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The Last Thing He Told Me Traps Jennifer Garner in a Dull Mystery-Thriller

Despite boasting star power on and off-camera, Apple's adaptation fails to justify its own existence.
  • Jennifer Garner and Angourie Rice in The Last Thing He Told Me (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Jennifer Garner and Angourie Rice in The Last Thing He Told Me (Photo: Apple TV+)

    From the outside, The Last Thing He Told Me seems like a surefire streaming hit. It has a widely-beloved, A-list lead in Jennifer Garner; the backing of Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine, the production company behind Daisy Jones & The Six and Tiny Beautiful Things; and rich source material in Laura Dave's mystery-thriller, which spent 65 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list in 2021 and 2022. But what should be a slam dunk for Apple TV+ is instead a bloated snooze-fest.

    Created by Dave and her husband Josh Singer (the Oscar-winning writer of Spotlight and The Post), The Last Thing He Told Me jumps into its central mystery straightaway, employing one of those in medias res opening scenes that have become all too common on TV. In slow motion, Hannah Hall (Garner) places her phone on the floor and stares down at the screen, which shows a photo of her with her husband Owen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), then stomps on their smiling faces. She leaves the bathroom to tell Bailey (Angourie Rice), her 16-year-old stepdaughter, that they've "got to get out of here," but the girl is nowhere to be found. Hannah frantically searches the hotel lobby then returns to her room, where someone is waiting for her. We don't yet know who, but the terrified look on Hannah's face suggests someone dangerous has come for her.

    The incredibly familiar scene tells viewers everything they need to know about the seven-episode drama, which molds its narrative to fit the familiar beats of the genre rather than the other way around. That lack of creativity is especially apparent in the first three episodes, which plod along as Owen suddenly disappears, leaving Hannah with nothing beyond a note telling her to protect Bailey. He offers no clues as to where he's gone or when (or if) he'll be back, but it's clear he's been preparing for this day: Bailey finds a duffel bag of cash in her locker, as well as a cryptic letter reminding her that she "know[s] what matters" about her father and herself.

    Hannah learns that Owen fled to avoid being implicated in a federal investigation into his workplace, but it's not until the end of the fifth episode — at which point the story catches up to the opening scene — that she understands why leaving town was his only option. What she discovers about Owen's true identity upends not only her marriage, but also Bailey's entire sense of self. As Hannah and Bailey continue to search for the truth and negotiate a path forward, their frosty relationship thaws, and they begin to rely on one another in ways they could never have imagined just days prior.

    Missing father notwithstanding, Hannah and Bailey's journey has the potential to deliver real heart, but the show fails to develop Garner's character enough to make it resonate. It's explained that Hannah is a successful woodturner who moved to Sausalito after marrying Owen 14 months ago; since their wedding, she's gone to great lengths to win over Bailey, to minimal success. In the premiere, she spends hours re-creating a restaurant's signature dish, only for the teen to turn her nose up at the smell. Flashbacks also reveal that Hannah was raised by her grandfather after her mother left, an experience that makes her more inclined to empathize with her sullen stepdaughter, whose mother died when she was young. But this is as deep as The Last Thing He Told Me gets. As more questions emerge about Owen, Hannah's overwhelming sense of duty to follow his orders and protect Bailey becomes her dominant characteristic, and any quirks are steamrolled.

    Hannah's blandness offers little for Garner to latch on to, and as a result, she spends much of the series furrowing her brow and staring off into the distance, searching for the answers that elude her. (Considering the entire mystery could be solved with a one-sentence explanation from U.S. Marshal Grady Bradford, played by Augusto Aguilera, she's not wrong that the truth is just out of reach.) It doesn’t help that her character is almost entirely reactive. With the exception of a few scenes near the end of the season, the show's big revelations come about not from Hannah's own exploits, but from phone calls with her best friend Jules (Aisha Tyler), a journalist, and her lawyer Jake (Geoff Stults). Garner proved long ago that her talent transcends genre barriers — just last month, she wrapped a goofy, self-reflexive arc in Party Down Season 3 — but by forcing her into such a passive role, the limited series ignores her natural charisma.

    While Garner doesn't have enough to work with, Bailey is a fascinating character with a rich inner life. She's a talented thespian — Rice, who's playing Cady Heron in the upcoming Mean Girls movie musical, showcases her impressive pipes in the premiere — with a serious boyfriend (John Harlan Kim) who understands why Owen is so important to her. This backstory, coupled with flashbacks to better days with her father, make Bailey's dawning realization that her entire life is a lie all the more tragic, and Rice sells every bit of the character's anxiety and fear.

    However, just when it seems like Bailey's emotional upheaval will be given space to breathe, the show returns to its generic thriller plot. Sticking with Bailey would have required a major departure from Dave's book, which is presented from Hannah's point of view, but it's hard not to yearn for the deeper storytelling that would've been possible if the series had used some of its running time to give Bailey more attention.

    By refusing to stray too far from the mystery of Owen's disappearance, The Last Thing He Told Me denies viewers the earnest, quasi-mother-daughter bond that forms the backbone of the novel. We catch glimpses of it in Garner's maternal lilt and the way Bailey softens over the course of the season, but for the most part, their relationship exists only to further the plot. Deepening the connection between the characters doesn't have to come at the expense of advancing the narrative: Mare of Easttown, which also stars Rice, and Yellowjackets stand as prime examples of how successful a mystery-thriller can be when these two elements develop in tandem. A story that's only interested in fulfilling half of this obligation has no business unfolding across seven episodes, particularly when it has such obvious opportunities to do more.

    The Last Thing He Told Me premieres Friday, April 14 on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping every week through May 19. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: The Last Thing He Told Me, Aisha Tyler, Angourie Rice, Geoff Stults, Jennifer Garner, Josh Singer, Laura Dave, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau