3 out of 5
Created by: Walter Mosley
Some brilliant lead performances and an interesting core premise never quite resolve into a sum greater than the parts, but The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey keeps its journey short, and its episodes constantly in motion; it is definitely a worthwhile watch, even without walking away with much after the fact.
While there are several themes touched on in the show, one of the most prominent is in our – humanity’s – treatment of the elderly. This happens to be the strongest theme, thankfully, though that’s also why it’s somewhat disserviced by some of the other bits and pieces in play. And while I’m not some holy defender of the elderly (or the young, or the etc.), I acknowledge my own dismissal of those past a certain point of self-care / -awareness, and of course am aware that I, too, will one day succumb to effects of time, beyond that to which my already aching and cranky body attests; what worked for me in Ptolemy’s narrative is how creator / lead writer Walter Mosley embraced that point of view alongside a more general study, alongside a more cultural one, juxtaposing the ways Grey is cared for / ignored / abused is his neighborhood, and family.
Samuel L. Jackson absolutely lives this character – assisted by great production design and costuming and makeup – to the extent that I felt like I must’ve missed the actor getting this old at some point, until I flipped over to some recent Marvel movies and saw him being his other bright and expressive self. Not to mention the direction Grey’s plot takes: that Ptolemy – a stereotypically cranky old man, whose outbursts can be tied to his decaying mental state – turns out to be part of a memory study by Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins), in which a certain medication can temporarily give Ptolemy back his facilities. Situations guide Robyn (Dominique Fishback) to stay with Ptolemy, and in order to make his hoarder-style apartment livable, she first sets to cleaning it up; in order to make her time with Ptolemy tolerable, she begins to engage him – best she can given his fractured mind – and comes to learn about this study. They make their way to Dr. Rubin; Ptolemy gets the required treatment; and Ptolemy is back to the man he was X decades ago.
…Which is the key to the main B-plot: Ptolemy trying to understand how / why Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), his previous caretaker, died; a murder mystery that is rather treated as the main motivator for the story, but really just proves to be a background detail, the kind of thing that’s tossed in at the end of each episode as a reminder until the conclusion. This structure also informs and is tied to a second mystery regarding some wealth Grey is apparently sitting on but has to sift through his memories to find.
Both of these storylines are interesting, and the treasure hunt can be fun. Meanwhile, though, Fishback – also amazing in her role, nailing the balance of bitterness and naivety suited to her character’s age and lot in life – and Jackson form something of an odd couple as Grey and Robyn, Mosley’s script and the actors very naturally evolving the friendship that forms there. The “requirement” of respect for the elderly blends with her legitimate care for Grey, and his returned concerned for her having what she needs to be able to grow up without limitations; there’s also a very nuanced awareness that this friendship would never have bloomed without this medicine – which will wear off.
Other things happen in The Last Day of Ptolemy Grey: race is not the primary focus, but the story is centered around black characters and is part of the day-to-day events – inside the community, outside of the community – both in flashback and the present day, and because of all of the above that’s going on, six episodes makes this hard to be an integral aspect to things. Not that it needs to be – this can just be a story where the actors are black – but because history and Grey’s family and neighborhood play such a big role, these elements naturally come in, but then cannot be fully addressed. Although indirect points can be considered as to how this is represented when Grey interacts with those from outside of his usual circle – Goggins’ character, for example. (Who, yes, is also excellent.)
Sexuality and domestic violence are considered. Robyn has a precipitating event that leads to her staying with Grey; Grey’s memories are littered with the push and pull of relationships. Unfortunately, some of these things are just used as plot stepping stones; some are just historical details to flesh out the characters. There’s a more in depth study of how all of these things fit together, and the show does not have time for that.
But again: what’s here is absolutely worth one’s viewing time. The lived-in feeling of the world in which Grey exists, and the amazing performances from Jackson and Fishback necessitate eyes glued to screen. You don’t walk away dissatisfied, just feeling like there was a lot more to the story that would’ve been good to know.