Throughout his career, Samuel L. Jackson has played some of the most memorable characters ever to grace the screen. From Jules Winnfield to Coach Carter and Nick Fury, he is more often than not, the coolest and most charismatic character in anything that he appears in. Hailing from Apple Studios and adapted from Walter Mosley’s acclaimed 2011 novel, ‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’ sees the renowned actor, who rarely appears on television, pivot to the smaller screen to deliver yet another masterful performance - but this is Jackson like you’ve never seen him before.
‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’ opens with our main character sitting alone in his apartment, clean-shaven, smartly dressed and seemingly lucid. He records a message with a tape recorder and loads a gun as we hear a loud knock at the door. From here, we jump back in time and jarringly, see Ptolemy ravaged by dementia, unrecognisable and living in filthy conditions. It’s an intriguing opening and immediately sets up the central mystery of the story.
Ptolemy is a 91 year old man who has been forgotten by everyone in his life. When his nephew and caretaker Reggie (Omar Benson) is murdered, Ptolemy’s condition begins to spiral further out of control before he meets orphaned teenager Robyn (Dominique Fishback), who also finds herself alone and facing her own personal struggles. As the two begin to realise just how much they need one another, they meet the enigmatic Doctor Rubin (Walton Goggins) and learn about a treatment that could restore Ptolemy’s memories and help him uncover the truth about what happened to his nephew. The catch here; however, is that this experimental and potentially dangerous treatment will restore his memories only for a very short time, before reversing and ultimately leaving him in a possibly worse condition that before. It’s an interesting moral dilemma that viewers will struggle with just as the characters on-screen do.
During a recent TCA Winter Press Tour, Jackson stated that he and Mosley had been looking to adapt the novel for almost ten years and that it was a project that he wanted to be a part of due to his personal experience with the subject and members of his own family suffering from Alzheimer’s. Here, Mosley adapts his own novel for the screen and Jackson’s passion for the story and subject matter are evident in what is one of the most nuanced and powerful performances of his career. The celebrated actor essentially plays three different characters throughout the series, jumping between his present-day self struggling with his memories and every day tasks to his more lucid self, able to remember small details from decades gone by. We also see flashbacks to his younger days as we learn more about Ptolemy’s personal life and everything that came before his illness.
Jackson is de-aged for the flashback scenes with some impressive special effects and also aged-up using prosthetics for the present day portion where is health is at its worst. These different stages of the character’s life are portrayed with laser-focused attention-to-detail. We are transported to each time period with masterful use of music and camera work to set the scene as we jump back and forth between the 1970s and present day. The present day scenes make use of very tight close-ups, frantic camera movements and murky colours to convey Ptolemy’s confusion and constant state of distress, meanwhile the 70s-set portion of the story is more relaxed and warmer in tone with a soulful soundtrack that sets the scene.
With each time period of the show depicting such a drastically different stage in Ptolemy’s life, it would have been very easy for each version of the character to feel completely detached from the others, but Jackson’s brilliant performance preserves the essence of Ptolemy’s personality across each version of himself. Even at his weakest and in his most deteriorated state, flashes of his former self still shine through and it really does feel like getting a peek back in time at the various stages of someone’s life. Throughout all of this, the show also peppers in scenes from Ptolemy’s childhood throughout with Percy Daggs IV turning in a heartfelt and vulnerable performance of the younger titular character. It’s here where we further explore the relationship between Ptolemy and Coydog (Damon Gupton), a mysterious figure who also haunts him in present day and who’s story holds the keys that will help unlock hidden truths.
As someone who has witnessed the effects of dementia in family members, I approached this show knowing that certain aspects would be quite difficult and some of the early scenes in particular certainly weighed on me for some time afterwards. The scenes depicting Ptolemy’s dementia at its worst as he repeatedly hits himself in the head, struggles to remember anyone, has hallucinations of the aforementioned Coydog and his wife Sensia and is cruelly taken advantage of by others are distressing and left me feeling sad and at times, angry. Contrary to this, following him as he regains his memories and his razor-sharp sense of humour had me feeling jubilant and there’s a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments throughout, despite the heavy subject matter. It’s a very delicate tightrope which Samuel L. Jackson walks perfectly.
Where the show truly shines is when Samuel L. Jackson and Dominique Fishback are on-screen together. It’s this relationship between Ptolemy and Robyn that brings the show to life and adds yet another layer of emotional complexity to an already weighty six-hour series. Dominique Fishback is outstanding as the tough, yet vulnerable Robyn and watching the two characters help and learn from one another leads to some of the show’s memorable moments. Robyn is guarded, untrusting of most and someone who has been forced to grow up before her time in order to survive. Yet through all of this, she cares for and helps Ptolemy when no one else does and when even his own family choose to take advantage of him for their own benefit - a conflict which is explored in the later episodes. Robyn becomes very protective of Ptolemy as the two navigate the final part of his life and Fishback portrays the character with both raw anger and loving compassion. One scene in particular that involves a heartfelt conversation between the two at Ptolemy’s apartment is one of the best moments in the series and one that should guarantee awards recognition for both.
Walton Goggins, humorously referred to throughout the series as ‘Satan’ after Ptolemy proclaims that he’s making a deal with the devil, is excellent but underused. An extra episode that perhaps delved more into the drug trials and Goggins’ character himself would have been welcome. In addition, the mystery of Reggie’s death and the detective work that Ptolemy undertakes in order to find out what happened to him is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series and something that I’d have liked to have seen get a little more screen time. This, at times takes a back seat to Ptolemy’s battle with dementia and the flashback scenes to his childhood. There’s a lot of story to explore here and with only six hours to do it in, some parts feel a little undercooked. The fact; however, that the only complaint I have about this show is that I simply wanted more of it is testament to how good is actually is.
‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’ is a gut-wrenching, heartfelt portrayal of someone coming to terms with their own mortality and finding a sense of purpose. It’s also a story of friendship and human connection. While an extra episode would have been welcome in order to further flesh out a couple of plot points, there’s very little to fault here. Marking the inaugural release from Apple Studios, the quality here is evident from the show’s opening moments. It feels like prestige television, with cinematic visuals, an excellent use of special effects and a sublime soundtrack that all feel deserving of the source material. The very delicate subject matter is handled with care, thanks to Walter Mosley’s adaption and two truly exceptional performances from Dominique Fishback and Samuel L. Jackson, who has never been better.
'The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey' premieres on Apple TV+ Friday March 11th with the first two episodes. Each subsequent episode will premiere on Fridays through April 8th.
James has been a fan of Apple for as long as he can remember. He is a film & TV obsessive and has also written for several publications such as BBC Good Food Magazine. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland and can usually be found drinking copious amounts of coffee, watching Apple TV+ and talking about it with anyone who will listen.