My family has an old adage. “Our elders are no longer the people you knew. they are just old folks trying to get to heaven.” It’s a wild notion that in our last years, we would choose to reminisce on our past with the intent to right a few wrongs. Dire trauma dealt from the death of someone you loved as you near the same fate is an appropriate way to describe the latest Apple TV+ project. Film legend and pop culture icon Samuel L. Jackson stars alongside Dominique Fishback in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a series that gets very personal, very quickly.
At 93-years old, Ptolemy Grey suffers from a seemingly severe rare form of dementia. However, while he struggles to remember simple tasks such as using a remote control, he often has traumatic flashbacks to his upbringing in the American south. An area riddled with racism, poverty, and violence. Ptolemy lives far longer than he expected to. But due to his condition, he depends on the kindness and love of his nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller) to survive. A bond quickly established in the first episode. Additionally, the series celebrates the mythology that lives on to this day within Black American families.
From a man who played in the cotton fields to a survivor, quickly aging in the modern era, Ptolemy has a heroic nature surrounding him. But a deep sadness fills his eyes with confusion and longing. Samuel L. Jackson just might be putting on the most haunting performance of his legendary career, one that feels deeply personal and riveting.
A few years back, my uncle was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer and given less than a year to live. At the time, I lived with my mother, worked at Walmart, and studied marketing in college. My life would be turned upside down as my quickly deteriorating uncle moved into hospice care in our home. The pain of watching a loved one lose who they once were is devastating. Within the first episode of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, the titular character’s world is also turned upside down. As his condition worsens, his nephew looks to begin a new life in a new city. Unfortunately, his nephew is taken from him, a heartbreaking loss that sticks with Ptolemy for the rest of his days. Seeing a series that relates so much to my own personal trauma, strikes a very particular chord for me. Especially given the fact that my own uncle carried himself with a high level of confidence and swagger, not unlike the younger version of Ptolemy. There are several moments within the first episodes where it seems like my uncle is alive and well in this story and it means a lot to me personally.
Ptolemy is a kindred spirit, filled with joy and love of life. However, his disease is hindering his last days on earth. However, a new lease on life is offered with the opportunity to meet an expert in dementia, Dr. Rubin. A chance to unlock hidden memories is offered. However, this meeting and the proceeding procedures unlock not just the happy memories filled with laughs with his mother and romance with his wife. It also unlocks a mystery shrouded in vengeance that sets Ptolemy on a dangerous, dark path.
As previously mentioned, this series might contain Jackson’s best work. Each moment in which the actor uses his eyes and body language reacting to the world around him feels poignant, vulnerable, and painful. The actor is perhaps best known for commanding a screen with a commandeering nature. However, he manages to do the same thing as a lowly, sympathetic character. He actively grips for any sense of normalcy and familiarity. That said, Jackson is still able to pull off that trademark swagger and charisma upon signing up to an experimental treatment invented and administered by the overbearing research doctor (Walton Goggins). This treatment brings him back to his heyday before leaving him much, much worse off thereafter. The actor beautifully bounces back and forth between a strapping, dialed-up version of his younger self and a terrified old man on the brink of losing it all.
By the time Dominique Fishback arrives on the scene as Robyn, his new teenage caretaker, Ptolemy’s life is already quickly falling apart. When she arrives, the light returns to his eyes. She’s given purpose and something to protect. The duo demonstrates indelible chemistry as much more than just a proverbial grandfather or daughter. Their bond quickly turns into something the two need to nurture. Additionally, when the treatment begins to transform Ptolemy back to his old self, he only has one task in mind with his limited time: solve his nephew Reggie’s murder. Alongside Robyn, Ptolemy is hellbent on not wasting the time he’s been gifted.
The series, so far, is a masterclass. It interweaves the fractioned trauma of Ptolemy’s childhood in the Jim Crow era, the ugliness of a man losing touch with reality, and an undying determination to fix unfixable past mistakes. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is powerful. The series highlights Black culture, both past, and present. It also impressively mixes a treasure hunt and a murder mystery with stylistic storytelling. Overall, this impeccable drama has great potential to shine a light on what it’s like to be lost, despite a longing to be found. – Christian Hubbard
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey streams Fridays on Apple TV+.
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