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The Apple TV+ series was undone by its refusal to explain its characters
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the finale of The Last Thing He Told Me, "Sanctuary." Read at your own risk!]
The Last Thing He Told Me is an exercise in wasted potential. Apple TV+'s adaptation of Laura Dave's best-selling novel boasts a killer cast led by Jennifer Garner and a great hook: One day, woodturner Hannah Hall (Garner) wakes up to find that her husband of a little over a year, Owen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), is involved in an Enron-like fraud scandal at his company and has vanished. All he's left behind is a note for Hannah that reads, "Protect her," as well as an equally vague note for his 16-year-old daughter, Bailey (Angourie Rice), and a duffel bag full of cash. It's so unlike Owen, so Hannah and Bailey, who cannot stand her stepmother for teenage reasons, set off on a journey to get some answers.
That is a cool premise. That is a premise loaded with the potential to be compelling and emotional and addictive. It's got a mix of mystery-thriller and family drama baked right in. Unfortunately, the high hopes I had for the series — I should note, I had not read Dave's novel prior to watching — were simply wishful thinking. Instead, The Last Thing He Told Me winds up being…meh? It's fine? It's forgettable. And in a world with what at times feels like an infinite amount of choices for what to watch, that's not great. It's why, even with all the buzz the show arrived with — on top of everything else, this is a Hello Sunshine production — it's not all that surprising that the series hasn't made much of an impression.
I suspect that the majority of people who have followed along with the weekly episode drops are doing it mostly to see how this whole thing ends, rather than being truly invested in the journey. That conclusion arrived today with the series' seventh and final episode, and it was… also sort of fine? Owen is actually named Ethan, and he's a regular Texas guy who fell in love with the daughter of Nicholas Bell (David Morse), the lawyer, or consigliere, if you want to get fancy, for the Campano family, a wealthy and powerful mafia organization. Owen built encryption software for his father-in-law to help pass messages for the Campanos. Shortly after Bailey — then named Kristin — was born, Owen's wife was killed. Owen believed it was retaliation for Nicholas not taking on a case he was asked to take on by the Campanos, and, blaming Nicholas and the organization, Owen handed over everything he had on them to the feds. Multiple people high up in the organization, along with Nicholas, went to prison. With the help of U.S. Marshal Grady Bradford (Augusto Aguilera), Owen and Bailey planned on going into witness protection, but at the last minute, there was a leak — the Campanos have people everywhere — and Owen was so spooked, he took Bailey and went into hiding on his own. Now that Hannah and Bailey have made themselves known to Nicholas Bell in Austin, they're back in the Campanos' crosshairs.
Grady says the only way to keep them safe now is to put them both in witness protection. They'll have to give up their lives and start new ones. Hannah doesn't accept this as the only option. She doesn't think it's what Owen would want, and she knows Owen. She doesn't want to rip Bailey out of the life she's built once again. So Hannah decides to secretly have a face-to-face with Nicholas, and appealing to the grandfather side of him, she asks to make a deal: She'll let him have a relationship with Bailey if he promises to use his power with the Campanos to make sure she and Bailey are safe once they return to their regular lives. Hannah and Bailey are untouchable, but there's a catch: Owen's not part of the deal. Owen will never be able to safely come back.
Hannah and Nicholas agree to the terms. Five years later, we find Hannah having a show at an art gallery, and Owen, in the wildest beard you've ever seen, appears, whispers, "The could-have-been boys still love you" — which is a callback to an earlier conversation about her exes — and then disappears again. Bailey arrives and refers to Hannah as "Mom." See what I mean? It's fine. But beyond being fine, the ending is also a nice little buffet of all the issues with the show overall.
The series is certainly watchable. And at seven episodes, each with a run time of around 40 minutes, it is efficient. But that efficiency is a double-edged sword. The story is always moving, and it doles out twists and turns in a way that makes you want to find out what happens next. That's exactly what you want in a thriller. But the show lacks any type of personality. It physically pains me to request longer episodes, but a few extra minutes spent on adding some nuance or layers to the characters would have done a world of good. With every character, it feels like we're only getting the surface level. And I'm not even talking about supporting players, like the wildly underused Aisha Tyler as best friend Jules or Geoff Stults as ex-boyfriend-turned lawyer Jake; I'm talking about our lead.
What do we know about Hannah? She's a woodworker with some mommy abandonment issues, and…she cooks grilled cheese, I guess? How is she so good at following leads and figuring out ways to charm people to get what she wants and straight up lying about who she is to get information? Why does she never seem completely overwhelmed or freaked out or like she has no clue what to do next? She never hits some sort of breaking point. In this final standoff with Nicholas, she shows glimmers of fear and heartbreak at giving up Owen, but mostly she's defiant. The thing is, I believe she's capable of doing all those things, but that's 100% because she's played by Garner, not because of anything written into that character. All of Hannah's flashbacks with Owen are about vague comments he made that make sense in light of learning who he really is, not about Hannah being resourceful or having to manipulate someone to get something. In fact, a lot of those flashbacks are about how poorly she reads Bailey. Part of the issue, surely, is that Hannah Hall is written as a thoughtful, introspective character. She internalizes so much of what she's feeling. That works in the novel, which offers more insight into what Hannah's really thinking and how she's reacting to certain revelations, but it doesn't make an engaging lead character on screen. Garner does as much as she can with what she's been given, but it still feels like something is missing that would give this series the real punch it needs.
This flimsy feeling is all over the place, especially in the show's conclusion. Hannah decides that she'd rather take her chances with Nicholas and the Campanos than with Grady and witsec because she knows it's what Owen would want for Bailey. Hannah tells Grady that she knows this because she and Owen knew each other in some inexplicable way, and that he knew that she would be able to do whatever needs to be done to give Bailey the life she deserves. That sounds great and romantic, but how do we know Owen and Hannah were connected so intrinsically? Their flashbacks mainly show them lying around in different cozy locations and Owen being vague about things. The most we see Hannah do for Bailey in the before times is buy her Broadway tickets and popcorn at the movie theater. Is that how Owen knew Hannah would do whatever it takes for Bailey? They weren't even married that long! And as a reminder, for two people so close, Hannah never even realized that Owen was lying to her about, well, everything. The show does confirm there's still a mole in the Marshals' office (although never more than that) and that Hannah's instinct about not trusting witsec is correct, but that comes across mostly as luck. Talking about her deep connection with Owen sounds nice. It sounds like what Hannah should say. But if you go looking underneath the surface of it, there's nothing there to support it.
Hannah's interactions with Grady suffer from the same flaw. Grady says he wants to help Owen and keep Hannah and Bailey safe, but his cryptic first meeting with Hannah — "Owen Michaels isn't who you think he is" — is what ignites Hannah's need to get answers and tips her off to head to Austin. Then, when he learns she is in Austin, thus outing herself and Bailey to Nicholas, he gets pissed at her. What did you think she was going to do with that information, my man? Another confusing contradiction: At one point, Grady tells Hannah that even though Owen didn't trust witsec the first time around, he trusted Grady enough to reach out to him over the years when needed. So why does Owen not trust Grady enough to talk to him before running this time? Any type of insight into Owen and Grady's relationship in the past would be helpful, especially since Hannah's big decision in the end is very much based on her belief that Owen didn't trust witsec or Grady enough. The character feels so muddled because, like many of the show's other characters, he isn't rooted in something firm.
The one dynamic that doesn't have this problem is, not surprisingly, also the highlight of the entire series: the relationship between Hannah and Bailey. Unlike so many of the show's other relationships, viewers get to watch this one develop on screen over the course of seven episodes. It doesn't rely too much on a history that is or isn't fleshed out. Their starting point — teenage girl can't stand stepmother no matter what she does — is clear, and the emotional beats they hit over the course of the series that lead them to grow toward one another are perfectly paced. It never feels rushed, and it always feels believable. It doesn't hurt that Garner and Rice have incredible chemistry. (Seriously, cast them as a mother/daughter duo in more projects immediately.) Their journey together adds the depth to their relationship that is missing in so many other elements of The Last Thing He Told Me. It's why that simple moment of Bailey calling Hannah "Mom" in the five-years-later epilogue is so effective. It's the perfect emotional button to their arc. The one downside? It makes you wish the rest of the story worked that well.
The Last Thing He Told Me is now streaming on Apple TV+.