The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey opens with a fascinating hook. Ptolemy Grey, played by a clean-shaven Samuel L. Jackson, is dressed in a suit while speaking steadily and confidently into a tape recorder. As Jackson’s titular character pours himself a drink and loads a gun, he leaves an eloquent message to Robyn (Dominique Fishback) telling her he’s about to go and seek revenge, only for him to suddenly be interrupted by a loud knock at the door. The series then jumps back in time two months to reveal a vastly different version of him, and the contrast is so stark that Jackson may as well be playing someone else. Now with a full beard and wild hair, and wearing wrinkled clothes, Ptolemy speaks at a half-shout as though he can’t hear himself, stumbling over words when he’s not losing his train of thought altogether.
Mosley’s story is based around a bit of light science fiction, an experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s disease that restores Ptolemy to full cognitive function. The cost of the procedure, though, is rather steep: At its current stage of development, the treatment only works temporarily and will accelerate the man’s mental decline once it’s complete. As Ptolemy recovers, the Faustian nature of this bargain isn’t lost on him. He playfully addresses Doctor Rubin (Walton Goggins) as “Satan,” and he comments on the irony that the treatment requires him, as a Black man, to sign away ownership of his body to a white man.
Consistent with Mosley’s body of work, the series features an unsolved murder at its center. Prior to the treatment, Ptolemy’s great-nephew and caretaker, Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), is gunned down in the street, and living on the treatment’s borrowed time, the old man hopes to find out why. Some investigation is involved, but the mystery is slight, and intentionally so: Rather than any complex twists, the main obstacles are police indifference and the fact that the only person Reggie felt comfortable confiding in was a relative ravaged by dementia.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey primarily centers Ptolemy’s attempts to set his affairs in order while growing fond of his new caretaker, a 17-year-old girl named Robyn (Dominique Fishback). The pair have a warm, easy chemistry even before the treatment, as Robyn treats Ptolemy like a human being, asking for his input when tidying his home instead of regarding him as a nuisance that couldn’t possibly know what he wants. When Ptolemy changes post-treatment, she’s initially uncertain of whether she still likes him.
We feel the contrast between Ptolemy’s mental states so deeply because, across six episodes, the series takes the time to build relationship dynamics and convey his state of mind. When Ptolemy is at his lowest, the camerawork expresses his condition, blurring the edges of the screen in cramped close-ups that create an appropriately disorienting sense of the environment. He doesn’t always remember to bathe himself, and he hits himself on the head while trying to remember, like smacking a rickety old machine into momentary function. Even in joyful, celebratory moments of Ptolemy reconnecting with people for the first time in a long while, we get a vivid sense of how he once was and how he will be again.
Yet, while the man can recall his entire life without a hitch, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey remains curiously limited in what it chooses to depict. We really only see two periods of Ptolemy’s past: his impoverished childhood in Mississippi, and the time he was in a tumultuous relationship with his wife, Sensia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), in the mid-‘70s. Sometimes the elderly Ptolemy will move through these memories in the place of an age-appropriate version, furthering the idea that these moments are vivid and immersive in his head. But it also creates a hierarchy of importance, ensuring that all the other memories relegated to mere monologues feel secondary and lack the same tangible, lived-in quality.
Watching this elderly man in the first couple of episodes is nothing short of devastating. Ptolemy is unkept, living in filth, and constantly petrified of the world around him. After his primary caretaker — his nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller) — is murdered, Ptolemy finds a new caretaker in the 19-year-old Robyn (Dominique Fishback). Together they learn of a new clinical trial that will perfectly restore Ptolemy’s memory but at a drastic cost. After taking the drug, Ptolemy becomes hellbent on avenging Reggie’s death and following through on a promise he made as a child.
There’s certainly a fantastical element of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey since there is no drug that alleviates Alzheimer’s. But where the series shines is through its at times brutal, at times delicate realism. Through Ptolemy’s widened unseeing eyes, you can understand the pure terror his life must be every day. If you’ve ever been someone diagnosed with dementia, Jackson nails their mannerisms while also infusing his performance with a degree of empathy many of these patients rarely experience. That realism is also always present with Robyn.
Fishback’s dynamic young woman doesn’t have many big speeches about how she loves and respects Ptolemy as a person, and she doesn’t need them. Her devotion is continuously shown through little moments — scrubbing Ptolemy’s filthy bathroom, leading him to see Reggie’s body when no one will tell him it’s a funeral, consulting him as she cleans his place. There’s a true beauty in the myriad of ways Robyn shows her devotion to this man.
It’s clear that dementia isn’t the only time Ptolemy has known fear. He’s lived his whole life in terror, fretting over the type of man he should be. Once he’s himself again, Ptolemy morphs into a quiet, cautious man who often floats by on his charm rather than his strength of will. It’s a characterization Ptolemy desperately tries to change as he knows he’s coming to the end of his life. Yet even as he avoids conflict and second guesses what he has to do, Jackson lends this character gravitas. Ptolemy may not be the strongest force in this saga about experimental drugs and missing treasure, but he is by no means weak.
Sometimes the most profound action a great artist can take is to take a step back. Though he stands at the center of Apple TV+’s latest drama, that’s exactly what Samuel L. Jackson does in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Jackson gives a performance that always honors his costars first and foremost, whether they may be Fishback’s electrifying Robyn or Damon Gupton’s endlessly mysterious Coydog. Even after all these decades, it just goes to show that Samuel L. Jackson continues to surprise.