When the numbingly dull first episode of “The Last Thing He Told Me” ended, I wrote a simple note: “Five minutes of plot. Maybe six.” That’s about the pace kept by the following six episodes, too, for this thriller with no thrills. And it’s not like it makes up for its failure to entertain with rich characters. On the contrary, these are non-people (at least until the more emotionally charged finale); they're plot devices pushed down a track predetermined by a bestselling novel. It becomes depressing to watch talented performers wasted on such dry, dull material, another limited series that wants to be “Big Little Lies” but ends up being so incredibly small.
Like a lot of great books sold in airports and read on beaches, “The Last Thing He Told Me” opens with a disappearance. Owen Michaels (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has fled his Sausalito home after the FBI raided the company he worked for. Is he just on the run because of the potential charges related to his current job, or is something else going on? His relatively new wife Hannah (Jennifer Garner) suspects there’s more to this than a traditional white-collar fugitive, not just because he left a note with two words: “Protect her.” The her in question is Owen’s daughter Bailey (Angourie Rice), whom he has raised independently since her mother’s death over a decade ago. Even though Bailey resents Hannah in a teenager-on-TV way, she will have to partner with her to figure out the truth about her past with Owen to have a safe future.
While the authorities, including a suspicious cop named Grady (Augusto Aguilera, easily the best thing about this production), investigate what Hannah and Bailey may have known about their missing loved one, the two try to piece together where Owen might have gone. The incredibly slow plotting forces Garner to play confused or threatened repeatedly, while poor Rice, a talented young actress, gets a playbook filled with the most clichéd teen girl tropes the writers could imagine. Everything about these characters is frustratingly lazy. Garner has almost no room to develop anything outside of how she responds to the latest thing she’s learned about her husband or stepdaughter. And I’m convinced that no one involved in this production has actually met a teen girl going through severe trauma and crisis—they’re capable of leaving their issues behind when the world is falling apart.
Hannah and Bailey quickly end up in Austin, Texas, trying to track down a memory that Bailey had of a Texas Longhorns game when she was young. How this unfolds and how the pair get closer to the truth about Owen doesn’t unfold in a way that’s either believable or captivating, falling into a strange valley in between reality and what this show should be. Viewers of a thriller like this are willing to put up with insane coincidences—look at the success of Netflix's “The Night Agent,” for example—but “The Last Thing He Told Me” doesn’t bother to be escapist fun. It’s plodding to the extreme, wasting the talents of almost everyone involved—the one exception being that I would watch Aguilera in a cop show. He’s effective and engaged with what’s happening around him like no one else is.
Apple TV+ has some of the best shows on any streaming service, and I admire the big swings they take with large budgets, giving creators room to expand on interesting ideas with A-list casts. But they’ve recently developed a bad habit of taking books that were hits on the page and failing to find the same success in a different form. (“Surface” and “Liaison” weren’t books but similarly reached for escapism and only found flat storytelling.) This one is particularly frustrating because it eventually lands in an unpredictable place as a family drama with a surprisingly effective final episode that’s easily its best. The producers here never quite figured out the strengths of the story they were trying to tell, and they certainly didn’t bother considering the right length for it.
Whole season was screened for review. "The Last Thing He Told Me" is now playing on Apple TV+.
Jennifer Garner as Hannah
Angourie Rice as Bailey
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Owen
Aisha Tyler as Jules
Augusto Aguilera as Grady
John Harlan Kim as Bobby