The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey review: contemplative drama is a compelling showcase for Samuel L Jackson

Samuel L Jackson stars in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a contemplative drama about a man with dementia coming to the end of his life

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey was a passion project for Samuel L Jackson. The Apple TV+ drama, Jackson’s first major television series, is based on a book that was published in 2010; Jackson bought the rights to adapt Walter Mosely’s novel around the same time, and he’s been developing it ever since. The end product is, clearly, borne of that passion – both in terms of being the kind of contemplative, even indulgent story that’s rarely made without such support, and more simply in the sense that you can feel the care that went into it as you watch it.

Ptolemy Grey (Jackson) is a man in his early 90s with dementia. He lives alone in a cluttered apartment, disoriented and confused; he’s visited regularly by his nephew Reggie (a very likable Omar Benson Miller), who helps him with his shopping and takes him to doctors’ appointments. After Reggie is shot and killed, family friend and teenage orphan Robyn (Dominique Fishback) starts to take care of Ptolemy – and his doctor (an enjoyably slimy Walton Goggins) offers Ptolemy the chance to join an experimental trial to alleviate his dementia.

Very loosely, you might describe The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey as a crime drama. Certainly, it’s more of one that is a science fiction piece – the mechanics of the medicine Ptolemy is offered are never really the focus of the series, only an avenue through which to open up the character drama. (Even then, the series is always clear that this isn’t a straightforward cure – it’s a step towards one, for someone else, one day, but for Ptolemy it can only ever represent a brief reprieve.) Once Ptolemy is in a more lucid state, he starts trying to find Reggie’s killer, acting almost like a detective as he struggles through his own fragmented memories to find the truth.

But that’s only really the lightest thread in a series that ultimately isn’t a particularly plot-driven narrative. Instead, it’s a character study, contemplative and winding; The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a portrait of a life as it draws to a close, as much about Ptolemy’s efforts to set his affairs in order as it is any kind of murder mystery. With Robyn accompanying him, Ptolemy visits old acquaintainces and makes new friends, unearths buried secrets, and tries to leave a legacy that’ll fulfil a promise made a lifetime ago.

Samuel L Jackson as Ptolemy Grey with Dominique Fishback as Robyn (Credit: Apple TV+)

The role makes for a compelling showcase for Jackson, an opportunity to play something that stops just short of a total transformation. In his less lucid moments, Ptolemy is adrift in his own mind, and Jackson offers a heartbreaking portrait of vulnerability; as the series unfolds, he gains clarity, and the steely self-awareness of a man seeing clearly for the first time in a long time. Ptolemy is always recognisably the same man, though, always the same core underneath – as impressive as the transformation is the consistency that Jackson holds the character with, very much the anchor that the miniseries is built around.

Fishback, meanwhile, is similarly impressive. She captures the nuances of a character pulled in different directions well, and wears that complexity lightly; there’s quite a deft touch to Fishback’s performance, a sort of ease and delicacy that belies the gravity of the miniseries. The series is full of standout moments for Fishback – it’s as much a showcase for her as it is for Jackson, if not moreso really – but one particularly memorable one comes in the middle of episode four, as Robyn tries to explain how her complicated feelings about her mother’s death influence her relationship with Ptolemy. She’s quite acutely keyed into the tone the series demands, and it’s difficult to imagine The Last Days working as well as it does without her.

Together, the pair have a great repartee and an easy chemistry. In many ways, Ptolemy and Robyn are the perfect foils to one another; her old beyond her years, time rolling off him and flooding back to him all at once. Robyn’s evolving relationship with Ptolemy is the spine of the series, and there’s something quite moving about seeing the two become closer and closer. “Wouldn’t be no me sitting here if you weren’t sitting there next to me,” Ptolemy says, crediting her with his new lease on life; there’s a sense as well that Jackson and Fishback are both pushing the other to even greater heights with their performances.

Ultimately, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey proves to be quite a poignant character study, and you can see why Jackson felt like the story was one worth championing as a passion project. It’s perhaps the sort of series that’s probably more likely to end up a hidden gem than a popular hit, a contemplative drama on a still burgeoning streaming service, but it’s also well-worth seeking out – it’d be a real shame to miss it.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey begins on Apple TV+ on March 11. The first two episodes will be available at once, with the remaining four airing weekly. I’ve seen all six episodes before writing this review.

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