With any new entry into a well-trod subgenre, it’s always challenging to make the material feel a little fresher and more unique compared to what’s come before. A number of thrillers have had hapless families discover the father/husband had a secret, dark past, making husbands secret murderers (“What Lies Beneath,” “A Good Marriage”), reformed former criminals (“A History of Violence”), cheaters, liars with other families (“Frequent Flyer”) or even secretive agents or heroes (humorously subverted in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”). It’s a tried-and-true background for a thriller, but the setup always presents a unique challenge: how could this very specific trope be pivoted to stand out in a crowded field?
“The Last Thing He Told Me,” the new Apple TV+ based on Laura Dave’s 2021 bestselling mystery thriller, follows a family torn apart when Owen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) disappears following a case of financial fraud at his place of employment. This leaves wife Hannah (Jennifer Garner) and her antagonistic stepdaughter Bailey (Angourie Rice) to figure out, well, what could possibly be going on. “The Last Thing He Told Me” works to set itself apart from predecessors primarily by centering Hannah and Bailey’s growing relationship in the wake of their mutual heartbreak and confusion following Owen’s absence. They investigate and find unexpected answers, but it’s the breakage of the family unit and not Owen’s disappearance per se that becomes the series’ focus.
It’s a series with a talented cast, a layered crisis, and a unique way of engaging with the story as a whole. At the same time, “The Last Thing He Told Me” is awash with missed opportunities. New investigatory routes take too long at times for too little payoff, building towards an inexplicably middling climax. The emotional strengths of letting the series’ familial core be the focal point are often diluted, with Hannah frequently given a one-note characterization. Garner and Rice have a great dynamic and stick the emotional landing of the final episodes, but it simply doesn’t go to interesting enough places to make the muddled journey a necessary watch.
“The Last Thing He Told Me” begins as a secular ghost story of sorts. As noted above, Hannah has a wonderful life with her husband Owen, at least at first glance, until a fraud investigation results in him effectively disappearing off the face of the Earth (at least as far as his family and the viewer are concerned). The FBI would love some cooperation from Hannah to see what Owen knew about the corporate malfeasance, but her interest is piqued when they’re independently visited by Grady (Augusto Aguilera), whose presence suggests that Owen had dangerous secrets in his past that the family never knew. Prompted by their own dissatisfaction with the lack of answers from The Powers That Be, Hannah and Bailey engage in a search for the truth.
Garner is a solid choice for Hannah, well capable of maintaining the character’s necessary steadfast militancy to get to the bottom of the situation, whatever the consequences. Much of the series is Garner asking questions and putting pieces together while stoically promising Bailey that it will indeed be okay (and that, surely, Owen had good reasons). Angourie Rice gives a strong and layered performance, her emotional state continually evolving as she comes to terms with her father’s disappearance and her growing relationship with Hannah. They’re backed by strong supporting players, with Coster-Waldau providing ample charisma in his brief screentime (not much of a spoiler, the plot is that they can’t find him) and Augusto Aguilera’s Grady adds considerable dramatic heft to their every interaction.
At the same time, Hannah as written is a regrettably one-note character for much of the series’ runtime. While it makes sense that the character would want to keep everything together for Bailey and the investigation, rarely do we get a fuller window into her inner turmoil (if there is some). The character’s reactions as written predominantly range from trying to act like everything’s fine to mild confusion or mild worry, at least until the last two episodes. Garner’s an excellent actress but she’s only able to showcase that range in the series finale, where Hannah’s finally written with nuance and a well-rounded set of emotions. It’s a disappointing and avoidable missed opportunity.
The series’ narrative itself has some interesting twists and turns as Owen’s past life is revealed. We discover that his previous relationship with Bailey’s mother put him in the orbit of some powerfully dangerous people. To say more would spoil the revelations, but suffice it to say that the journey of discovery is much less exciting than it could be. Very rarely do Hannah and Bailey feel truly endangered, and Owen isn’t known to be in danger either given the continued reminders that no one can find him. Moreover, when the stakes get raised as they learn who exactly they’re dealing with, the tension gets resolved fairly quickly. Moreover, while it’s a nice red herring that the fraud isn’t the whole story behind why Owen runs, that situation largely falls by the wayside once the revelations occur. There are a lot of missed opportunities for raised stakes and suspense.
Just as importantly, the series also feels at times like the runtime exceeds the story in regrettable ways. First, the protagonists and their allies do a lot of backtracking, and a number of the steps to their investigation end up revealing little despite taking a substantial amount of time. They spend an excessive amount of time trying to discover Owen’s real name, for example, when Grady could reveal it in a heartbeat. They stop at a church for a fairly long stretch, but it leads them slightly closer only after a relevant amount of time has passed, and these early explorations happen in close sequence. It drags the pacing and gives the impression that too little of a story here is being stretched too far.
Most disappointingly, what build up there was in stakes and tension dissipated pretty quickly at the end, when a seemingly easy set of resolutions erode all danger for our protagonists and reinforce that family-building was the whole point all along. For a series that dragged often enough and which took some time to even build stakes, it’s a dulled impact for a series that needed a more impactful payoff. There are intriguing moments and some strong performances, and the journey’s not an altogether bad one despite its issues with pacing and payoff, but it needed a much more impactful ending to make it all worthwhile.