March 12, 2022

“The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” Examines its Subject Matter with Care and Respect (Review)

There's something perversely odd about Samuel L. Jackson playing a character much closer to his age, as opposed to effortlessly pulling off the look and feel of a man thirty years his junior. Actually, we get both from Jackson in Apple TV+’s new series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, based on a novel by Walter Mosley. Jackson plays (you guessed it!) Ptolemy Grey, an aging man with crippling Alzheimer’s, in the present of 2021 and in some flashbacks — and if there’s anyone who makes 93 look stunning, it’s him. In a flashback, all they have to do is slap a mustache on his face, and he can play 46 just as easily.

Image courtesy of Apple TV+

But I digress. Last Days centers around Ptolemy, picking up shortly before a tragic event forces him to not only take on a new caretaker, but also leads him to be a trial patient for a new drug that gives him the lucidity he’s been lacking for many years. With the limited time he has with a clear head, Ptolemy decides to track down the man responsible for his nephew’s death, all while dealing with exploitative family members, unwelcome childhood memories, and perhaps even a new love interest.

There’s a certain universal emotional resonance in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey that I thought was absolutely fascinating — the fear of Ptolemy’s condition, losing most of your treasured memories and knowledge, is something many have at some point in their lives. And while Last Days is optimistic about the future of treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, I couldn’t shake the feeling of impermanence — but perhaps that’s just me projecting and pondering my own mortality, as I’m wont to do.

Dominique Fishback plays Robin, Ptolemy’s new caretaker, and the bond between their two characters is one of the highlights of the series. Fishback is an incredible performer (see: Judas and the Black Messiah, Night Comes On and, soon, Disney+’s Ironheart) and her chemistry with Jackson is undeniable. Robyn takes on a matronly role for Ptolemy, but she’s a teenager gunning for her GED, and a mutual respect builds between them that’s just delightful (and sometimes, unfortunately, heartbreaking) to watch.

During his treatment administered by a doctor, dubbed “Satan” by Ptolemy for his participation in a morally gray medical field, Ptolemy’s lucidity transforms him into an entirely different character. We knew that Jackson had range, but to see him play a character that is undeniably the same but is widely varied is phenomenal, and once again proves that he’s one of our greatest working actors. This Ptolemy is more confident and sure of himself, but there’s always a sense of impending doom over moments of happiness and levity — when you know this is a drama, there’s always that thought itching at the back of your mind: What’s going to happen next? Are these characters going to be okay?

Image courtesy of Apple TV+

The aforementioned doctor is played by Walton Goggins, sans Southern accent that made him increasingly notable in Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones. He’s much more subdued here, but oddly enough this is the most sympathy I’ve ever felt for a Goggins character — and he’s not even the focal point. That’s something that Last Days does quite well — empathy should be for everyone, not just for our lead.

Told in six reasonably-paced episodes, Last Days has a lot of story to tell. From Ptolemy’s treatments to a murder mystery, bookended by nonessential (yet still incredibly-done) flashbacks to Ptolemy’s childhood, there’s a lot of ground to cover in such a short time. It’s not always successful, but when it hits it’s pretty damn powerful. There are some moments that read very different in a post-2020 world through a racial justice lens, and I really appreciated that the series took a meditative, defiantly non-aggressive look at its subject matters. In this way it reminded me of the wildly different, yet still heartbreaking similar film The Father.

I came out of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey exactly as I expected — with Jackson as my standout, and not feeling particularly satisfied or content with how the series ended. I think it could have benefited from a bit more time and a more finite ending, but who am I to complain? Every episode is very well-constructed, and there isn’t a bad performer amongst the ensemble supporting cast. This is worth checking out, if only for the wealth of talent involved and the inevitable primal fear concerning one’s own mortality. You know, fun stuff!

Image courtesy of Apple TV+

The premiere of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is now streaming on Apple TV+, with episodes airing on subsequent Fridays.

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