Samuel L. Jackson stars as geriatric widower Ptolemy Grey in the newest Apple TV+ dramatic series, starting today, who has the opposite problem. Grey’s mind is succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease at an alarming speed, but his body, his doctor tells Reggie Lloyd (Ptolemy’s great-nephew and caretaker, played with beautiful subtlety by Omar Benson Miller), is stronger than men 50 years younger than him. Reggie has a wife and children, so he can only come by every now and then, which means a mournful dirge echoes from every nook and cranny of Grey’s Atlanta apartment. Stacks of ancient magazines cannot be disturbed because, as I myself have heard from the elderly hoarders in my life, he “likes them that way.” The toilet and bathroom sink are clogged and unusable. There’s a padlocked room, its door draped with a dirty sheet of canvas, that belonged to his late wife Sensia (Cynthia McWilliams) and mustn’t be opened. Decades of junk—folding chairs, Tampax boxes, empty tins—stand taller, and deeper, than Ptolemy himself, whose spine is hunched, whose grey hair and beard are matted, unwashed, springing wildly from his head. He sleeps on a settee in his living room, classical music playing feebly from a radio somewhere in the morass of his possessions, the TV news always on.
“The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” based on creator Walter Mosley’s eponymous novel, casts an unflinching eye on the marginalization of Black America. Jackson imbues his portrayal of Grey with terrifying clarity. I have become so familiar with his supremely self-possessed roles that I didn’t realize the confidence inherent in his performances registers at an even more transcendent plane when he plays a helpless dying man. Every cry of despair, every struggle to remember names and faces, every motion—from the slightest tremor of Grey’s hands to his torso wavering—are just part of his life’s daily tragedies. There is no end to the list of indignities the elderly are made to suffer, but add to that senility, living alone, and racism. Local cops may not shove Grey up against a wall to pat him down, but they will collar his great-nephew Hilly (DeRon Horton), who was merely escorting Grey to the bank, and say, without cause, “Okay, you need to come with us.”
But this story isn’t just about one elderly man. Grey’s family—a niece named Niecie (Marsha Stephanie Black), her son Hilly; Reggie, his wife, and children, and a few other assorted relatives—have deposited caring for him at Reggie’s feet, and only take interest in him when rumors of Grey’s secret fortune abound. At a family member’s funeral, Grey meets Robyn (Dominique Fishback), the daughter of Niecie’s best friend, now an orphan, who now lives with “Auntie Niecie.” Robyn has reluctantly agreed to help take care of Papa Grey, as Ptolemy is known to his family. This arrangement changes rapidly when Robyn is kicked out of the house after Hilly tries to sexually assault her; she pulls a knife on him, and is self-possessed enough to tell her auntie, through tears, that she did nothing wrong. With nowhere else to go, Robyn moves in with Papa Grey.