A shuffling, brokendown Samuel L Jackson is quite a sight. In The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (AppleTV+), he plays the eponymous Grey, a man suffering from rapidly progressing dementia, living in hermitic squalor despite the best efforts of his loving great-nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), who is a last, fragile link with the outside world until he is killed in an unsolved shooting.
And yet he holds your attention as firmly as he ever did as the biblically monologuing Jules in Pulp Fiction, or as Nick Fury in the MCU or – of course – as FBI agent Neville Flynn trying to keep track of all those snakes on that plane in 2006’s enduring masterpiece Snakes on a Plane. In his moments of lucidity Ptolemy is frightened of the ever changing world. In the rest he is distraught, burdened by unknown horrors and haunted by people and fragmented scenes from his childhood in the Jim Crow south. It is a rounded and unsparing portrait of dementia and to see the 73-year-old actor offer up such a vulnerable performance after a career largely built on dazzling us with the opposite adds a poignancy all of its own.
Jackson’s portrayal of a man whose life is fading away from him is one of two reasons to stick with The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. The other is Ptolemy’s growing relationship with his niece’s best friend’s daughter Robyn (on a good day he remembers all of this), who gradually comes to take Reggie’s place. What she lacks in initial tenderness she more than makes up for in her ability to tackle his disgusting bathroom and blocked toilet. Greater love hath no one.
Robyn is played by Dominique Fishback, who is simply astonishing. Going toe-to-toe with Jackson in her first main television role, hers is a mesmerising and complex depiction of a young woman hardened by a tough start in life – and with the hair-trigger fighting instincts to prove it – who nevertheless cares for the old man, to whom she is no actual relation, and who is able to blossom in her own way under his attention.
This core relationship and the pair’s evolving dynamic is what, I suspect, will keep most people watching while Plot with a capital P starts to billow round them. Ptolemy signs up to an experimental treatment invented and administered by a pushy research doctor (Walton Goggins) – a kind of limited Limitless pill that will restore him to himself but only briefly and leave him worse off thereafter. As it kicks in, it allows Ptolemy to become the charismatic raconteur he once was (and Jackson to bust out his more typical moves) while piecing together and coming to terms with his traumatic past, which includes witnessing the lynching of his uncle and mentor Coydog McCann (Damon Gupton), investigating Reggie’s murder, tracing the stolen treasure for which his uncle was killed. Throughout, he fends off family members and officials who seek to spoil and sever his and Robyn’s friendship.
It’s a lot – although the magical pill aspect is at least not dwelt on too heavily and allowed to add a full sci-fi vibe to the brew as well – and not all of it is worth it. There are some very extraneous bits indeed, such as the local drug addict who tries to attack Ptolemy every time he leaves his house. She seems to be there to do nothing but help explain his isolation before Robyn comes along and to add tension to various scenes. The conclusion – Ptolemy redeemed, Robyn’s self-image remade, the good generally ending happily, the bad unhappily – is unremarkable and clearly destined pretty much from the opening episode. It feels like there is a better, shorter story here, stripped of the schmaltz that, however hard they try to banish hit, seems to creep inevitably into American tales of friendship (especially between young and old) and any wrestling with the indignities of age. It would benefit from focusing more tightly on the two main characters and the realities of their lives separately and together.
But it is in many ways a career-best performance from Jackson (and from Fishback, though we must hope that hers is merely the first of many to come), and there is joy to seeing it in what must have been a passion project for him, as a longtime supporter of Alzheimer’s charities. He executive produces and has had the rights to the Walter Mosley book the series is based on for nearly a decade. If it turns out to be something of a swansong – or at least, his non-MCU swansong – it would be a fine one to go out on.