It’s hard to dislike “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” if only because of its earnest message and the saccharine nature of its screenplay about an aging, lonely man with dementia, and the teenage girl who comes to his rescue. It’s a tenderly written coming-of-age story, an odyssey, and a romance all in one. Performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Dominique Fishback are the saving grace for a series that wears its heart on its sleeve and is emotionally manipulative enough that one can’t help but be sympathetic to it. Based on the Walter Mosley novel of the same name, viewers may find it easier to simply acquiesce to its bigheartedness than push back against its predictability and at times plodding progression.
Suddenly left without his trusted caretaker, and facing the reality of his mortality, old man Ptolemy Grey (Jackson) lives in solitary squalor. A hoard of a house, Ptolemy exists amid a relentless flood of unrestrained memories and associations that render his mind as inoperable as his congested, reeking toilet. He can’t throw anything away because he’s not sure what’s valuable and what isn’t, and since he’s outlived just about everyone he’s ever truly cared for, there’s no one close enough that he’d trust to help him. His uncle and mentor, Coydog McCann (seen in flashback, played by Damon Gupton), was lynched in the South, witnessed by a seven-year-old Ptolemy; his much younger wife, Sensia Howard (seen in Ptolemy’s hallucinations, played by Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), had a fatal stroke two decades prior; and as the series opens, he’s called to the wake of his much-loved great-nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), his last link with the outside world, who is killed in an unsolved shooting.
Understandably paranoid, and afraid to go outside alone lest he runs into the local unhinged addict who constantly threatens him, his life receives a jolt when orphaned Robyn (Fishback), initially taken in by Ptolemy’s niece Niecie (Marsha Stephanie Blake) but eventually evicted, moves in with Papa Grey as he’s often referred to. Robyn is only 17 years old but she has lived as turbulent a life as Ptolemy, emerging from its vacillations, shrewd and tough, and eager to help the old man who claims her as the granddaughter he never had.
She cleans and “bombs” his vermin-infested home with a fumigator, and assists with his finances and hospital visits, including key sessions with Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins), a pushy clinical researcher experimenting with a new procedure that could restore Ptolemy’s dementia-addled memories. Robyn is at first repelled by aspects of the procedure, which comes with side effects that include night terrors and delirium. Additionally, looming is the tragic reality that the experimental treatment will likely severely shorten whatever is left of Ptolemy’s life. That Ptolemy refers to the doctor as “Satan,” suggests a Faustian bargain in his acceptance to be a guinea pig for a vaccine that has yet to be approved by the FDA.
“I know you’ve bought a whole lot of Black bodies, but mine is not for sale,” he says to the doctor, in possibly a nod to a well-documented history of experimental medical testing on Black people. “This here is a mutually satisfactory agreement.”
Named after Cleopatra’s father (a story he loves to tell), Ptolemy is eager to get something of his old life back before he passes. The clinic effectively owns his body, but at least he’ll spend his last days with clarity and vitality. And so he doesn’t hesitate. “I have a lot of things to do, and I need my memories to do them,” he tells a skeptical Robyn.
So begins a journey towards self-actualization for her, and redemption for him. While lucid, Ptolemy reconciles with his tumultuous past while investigating the circumstances surrounding his great-nephew’s death, making amends with extended family and, in the West African tradition of the griot, passes buckets of wisdom through story, onto an equally hermetic Robyn during numerous conversations.
Ptolemy no longer worries about his fate and with the treasure bequeathed him, sets out to help others, particularly his extended family. Piecing together fading memories into a coherent whole is necessary to achieve that goal, as questions about what each human being’s place in the universe is, what kind of impact we have on the lives of others, and what memories we leave behind, are posed.
There’s a subplot about buried treasure worth millions that Coydog stole from a white man (the reason for his lynching), and entrusted to Ptolemy so that he may one day use it to “empower Black people,” which he inevitably does.
These plotlines propel the six-episode series, although the “love story” between Ptolemy and Robyn is its engine, and their performances are the tether that prevents it from entirely meandering into a bore.
“I love you, Ptolemy, I do, and I bet if I was 20 years older, and you were 50 years younger, I could see us being together you and me,” Robyn says in a tender scene in episode five. At this point, their fellowship is at peak strength, and they do start to quibble like a couple that’s been married for decades, in part because Fishback imbues the character with a maturity and shrewdness beyond Robyn’s years, owing to the tempestuous life she’s led which forced her to grow up quickly. She’s a lovely young lady adjusting to a world in which her gender and budding sexuality automatically put her in the crosshairs of neanderthals. When they first meet, Ptolemy reaches out to touch her in a moment of consolation, and she instantly recoils. A couple of episodes later, when she hugs him tightly the first time, it feels cathartic; their bond seemingly sealed at that moment.
The 30-year-old actress holds her own opposite Jackson’s Grey, and theirs is a companionship that’s sweet, rendered with compassion, and should tug at heartstrings, even if it means stretches of middling pleasantness.
There’s a more effective four-episode “Ptolemy Grey” edit that hones in on the series’ themes, eliminating superfluous plotlines and characters. One can only stomach so many conversations that are existential in nature before they start to feel repetitive, and their effect weakens. Additionally, once Ptolemy’s state of mind is established, repeated sequences in which he relapses, and/or hallucinates, are unnecessary. Characters like the homeless addict who frequently threatens him, are redundant, adding nothing to the story. And Ptolemy’s inquiry into his great-nephew’s death which leads to an act of vengeful vigilantism is clumsily handled. It feels like a tacked-on subplot, there to unnecessarily further complicate Ptolemy’s already complicated life, and build suspense.
Beyond Ptolemy wrestling with dementia, additional dramatic tension is provided by Hilly, son of Papa Grey’s niece Niecie, a shifty young fellow who isn’t at all above stealing from his great-uncle or sexually assault. Additionally, Ptolemy’s relationship with Niecie becomes increasingly tenuous, when she kicks Robyn out of her house, only to later call Adult Protective Services (APS) when she learns that Robyn has moved in with Ptolemy, claiming that she’s exploiting the senile old man. It seemed that the latter would create insurmountable problems for Ptolemy and Robyn when they are paid a visit by a stern APS representative, flanked by two police officers, who promises to make them both uncomfortable. But it’s a scenario that’s oddly never revisited again. And, in the end, both Hilly and Niecie, neither complexly drawn, are rendered inconsequential, even in the final episode, when they wage a legal battle against Robyn to whom Ptolemy entrusts his estate and the millions of dollars that come with it — another subplot the series could have done without.
“Good” predictably wins over “evil,” and Ptolemy’s fate is sealed as was warned by Dr. “Satan” early in the series, as he rapidly regresses to his former self, although even more physically and mentally debilitated, with Robyn at his side.
There’s a fantastical read of “Ptolemy Grey” in which Dr. “Satan’s” experimental procedure represents a serum that provides Ptolemy with a temporary jolt of energy, strength, and awareness. The stuff of myth, he’s an aged superhero who performs final valiant acts with a loyal young sidekick (named Robyn no less) to whom he eventually transfers his capabilities, in a wish-fulfillment fantasy.
But in reality, in his efforts to better the lives of others, Ptolemy gets to enjoy some degree of happiness during his end days and ascends as more of a local folk hero.
Still, it’s a hopeful story, with touching moments scattered throughout, foregrounding a perspective rarely ever depicted on screen: that of a 91-year-old Black man, suffering from dementia.
The series’ depiction of the indignities of old age, especially with debilitating disease, when immediate family is nonexistent, is expectedly sad. Jackson affords the character grace and dignity in the face of Ptolemy’s overwhelming confusion and frustration, which just might encourage viewers to check in on older relatives.
It encourages conversation about mortality, passing along wisdom and wealth across generations, honoring the sacrifices of others, and anticipating the promises of the future. It just takes an unnecessarily laborious path to communicate its themes.
“The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” premieres its first two episodes Friday, March 11 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly.