Putting aside the jokes about how the title characters in Marvel’s Runaways didn’t actually run away from home until the end of the first season, it felt from the beginning like the show had all of the pieces it needed to make something truly special—pieces that never quite cohered. The cast is great, fleshing out some compelling teen characters. The dinosaur is a lot of fun. Even the parents are interesting. So why does watching Runaways feel, to put it poorly, like running in place?
Part of the trouble is that the show shouldn’t move as quickly as it does, or at least not in the same way. Creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage are known for frothy, rapid plotting on shows like Gossip Girl and The O.C., and Runaways follows that blueprint—plots that you think will take a whole season are wrapped up by episode four, while an entirely new arc kicks off. But Runaways has been at its best, and remains at its best, when it’s able to slow down and fully explore the intersection of teen drama and superhero show.
It’s especially unfortunate that Runaways is ending, because in its third and final season, it feels like the show is finally ready to put the past away. This season pits the protagonists’ makeshift family, which has expanded to incorporate the pregnant Leslie Dean and newly-arrived shapeshifting alien Xavin, against the just-released family of series heel The Magistrate, a.k.a. Jonah, aka Victor Stein. This shakeup is useful partly in giving Jonah even less-human foils, but it also allows some of the cast to play very different characters. (In particular, Brittany Ishibashi is very funny as The Magistrate’s Daughter, now in the body of Tina Minoru.)
Turning Runaways into a full-on Family Feud is cool, in theory. But there are already a bunch of families on Runaways. The result is overstuffed—the pacing is a little off, while information gets dropped into the audience’s lap, then ignored in favor of new things happening. And the fact that The Magistrate’s Son’s identity is unknown at the beginning of the season means that, yes, there’s yet another hunt for yet another mole among the Runaways. Still, Runaways continues to crackle when it focuses on its central relationships. Gregg Sulkin and Ariela Barer still have excellent chemistry as Chase and Gert (hopefully, in a decade or two, they’ll get to play a cranky married couple). Allegra Acosta, who didn’t get much to do in season two as mutant Molly Hernandez, is effectively paired with Clarissa Thibeaux’s blank-slate Xavin. And Virginia Gardner continues to keep the entire ensemble stable as Karolina, even if she’s largely supporting the fantastic Lyrica Okano.
Okano’s Nico is also the show’s primary link between its old form and the one it could have taken in future seasons, exemplified by the presence of an entirely new villain—Elizabeth Hurley, playing a mysterious sorceress who can turn into birds and has been, in the trades, identified as Marvel villain Morgan Le Fay (like the King Arthur character). Hurley’s poised, menacing presence has a totally different energy from Jonah, and suggests what could have been possible without bouncing the Runaways against the same characters over and over.
Focusing more on magic also highlights the way this season has clearly stepped up Runaways’ action game, making greater use of everything from Chase’s Fistigons to the Minoru family’s martial arts prowess to, yes, Elizabeth Hurley turning into a bunch of birds. With more action and more finality comes a greater sense of stakes: More than a few people die in this season of Runaways, in a manner that suggests they probably aren’t coming back. By the end of episode four, it’s unclear what Morgan’s plan is. But she cuts a striking figure, suggesting the actual shape of the hallucinatory version of Runaways we’ve been waiting for: one that would allow the Runaways to fight other people’s demons, and not just their own.