of a successful pediatrician still appeal to him? 

Perhaps the most profound lesson we can learn is from the story of Paul Bryan, the protagonist of Run for Your Life. Like Kimble, he is running for his life, but whereas Kimble is trying to escape the death house, Bryan is attempting to outrun the disease that will claim his life in two or three years. We don’t see how his race ends; there was much derision over a series about a man with two years to live running for three seasons, but remember: television doesn’t measure time in the same way that calendars do. (Otherwise, M*A*S*H never would have lasted as long as it did—or the Korean War would have lasted a lot longer.) And, in fact, we never know what happens to Paul Bryan. Since Run for Your Life ends without an episode wrapping up all the loose ends, we don’t know for a fact that Bryan actually dies. His doctor did tell him to stay in contact, that advances in medical science are being made all the time. It’s unlikely, perhaps, but it could be that Paul Bryan beats the odds, that he hangs on long enough for his doctors to provide him with the treatment that cures him of his fatal illness. And then what? Having finally learned how to live a life of gusto (he’d told his doctor he hadn’t had a day off since law school), does he return to the world of a corporate lawyer, or does he continue living a life of adventure, as a latter-day Hemingway? And will he find the extra years he’s been given as satisfying as those years he’d lived when he had nothing to lose, and therefore everything to gain? Given time, would he have traded places with Ben Richards, living with an antibody that would likely have prevented his fatal illness, if it meant he wouldn’t have learned how to really live? That’s an interesting question.

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The world today can often seem like a patient in extremely critical condition, but too stubborn to ask for the Last Rites. Under such circumstances, who wouldn't look to run? (Unless you're one of the ones causing the problems in the first place, in which case you're not only running, you want to bring everyone and everything along with you.) Trying to predict the future is often a fool's errand, and anyone looking for certainties right now is certain only of being a fool. 

In a sense, these running men are trying to both escape from and head toward the same thing simultaneously, as if they were caught on an endless treadmill comprised of an existential mobius strip. By ending the series without a conclusion, or leaving the viewer uncertain as to the rest of the story, the showrunners ensuring that everything will always be just out of reach; the man freed from punishment, the man free to experience death, the man hoping for a second act he hadn't realized he wanted. It is life that they seek, it is life from which they run. And that's appropriate, because after all, can we ever really escape what we’re running from? Can we ever truly arrive at what we’re running toward? In a way, the running never stops, and never can; we're all on a treadmill to eternity, running toward a goal we'll never reach. The second we reach the future it becomes the present, and the next second it becomes part of the past. Sportscaster Sid Collins famously said that we all speed toward death at the rate of 60 minutes every hour; we speed toward the future in the same way, but like death, we'll never truly experience it for ourselves. 

And that's why some answers are better left unsaid, and why it might not be so bad for a television series to end while leaving the question unanswered. For that unanswered question is the exploration of life itself, and what it means to be fully present in that life—as a participant, not merely an observer. 

In the meantime, we keep running, always running. TV  


  1. Mitchell, this excellent article would be an amazing podcast if only William Conrad were here to read it....

    1. As long as he uses his Fugitive narrator voice and not the one from Bullwinkle! Seriously, thanks much - as a fan of his, I appreciate the linkage.

  2. I would suggest that The Incredible Hulk - that most melancholic of Super Hero series - would also fit this template, with the added twist that Banner is running from himself as well as the pursuing journalist


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!