Early in their courtship, Hannah (Jennifer Garner) shows Owen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) around her woodturning shop. “Your first lesson is that a good piece of wood always has one thing, one quality that defines it,” she says, standing by a shelf full of different blocks waiting to be transformed into delicate bowls or urns. He likes the idea and takes it a step further. “You could probably say the same about most people,” he muses. “At the end of the day, one thing defines them.”
Whether that is true for real people is a question for philosophers or psychologists to find out. It’s certainly true for these two, though, and for almost everyone else in Apple TV+s The last thing he told me. In some ways their simplicity of purpose looks refreshing and even inspiring; it turns what could have been a simple tale of suspense into an unexpectedly tender celebration of love. But it also flattens out the story until all that’s left is a glossy, glossy surface.
The last thing he told me
It comes down to
Polished but tasteless.
Faithfully adapted by Laura Dave and Josh Singer from Dave’s own bestseller, The last thing he told me begins with an irresistible mystery. On a day like any other, Owen disappears, leaving no clues as to where he’s gone and only a few hints of what’s to come: a few cryptic notes to Hannah, now his wife of a year, and Bailey ( Angourie Rice), his teenage daughter from a previous marriage, along with a big bag of money. It appears he’s on the run from a federal investigation into Enron-level fraud orchestrated by the tech company he works for — and yet Bailey and Hannah can’t shake the suspicion that there’s more to his flight than meets the eye seems.
Of course, since this is a miniseries with seven one-hour episodes to fill, they’re right. The deeper they dig into who Owen really was and what he was really up to, the less the pieces seem to add up. The last thing he told me hums along at a steady pace, with twists and turns that drop at regular intervals and reveals that ramp up the craziness one step at a time. If some of the later developments strain credulity (much of the plot hinges on a very small child’s ability to retain detailed memories), we’re at least ready to expect the unexpected by the time that they occur. The drama may never get quite compelling, but it’s perfectly watchable all around – especially since much of the early action unfolds in a Sausalito floating house so pristine and beautiful, Hannah and Bailey might as well freak out from a Architectural abstract tour home.
Beneath this tasteful sheen, however, is a pervasive sense of dullness – in the characters, their relationships, and even somehow in the story’s unpredictable twists and turns. Owen is portrayed as an implausible ideal of a husband and father, whose only faults may be that he is too hurt by the loss of Bailey’s late mother to talk about her much and is too protective of his daughter to let her go on vacation go with her boyfriend (John Harlan Kim) and his family. Hannah is almost as perfect, a loving wife and stepmother who showers Bailey with unconditional care and endless offers of grilled cheese sandwiches – even if Bailey rejects her every advance because her defining quality is a stereotypical adolescent gruffness.
The central performances do add a bit of depth to these one-dimensional characters. Garner cuts Hannah’s sweetness with just enough steel to make her a convincing mother bear, not just a scared woman. Meanwhile, Rice imbues Hannah’s teenage angst with enough vulnerability that she becomes a character we feel for, rather than one we resent. (She also gets some of the show’s smoother lines. When Owen gently begs her to “try harder” with Hannah, Bailey shrugs, “You always tell me, when you don’t have anything nice to say… “) if The last thing he told me the focus shifts from Owen’s whereabouts to the growing bond between his wife and daughter, it is prudent to gradually bring them closer and avoid unnecessary conflict or undeserved sentimentality.
The problem is that it also largely avoids clutter, ambivalence, and nuance, making the all-important familial dynamic feel more theoretical than lived-in. It doesn’t help that Owen’s disappearance happens so early in the series, giving us very little time to find out who these people are before they end up in extreme circumstances. While The last thing he told me takes a step back to the days and years before Owen’s disappearance – at one point they travel so far into the past that Coster-Waldau’s eerily unlined face becomes a case study in the confines of anti-aging CG – they are usually cast in the golden glow of nostalgia, and made even more dim by the uncertainty of the present.
As for Owen, the answer he ultimately chooses when Hannah asks him, the only thing that defines him is his love for Bailey: “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my daughter,” his voice changed from flirty to serious. It is that parental love, pure and boundless, that becomes the protagonist for the characters in all their wild trials. As driving motivations go, it’s easy to understand and impossible to root against. It’s just that, with no flaws or quirks to add some texture, perfection doesn’t turn out to be all that interesting on its own.