Apple TV+ made an incredibly smart move picking up The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, based on the book of the same name by legendary writer Walter Mosley.
Directed by Ramin Bahrani, adapted by Mosley himself, and starring a searing Samuel L. Jackson, this is one of the best things to air on Apple TV+ so far. This sensitive and painful look at a man losing his memory at the end of a hard life is everything it ought to be.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey recap
In the first two episodes, which premiere Friday, Ptolemy Grey (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is losing it. His hearing comes in and out, he can’t hold his attention for more than a few minutes, he’s clumsy and forgetful — very forgetful. His memory is going in a hurry, and days just slip away from him.
Plus, his apartment is a hoarder’s delight. And the only non-six-legged visitors he gets are the ghost of his friend Coydog (Damon Gupton), and his still living nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller). Reggie has been looking out for Ptolemy, but he’s at his wit’s end. His wife wants to move out of Atlanta and down to Texas, which means Ptolemy (or Papa Grey, as he calls him) will be on his own real soon.
He’s gonna need a caretaker of some kind, and Ptolemy is a hard man to care for at the best of times. With dementia coming on fast, he isn’t likely to get any easier to look after.
Enter Robyn (Dominique Fishback). Her parents are dead, so she lives with Ptolemy’s niece, Niecie (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who lived across the street. Ptolemy doesn’t know when he gets picked up by his great nephew Hilliard (DeRon Horton) to cash his Social Security checks that it’s because Reggie has been shot to death.
Everyone can use some salvation
Robyn is gonna have to take Reggie’s place. Ptolemy’s arrival in her life comes not a moment too soon. Living in the same house as Hilliard means having to fend off his advances (which are starting to look more like attempted rape as the days go by). And Niecie can’t just turn against her son. Robyn needs a new place to stay, and Ptolemy’s house is really the only option.
Of course, if she’s gonna stay, she’s gonna have to do what Reggie couldn’t: Clean his apartment. She fixes up his bathroom and empties it of years-old trash. She takes care of the roaches living under the sink. And she opens the door he’s got padlocked.
Turns out he’s kept his wife Sensia’s (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) bedroom in perfect condition since she left. It’s like a shrine to her memory. There’s some trouble when Robyn dresses up in one of long-dead Sensia’s dresses, but other than that, she and Ptolemy get along as well as they can.
It falls to Robyn to take Ptolemy to a doctor (Walton Goggins), who’s running a clinical trial about memory. He wants to give the old man an experimental drug that could help him with his memory. Robyn isn’t sure, but Dr. Rubin says that if they wait it might be too late.
The drug works. And with his newfound lucidity, Ptolemy has only one thing on his mind: Finding the man who killed Reggie.
Better don’t sound so bad, do it?
The bad news first (don’t worry, there isn’t much). Director Ramin Bahrani came of age in the era of what A.O. Scott dubbed “neo-neo realism.” (In fact, it was the release of Bahrani’s 2008 movie Goodbye Solo that prompted Scott’s article in the first place.)
Bahrani seemed interested in the little guy — working-class heroes forgotten by mainstream cinema. He was hardly alone in his interest in characters scraping by, but he did seem to be the great hope of American independent cinema. He also stayed around long enough to make more than one movie about characters below the poverty line.
Then he got a little lost along the way. In 2012, Bahrani made his major studio debut with the lifeless At Any Price starring Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid. It suddenly seemed like he wasn’t up to the challenge of keeping his interests and style intact when money entered the picture.
A couple years later, his 99 Homes was much more assured (having Michael Shannon, Laura Dern and Andrew Garfield as the leads helped) and felt like a course correction. But then he remade Fahrenheit 451 for HBO and it represented a new low for the director. Anonymously shot, choppily edited, uselessly modern, what was the point of having this director at this material?
A quality script
I’m relieved to say that working with a Walter Mosley script brought out the best in Bahrani, although he still has a few ham-fisted tics left over from working for major studios. His camera is usually right where it needs to be (director of photography Shawn Peters is one of the greats at his art form), but there are moments where it has to change POVs to show Ptolemy’s decline and sometimes it is way too much.
It’s like Bahrani decided he’s going to be making Barry Jenkins movies or TV episodes without really knowing why they work (and frankly sometimes they don’t). He sometimes goes all in on visual devices that call for a much less pronounced display.
Bahrani and Jackson also commit a minor sin when they give Ptolemy his memory back. The performance calms way down from the high-key anxiety and frightened aimlessness with which Jackson imbues the character. They don’t feel like the same man. It’s too much, and his director should have known to stop this.
Whatchu do to me, girl?
If I’m being overly and specifically critical of maybe 10 minutes of the first two hours of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, it’s because A) The show is so fantastic otherwise that the dull spots stand out like nails hammered into a two-by-four and B) I feel maybe overly protective of Mosley’s work.
Mosley is one of the best living writers, and he’s had rough luck lately. Inspired by Alice Walker, Mosley became a novelist at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of a space for a black Jewish crime novelist. But he and a few important defenders of his work made room. His novel Devil in a Blue Dress was adapted in 1995 by the great Carl Franklin, starring Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle.
The film didn’t make its money back, unfortunately, which relegated Mosley to the background a little. It means that when British director Michael Apted adapted Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned with Laurence Fishburne in 1998, somehow it wasn’t instantly canonized, despite it being one of the best things to ever air on TV.
The importance of Walter Mosley
Obviously, Mosley didn’t stop writing during the period that followed. (Indeed, he’s thankfully insanely prolific. Ptolemy Grey was written in 2010, the same year as his Leonid McGill novel Known to Evil). When he made it back to Hollywood, it was two steps forward, three back. He was in the writer’s room of John Singleton’s show Snowfall, which landed him a gig at Star Trek: Discovery, a job from which he retired after weird passive-aggressive racism from his co-workers.
Thus it’s important to me that Mosley is in charge on Ptolemy Grey, because it means no one can mess with his words or misinterpret his intentions. The show has amazing dialogue, unshowy but formally brilliant, as is Mosley’s wont. Ptolemy’s brain being caught between his youth as a sharecropper and his life now means his phrasing is laced with idioms tailor-made to express a 90-plus-year-old man’s history and fraying condition.
Robyn is also a wonderfully written character, savvy enough to survive but still naive about a lot of things. Fishback plays her with equal parts ferocity and sensitivity. And watching her interact with Jackson is so compelling that it would have been OK if the plot never kicked in.
All hail Samuel L. Jackson
Jackson knows exactly how good this part is and truly throws himself into it. He’s been an underrated actor for most of his life because people take for granted that immediacy is just his thing. They can’t see the nuances between a lot of his iconic performances, but anyone who enjoys Jackson’s work knows the huge amount of effort he puts into the best of it.
Jackson understands that for some movies, showing up with a little attitude is plenty, that he can waltz through most action movies without much beyond his innate charisma. But when he’s on, he’s incredible.
His performances in Unbreakable, Glass, Django Unchained, Black Snake Moan, Rules of Engagement, Eve’s Bayou, Jackie Brown, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Hard Eight, Die Hard With a Vengeance and — in a tie for my favorite work by the giant, Jungle Fever and The Sunset Limited — all call for staggering shows of inner anguish and outward power that not everyone is capable of displaying.
Jackson shines in Ptolemy Grey
The jury at the Cannes Film Festival gave Jackson’s work in Jungle Fever a special prize even though they don’t normally fete supporting performances. However, his work was so self-evidently astounding they had to do it. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is, for the most part, up there with the best of his work.
He gives Ptolemy’s tics and confusion real verve and pathos. You feel for him, yes. But more than that, you understand precisely what he’s going through because Jackson plays the character so magnificently, articulating every bit of a journey few of us will ever live to understand.
Jackson and Mosley understand each other (as Mosley and Fishburne did in Always Outnumbered) and create a truly, fully believable human being at the final crossroads of his life. For the bulk of the runtime of these first two episodes, I was absolutely floored. What a gift.
Watch The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey on Apple TV+
The first two episodes of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey premiere March 11 on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive on Fridays.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.