The following contains spoilers for Episodes 1 and 2 of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (written by Walter Mosley and directed by Ramin Bahrani)
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey opens with a scene of its titular character preparing a tape recorder and a gun, and talking somewhat vaguely about what he has to do (which seems to involve killing someone) before loud knocking comes to his door. Is this the man he has to kill or is it perhaps someone there to try to stop him from killing himself?
I suppose it’s an intriguing mystery to hook us with at the beginning, but as the show shifts to two months earlier, that intrigue fades pretty quickly. Or at least it did for me.
Samuel L. Jackson’s performance is powerful and poignant, but also fundamentally the only reason the protracted scenes of Ptolemy alone and confused in the first two episodes of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey work are not simply boring. His flashes to his past, clearly fragmented and jumbled in an attempt to present Grey’s dementia, fail to open any deep sense of mystery or wonder, and if the show is a character drama, the drama we are being most asked to contemplate in the premiere is of the character losing himself.
That’s sad, but not terribly interesting, though I want to emphasize that it isn’t the lack of plot movement through the first two hours of The Last Days Ptolemy Grey that I lament so much as it is that Episode 1 and Episode 2 do little to make me want to inhabit the world of the show. You could spin that into some kind of meta criticism about how our elders like Ptolemy can tend to be ignored, but it still doesn’t do a lot to make me want to keep watching.
Episode 1 centers on Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), who seems to be the only person really attending to Ptolemy in his dotage. Reggie is quite an affable guy and it’s hard not to like him immediately. So when he stops coming around and Ptolemy runs out of beans, the creeping dread lands. And what follows is a kind of slow-motion realization on our part that Reggie has died, while Ptolemy persists in a confused ignorance, until he learns what happened and then forgets again. It’s all quite moving, and disturbing, but not really the kind of thing it’s fun to think about.
If you’ve had any experience with someone who has lost themselves in this way, it’s all a bit hard to watch, and the premise that Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins) can fix Ptolemy’s mind can feel almost insulting. Or perhaps that’s just me, as it’s hard to articulate why I began to feel that way as Episode 2 proceeded.
Goggins, who is truly one of my favorite actors, feels a bit miscast here. Maybe I was hoping for the kind of spark he provides as Boyd Crowder or Baby Billy and that was misguided, but regardless I was a little disappointed by the way Dr. Rubin drips with smarm.
I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it turns out he’s the one Ptolemy ends up planning to kill, but probably this will instead tie into the question of who killed Reggie. Most likely there is a clue in what Reggie was trying to ask advice about that the clear-headed Ptolemy will remember, or something like that. I don’t get the feeling that The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is truly going to surprise us.
And that’s OK insofar as this is clearly a character drama, but its stakes feel a little absent. We know that Ptolemy is going to die sometime relatively soon—it’s in the name of the show. In centering on Robyn (Dominique Fishback), Episode 2 opens the possibility of this story actually being about her maturing as a person, but it doesn’t quite feel like that’s the path we’re going to follow. One can only hope that everything gets more intriguing as we begin to get clearer insights into Ptolemy’s past.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is based on a novel of the same name, which I have not read, but it’s easy to guess that it is a good book. Whether it makes for a good TV show is another question. The elements are there and, at its best, this story could turn out to be a meaningful exploration of questions of purpose and personal identity, but even if the novel is that, it’s not clear it’s going to translate onto the screen, where interiority is so much harder to present.
And if it’s not that, then The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey might just turn out to be a fairly mediocre murder mystery that uses dementia as a schtick. It worries me that after a two-episode premiere it remains too early to tell.