I’ve always been a reader. That’s why I was so excited to hear about the Apple TV adaptation of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Written by the absolutely iconic Walter Mosley, The Last Days tells the story of a man dying from dementia. The book is one of my favorite pieces of media for a very specific reason. I’ve lost loved ones to dementia. It’s an insidious disease, stealing our most precious resource: memories.
It was a perfect choice for adaptation and the cast is perhaps one of the best I’ve seen in recent history. Samuel L. Jackson stars as Ptolemy Grey. Ptolemy is 91-years-old and a recluse. He lives in a filthy apartment in South L.A. The apartment is covered in both trash and the fragments of a life floating away. He’s afraid to throw things away because his addled mind doesn’t know what’s valuable and what’s not. Roaches stand guard on kitchen cabinets, Ptolemy’s bathroom doesn’t work and he sleeps under a table. As his mind slips further and further away from him, Ptolemy shutters himself off from the world even more.
Ptolemy has outlived almost everyone who has ever cared for him. His uncle and surrogate father, Coydog (Damon Gupta, Black Lightning), was lynched-a horror that a 7-year-old Ptolemy saw happen. His much younger wife, Sensia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), has been dead for decades now-a stroke snatching her from his grasp. As a result his only real link to the outside world is his grandnephew; Reggie. Omar Benson Miller (CSI: Miami, Ballers) shines in a role that might not have much screen time but is hugely impactful. Reggie is Ptolemy’s caretaker, helping him accomplish everyday errands that come easy to the rest of us.
When Reggie is killed in a drive by shooting, Ptolemy’s life is uprooted. He is unable to care for himself as even remember when he is causes problems for the older man. In steps, Robyn. Robyn-portrayed by Dominique Fishback (Judas & The Black Messiah)-is a 17 year old lodger at Niecie’s house. When Niecie-Marsha Stephanie Blake (When They See Us) evicts Robyn, the teenage needs a place to go and Ptolemy’s apartment might be just the place. Robyn has largely been alone all of her life but her difficulties have made her strong and caring.
She takes over Ptolemy’s care quickly. Cleaning, making meals and helping him navigate through clouds of dementia and fear. Fishback and Jackson have outstanding chemistry with each other. Fishback-only 30 years old-holds her own with the older Jackson. Their relationship is heartwarming, sweet and full of compassion. Fishback portrays Robyn as shrewd and tough, she’s ready to tackle the challenges associated with dementia. Jackson’s Ptolemy latches on to Robyn as the granddaughter he’s never had. She even makes sure she gets him to doctor’s appointments-including one that changes the course of Ptolemy’s last few days completely.
Clinical researcher, Dr. Rubin (Walter Goggins-The Righteous Gemstones)-referred to as “Satan” by Ptolemy, offers a lifechanging proposition. There’s a procedure that could potentially restore Ptolemy’s memories, but it comes with a huge trade off. Robyn is wary of the procedure, the side effects promise include night terrors and delirium and she’s not sure she can manage them on her own. In addition, there’s the almost certain fact that this treatment will shorten whatever is left of Ptolemy’s life. Ptolemy is eager, however, to gain even a fraction of his own life back. The clinic will essentially own his body, but his mind is his most valuable asset at this point.
The decision to take the medication begins a process for both Robyn and Ptolemy. In his lucid moments, Ptolemy is able to reconcile his past with the reality of his mortality. He uses his last bits of clarity in an effort to solve Reggie’s murder and make amends with the family he has left. He also spends time passing history and wisdom down to an all too eager Robyn, who soaks the kernels up like a dry sponge. The medicine also means that Ptolemy no longer worries about his ultimate fate. It gives him a freedom he hasn’t had in years.
The only thing that drags this excellent show down is it’s length. Existential conversations can only hold up for so long before a viewer grows disinterested with the material. Even Ptolemy’s decision to seek vengeance for Reggie feels a bit last-minute. Thrown in to add a bit of drama in a story that is otherwise rife with the struggles of a man coming to terms with the end of his life. Despite this-I loved that the story allowed for Ptolemy to enjoy the last bit of his life and even attain a small level of heroism.
Jackson gives Ptolemy a grace and kindness that is often lacking in depictions of older people-especially those who are suffering from diseases that limit them. The choice to shine a light on the indignities that old age visits upon us is bold but necessary. This is especially true when we watch its effect on someone with no immediate family left.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey encourages us to think about mortality, sacrifices, passing along the things our relatives leave behind (wealth of both wisdom and money) and looking forward to what the future holds for us all.
“The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” premieres on Friday, March 11 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly.