The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, the Apple TV+ series based on the book by Walter Mosley, winds down with a somber closing chapter. Ptolemy has one last score to settle before his memory leaves him for good and Robyn is once more on her own.
The only thing left for him to do in this breathtaking finale is leave the world a better place than he found it.
Ptolemy Grey has been an odd six hours of TV: part science fiction parable, part brutal historical memoir, part comment on race relations and changing mores, and part beautiful family/relationship drama. It perhaps had a little trouble keeping every single element in even proportions. But for every little misstep or fumble, there are dramatic beats, performance notes, shots, cuts and scenes that are worth twice a regular TV show’s whole season.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey finale recap:
In the episode, titled simply “Ptolemy,” Ptolemy Grey (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is preparing for his climactic visit with Albert. He calls Shirley (Denise Burse) and wishes her well. He enjoys a nice morning with Robyn (Dominique Fishback) and sends her off on a date with Roger (Patrick Walker).
Then Ptolemy has a little flashback with his wife, Sensia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), right before she died. Then he gets dressed and goes outside and feels the sun on his face.
He’s got a couple loose ends to tie up. He wants to hit a museum, let some art wash over him. He goes to a lake he used to fish with Coydog (Damon Gupton). It’s a perfect last day. Ptolemy does not expect to survive his encounter with Albert, and there’s also the sense that even if he does he won’t be the same. He’ll be lost to the people who love him one way or another.
A climactic confrontation
Finally, Albert shows up at Ptolemy’s apartment. Ptolemy gets him to admit to killing Reggie (Omar Benson Miller) on tape — and then he shoots him. It’s a dispiriting, frightening, awful experience. His last-minute catharsis is no such thing. Six months later, Ptolemy’s in a prison hospital, beard grown out and dirty again, getting semi-regular visits from all the ghosts he left behind.
Meanwhile, Robyn must fight Ptolemy’s family for control of his estate, as they both knew she would. Nina (Charity Jordan), Niecie (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Hilliard (DeRon Horton) thus have to watch when Ptolemy’s video will is played back and he says he doesn’t trust anyone but Robyn with his money.
Niecie makes it clear she won’t give up her claim to the money without a fight, even as Robyn pleads with her to stop making things so ugly. They almost figure it out. But a woman like Niecie, who’s had nothing as long as she can remember, can’t just give up the chance that she’ll be OK for once. Heartbreaking.
Better don’t sound so bad, do it?
Director Hanelle Culpepper takes the reins again for the Last Days of Ptolemy Grey finale. She does a bang-up job, handling the most important things maybe in the whole series with a deft hand.
My personal favorite moment in the show comes as Ptolemy grills Albert and pictures him in a shack back in his sharecropping days. Right then, you realize Ptolemy’s carefully laid plans aren’t going to go off without a hitch.
The confrontation between Robyn and the judge is also a little marvel, finally showing us from the outside how strange her arrangement with Ptolemy looks to everyone else. We want to cheer for them because we’ve seen how special their relationship was.
But, as Mosley is keen to remind his audiences, the things you think you understand only stay clear (and special) when you can control them. Put Robyn in front of a white judge, and she looks like a petulant teenage runaway, not like someone who saved a man’s life.
We see a host of beautifully observed moments throughout, like Ptolemy’s visit to the museum, or the last moment Robyn has with him in his hospital bed as she sees that he’s back to how he was when she first arrived in his life.
It’s heartbreaking, sure, but it’s honest — and the only way you can end a show like this. Nothing is ever easy. And even though we know Ptolemy earned a happier ending, he doesn’t get one.
The show earns this exquisitely ambiguous ending. It’s what the cast has worked for, a piece of art that reflects the world in the important ways.
I’m not optimistic I’ll see much better TV than this all year. I’m grateful I got to experience The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.
Watch The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey on Apple TV+
The finale of limited series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey premieres April 8 on Apple TV+.
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.