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If it is true that, as Coydog (Damon Gupton) says in Apple TV+’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, “all a man is, is what he remember,” then the Ptolemy Grey (Samuel L. Jackson) we meet at the start of the story is barely a shell of who he once was. A nonagenarian suffering from dementia, he can hardly make sense of what’s happening in front of him, let alone everything else that’s happened to him over the decades. But when a drug promises to temporarily restore all of Ptolemy’s memories — to make Ptolemy the fullest version of himself, going by Coydog’s logic — the question becomes what he’ll do with that rare gift.
It’s potentially rich territory for all manner of stories, from the intimate to the epic, and creator Walter Mosley (who also wrote the book upon which the six-episode miniseries is based) plucks a few different threads to weave together. Last Days is a little bit murder mystery and a little bit treasure hunt — but it’s most compelling simply as a drama, chronicling the (platonic) love that develops between Ptolemy and Robyn (Dominique Fishback), his teenage caretaker.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
Airdate: Friday, March 11 (Apple TV+)
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Dominique Fishback, Cynthia Kaye McWilliams, Damon Gupton, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Walton Goggins
Creator: Walter Mosley
The first episode, directed by Ramin Bahrani, does feel like a straightforward drama, and a finely crafted one at that. Set before Ptolemy’s treatment, it delivers a haunting look at life with dementia. Past and present blur together: Ptolemy hears Coydog, the man who raised him, whispering in his ear in the present, or sees his late wife Sensia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) in the face of a passing stranger in the street. Shaky, blurred camerawork and distorted sound bring us into Ptolemy’s disoriented state of mind as he wanders into oncoming traffic or struggles to follow a conversation. When Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), his beloved nephew, dies late in the episode, Ptolemy’s grief becomes all the more wrenching because he keeps losing his grip on it: Leaving Reggie’s wake, he innocently asks where Reggie is.
Into Ptolemy’s shrinking world comes Robyn, an orphaned 17-year-old who needs a place to stay, and who’s willing to put in the work to make Ptolemy’s filthy, cramped apartment a livable home for them both. Though Robyn may be a supporting player in Ptolemy’s story, the writing and acting ensure she’s a fully formed character of her own. Fishback brings to Robyn the quiet magnetism that made her such a standout in Judas and the Black Messiah, and Mosley and Jerome Hairston’s scripts write her a life that extends beyond Ptolemy, even looping in a kindly love interest at one point. As Ptolemy regains his facilities, his bond with Robyn grows ever deeper, rooted in the care and generosity they show one another in a world that rarely affords much of either to them.
Having established the intimate interiors of Ptolemy’s life, Last Days adds in a touch of the mythic around the second episode when Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins) presents his offer. The bargain that Ptolemy strikes is a Faustian one, underlined by his habit of referring to Rubin as “Satan.” The lucidity granted by the experimental treatment will last only a few weeks, after which Ptolemy’s mind will decline faster than before; in exchange, he’ll sign over his body (though not, Ptolemy makes a point to note, his soul). Their agreement places Ptolemy in the long history of risky medical experimentation performed on Black people — which in turn fits into an even more expansive one of white capitalists using and abusing Black bodies, as also glimpsed in frequently tragic flashbacks of Coydog and a very young Ptolemy (Percy Daggs IV) in 1930s Mississippi.
Rubin’s procedure transforms Ptolemy’s relationship with his past. “Now I remember the past instead of it remembering me,” he tells Coydog in a dream. Jackson is in fine form as all forms of Ptolemy: the fragile man unable to trust his own mind; the reinvigorated one resolved to make the most of his borrowed time; the steady younger one seen digitally de-aged in flashbacks wooing his beautiful wife. The toughness Jackson has built his career on registers here as the resilience of a man who’s lived — sometimes in harrowing pain, sometimes in dazzling joy, but lived. That Jackson’s been an icon for so long makes the casting feel especially appropriate. If Ptolemy is a man defined by who he once was, so is Jackson, for an audience that’s spent the past few decades watching him age and evolve onscreen.
But Last Days loses its footing a bit once Ptolemy starts to regain his. The restoration of his memories sends Ptolemy on two parallel quests. One carries on the lightly fantastical feel of Ptolemy’s agreement, sending him looking for the “treasure to save all the Black people” that Coydog entrusted to him decades ago. Neither the search nor the loot are terribly thrilling on their own, and the storyline works best as an excuse for Ptolemy to regale Robyn with stories about Sensia, each detail adding more texture to what had seemed at first like a glossy, perfect romance — and each new wrinkle filling in a more complete portrait of the man Ptolemy once was.
Less effective still is Ptolemy’s search for the person who murdered Reggie. The deadly stakes seem intended to give Last Days a bit of thriller momentum, and the series tries to set the tone early with an opening flash-forward to a lucid Ptolemy waiting by a table with a loaded gun. (It’ll be another five-ish hours before we circle back to what happened next.) But while Ptolemy’s determination is never in doubt, the mystery itself feels halfhearted. It’s so obvious who the killer is that the only reason to suspect someone else is that it seems too obvious, and the resolution feels too pat to carry the weight that it should.
As the story progresses, the treasure hunt and the murder mystery take up more and more time and attention, with diminishing payoffs. A series that started out a heartbreaker ends in a shrug. Last Days never drops to the level of boring — if nothing else, it’s always a pleasure to slip into the warm glow of Ptolemy and Robin’s friendship, or sit back and admire Jackson’s nuanced performance. But a question Robyn asks early in the series starts to feel more pertinent: “What if you waste what little time you have looking for answers that ain’t there?” she asks. Robyn’s worries proves to be unfounded, in the sense that Ptolemy finds exactly what he’s looking for. Turns out, though, that Last Days is at its best when it’s not looking for concrete answers at all — when it’s just letting Ptolemy be.
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