'The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey' is a story of madness and murder

Casting Samuel L. Jackson as a 90-year-old man with dementia is a bold choice. Is there an actor more defined by his command, his compo...


Casting Samuel L. Jackson as a 90-year-old man with dementia is a bold choice. Is there an actor more defined by his command, his composure, his sharpness? It’s like telling Bill Murray not to be funny.

The funny thing is that the person who cast Jackson as the main character in “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” which premiered Friday on Apple TV+, was Samuel L. Jackson. He bought the rights to Novel by Walter Mosley from 2010 of the same name and stuck with the project for over a decade, eventually bringing it to television as a six-episode miniseries written by Mosley and Jerome Hairston.

jackson said he was drawn to the story due to the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in his own family. But you can see another, more strategic reason why it could draw inspiration from Mosley’s touching mix of parable, mystery and period melodrama. Thanks to a slightly fantastical plot device, Ptolemy Gray slips back and forth between crotchety insanity and the full ability to cast himself. So Jackson can play it both ways, and the series’ tension stems from our ongoing assessment of Ptolemy’s mental state. We are constantly trying to make him look as much like Samuel L. Jackson as possible.

Set in present-day Atlanta, “Last Days” draws a sometimes blurred line between encouraging fable and gritty kitchen sink character drama. The kitchen sink is literal in the first and best episode, directed by Ramin Bahrani (who did his own stories in that vein, like “Goodbye Solo” and “Man Push Cart”). We meet Ptolemy in his squalid apartment, a cockroach-infested hoarder’s paradise where he watches the dark hum of cable news and struggles to piece together fragmentary memories of his childhood in Mississippi.

The sudden death of a caretaker brings Robyn (Dominique Fishback), a 17-year-old orphan, into his life, and they immediately bond. Ptolemy responds to his determination and honesty; she appreciates his paternal chivalry and the intellect and sensitivity that shines through his mental fog. She cleans her apartment and institutes some order; when she finds a slip of paper with the details of a forgotten doctor’s appointment, she makes sure he shows up.

The backbone of “Last Days” is the love and respect that is created between these two incompatible characters, and most of its enjoyment comes from the easy rapport between Jackson and Fishback. (She played the shrewd young prostitute Darlene in “The Deuce.”) Jackson is as charismatic as ever during the long stretches when Ptolemy is lucid, but he’s also an extremely generous stage partner, and he doesn’t get in the way of the performances. silent and nuanced Fishback. (He also has great scenes with Omar Benson Miller, who moves into a smaller role as Ptolemy’s great-nephew.)

Ptolemy and Robin’s friendship would be sufficient basis for a shorter work – Jackson apparently resisted attempts to turn the novel into a movie – and it’s complemented by a solid mystery plot: Ptolemy is determined to use time and wits he has left to find out who killed the guardian that Robyn replaced.

But then there’s the other half of the story, and here the show is on less sure ground. The doctor Ptolemy sees – played by Walton Goggins, usually reliable with a note of worried oiliness – offers him an experimental short-term miracle: a complete but temporary restoration of his mind and memory. It’s a magico-realistic pact with the devil (a point hammered home by Ptolemy’s nickname for the doctor, Satan).

The device kicks off the mystery – Ptolemy needs the cures to work if he is to catch the murderer. But it also involves frequent and increasingly detailed flashbacks to traumatic events in Ptolemy’s rural youth in Mississippi, and scenes in which the elder Ptolemy communes with long-dead characters who shaped his life, including a uncle (Damon Gupton) and ex-wife (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams).

This side of the show is well done and of obvious symbolic weight: Ptolemy himself suggests that his dementia might represent deliberate forgetfulness, a reluctance to face the horrors of racism and his own shortcomings as husband and father. (He attributes a specifically racial dimension to his failures: he not only needed to be a better man, he needed to be a better black man.) And his sacrificial but willing participation in the search for the white doctor is complicated – or perhaps just confusing – reflection of the long history of exploitation of black subjects by the medical establishment.

The memory game is not very exciting, however, in terms of idea or action; you sit on it, respectfully waiting for the focus to return to Ptolemy and Robyn as they move around Atlanta and take care of business. (Some of these cases concern yet another strand of the plot, involving buried treasure and Ptolemy’s greedy parents, which is entertaining if not very compelling.) And it gives the whole story a latent sentimentality that erupts into the final episode.

In Jackson’s long career, “Last Days” is his first live-action role on a TV series, and you wish he didn’t have to spend as much as auditioning for Sainthood. When the story is allegorical, it can be bleak and more than a little condescending. When he plays things straight with a fairy tale hunter, it goes smoothly.

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