Jennifer Garner Is the Best Part of Mediocre Apple TV+ Thriller The Last Thing He Told MeTV Reviews The Last Thing He Told Me
Those of us who loved Jennifer Garner’s butt-kicking Sydney Bristow on the popular ABC drama Alias have spent the better part of the past two decades desperately waiting for the actress to make her return to the small screen. After all, her grounded and emotional central performance as a relentlessly normal woman who just happened to also be an international super spy was the glue that held that series together through five years of crazy plots that included everything from clones and government conspiracy theories to magical Renaissance artifacts. What can’t this woman do? How is she not a huge TV name at this point with her pick of projects?
To be clear: Garner is once again the best part of her latest project, the glossy new Apple TV+ drama The Last Thing He Told Me. Playing another everywoman-type shot through with steel, her quiet heart and steadfast determination are the emotional engines that make this show work. And there are even moments that will, at times, make viewers fondly remember her Alias days, as her character races down hotel hallways or crafts quick cover stories to hide her identity while she searches for new information. (There’s even a brief guest appearance from Victor Garber that will delight fans of our favorite daddy-daughter spy duo of yore.) But despite its tense trailer, The Last Thing He Told Me is ultimately a fairly bland thriller, and its threats never seem as dire as the show wants us all to believe they are.
Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Laura Dave, the story follows Hannah Hall (Garner), who’s been happily married for a little over a year to Owen Michaels (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) when he suddenly disappears one morning, just as federal agents show up at the company he works for to charge its CEO with major crimes. He leaves a note behind for his wife that simply reads “Protect Her” and a bag of cash in the locker of his sixteen-year-old daughter Bailey (Angourie Rice). The women in his life are then left to pick up the pieces and find out the truth about whether or not the man they both loved was someone who ever even existed.
Spread over seven episodes, the drama follows the story of Hannah and Bailey’s attempts to validate their belief in Owen’s innocence, a journey that takes them halfway across the country to interrogate strangers, dig for clues in collegiate databases, and hope that a teenage girl’s sense memory of a wedding she attended when she was four can provide crucial context to their search. (I really wish I was kidding about that last bit.) The twists and turns of the series’ first few episodes are fun, propulsive, and full of the standard thriller tropes that make these sorts of stories so enjoyable to unravel: faceless strangers lurking in alleyways, cryptic visits from law enforcement officials who obviously know more than they’re letting on, sepia-toned flashbacks to clue us in on how great Owen and Hannah’s lives were at the beginning of their relationship.
Unfortunately, the answers to many of the series’ central questions—about Owen’s disappearance, his potential involvement in Enron-level corporate fraud, and the secrets he’s kept about his own past from the people he claims to love most—just aren’t all that interesting. Part of this is because Owen as a character isn’t particularly compelling; he’s a bland, Hallmark Channel-style representation of an Ideal Husband and Father whose defining characteristic is apparently that he just loves his daughter too much. (Or, at least, that’s the one personality trait the show bothers to give him. I’m not even sure I could tell you what Owen’s job is at his potentially fraud-laden workplace.)
As a result, the tension that drives much of the first half of the season ultimately fizzles in its final episodes, which drag badly whenever they’re focused on the life Owen once led, the secrets he chose to keep, and the impact these revelations ultimately have on the women he claimed to care about. And while the larger story is tied up with an uncomfortably neat bow, its ending somehow still manages to feel underwhelming and almost entirely unearned. (For what it’s worth this is a problem the original novel on which this series is based shares, so it’s particularly disappointing that no one came up with a better way to play this story out.)
But, for all that The Last Thing He Told Me’s thriller elements frequently stumble, the series is at its most watchable when it’s focused on the complex family dynamics at its center, namely the relationship between Hannah and Bailey. The series initially leans into the tension between the pair, showing us Hannah constantly offering a plethora of snacks and emotional concessions to try and connect with her stepdaughter, even as Bailey constantly ignores her and disparages her to her boyfriend. (She even refers to her stepmother as “Maleficent” at one point, which seems unnecessarily mean given how relentlessly nice poor Hannah is to her.)
Thankfully, Rice manages to find a way to balance Bailey’s often frustrating teenage petulance with enough vulnerability to make her sympathetic. Her slow thaw toward Hannah feels realistic and natural, and The Last Thing He Told Me smartly resists the temptation to over-sentimentalize the growing bond between the two women. As the two slowly learn to rely on each other in a world where everything they’d believed to be true has crumbled around them, their prickly relationship becomes the best part of the series and a more compelling reason to watch than anything that has to do with the disappearance of the man in their lives.
Ultimately, The Last Thing He Told Me turns out to be a drama that’s less about husbands and wives and more about parents and children—even though it’s Bailey’s relationship with her father we inexplicably see the least of—which may explain why the back half of the season feels simultaneously completely serviceable and also like a weird sort of bait and switch. In the end, there’s nothing offensively wrong with this show: It’s got some solid performances, picturesque sets, and zips briskly through episodes that max out at around 40 minutes each (the dream in the era of Peak TV!) But it’s also probably not what you thought you were going to get either. And while that’s not bad, per se, it’s still pretty disappointing.
The Last Thing He Told Me premieres April 14 on Apple TV+.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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