The Last Thing He Told Me: Jennifer Garner Carries Apple TV Adaptation

The Last Thing He Told Me: Jennifer Garner Carries Apple TV Adaptation

Jennifer Garner’s star turn came courtesy of “Alias,” the influential J.J. Abrams drama about Sydney Bristow, a grad student moonlighting as a sultry spy. Her agency? A sinister syndicate masquerading as a governmental skunkworks project, as Sydney and her colleagues toil unaware they’ve been working for the bad guys. The pilot opens on Sydney, battered and bloody after being captured and tortured by a rival faction. Then, it hops back in time to show how Sydney’s once-simple life became so treacherous, a journey that reveals to her how little she actually knows about the people closest to her.

Perhaps that’s why, some 21 years later, Garner feels so perfectly cast in Apple TV+’s “The Last Thing He Told Me.” (So much so that even Julia Roberts, who dropped out of the role due to scheduling conflicts, suddenly seems mismatched with the material.) Based on the brisk, best-selling novel by Laura Dave, Garner’s new limited series is a much different kind of thriller than “Alias.” But it too revolves around a woman who abruptly learns no one around her is quite who they seem, and becomes determined to find answers even as each revelation places her in greater danger.

“The Last Thing He Told Me” also opens in the midst of a narrative crescendo: Hannah (Garner) frantically searches a hotel lobby trying to locate her teenage stepdaughter, Bailey (Angourie Rice). When the pre-crisis flashback begins, there’s a conspicuous difference in their circumstances. Namely, the presence of Owen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Hannah’s husband and Bailey’s father. Prior to whatever unpleasantness led to the hotel chase, Hannah is living a fulfilled life in Sausalito. She shares one of the town’s Venetian floating homes with Owen and Bailey, and works as an in-demand woodturner. (Please don’t call her a “woodworker” — it’s a whole thing.) Bailey is typically obstinate for her age, but Hannah is so blessed that Bailey’s attitude seems like the only area of her life in need of improvement.

The trouble begins in earnest when Owen, a computer engineer at a tech startup called The Shop, goes off the grid on the same day the firm’s headquarters is raided by regulatory investigators. Hannah is left struggling to unravel Owen’s disappearance and how it relates to The Shop, the collapse of which is being described on local news broadcasts as an Enron-caliber Ponzi scheme. As the prospects of Owen’s quick return grow dimmer, all Hannah has left of her husband is a note containing a single instruction: “Protect her.”

Within hours, Hannah’s placid life becomes a raging torrent, with federal authorities and shifty detective types lurking around every corner, and Bailey pleading for answers and reassurance Hannah doesn’t have to give. With help from her journalist bestie Jules (Aisha Tyler) and Jake (Geoff Stults), a former lover and well-connected lawyer, Hannah struggles to get to the bottom of Owen’s disappearance. All the while, she has to parent and protect Bailey, the only person more disoriented than she is.

Those who read and fell in love with Dave’s novel — including executive producer Reese Witherspoon — won’t be surprised by much of the series, which Dave developed alongside her husband, the Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer (“Spotlight”). The adaptation meticulously recreates the book, which mostly serves to highlight how the change of medium dilutes the book’s punchy thrills. Hannah’s story feels wispier on the screen than it does on the page, in part because of how the show will air. Apple TV+ is rolling the seven-episode show weekly after its two-episode premiere, even though the entire series could be devoured in an afternoon, and the propulsive book can be mainlined over the same period of time. Even the runtimes suggest a lack of conviction in the story’s ability to expand to series length. (Most episodes stretch past the 30-minute mark but stop shy of 40, making certain installments feel at once too long and too short.)

That said, it’s hard to overstate how much fierceness and gravitas Garner brings to the role. Garner was so effective in “Alias” because she’s able to perform vulnerability as a superpower. Even when the scripts aren’t explicitly referring to Hannah’s emotional throughline, Garner’s performance is enough to communicate that Hannah becomes sharper and more cunning as she embraces the tempest of emotions. She’s not alone. “The Last Thing He Told Me” is ultimately a two-hander between Garner and Rice, who brings every bit of the pathos she lent to her character in HBO’s “Mare of Easttown.” (There’s also, thank goodness, a brief opportunity for Rice to show off her lovely, fluttery singing voice.)

“The Last Thing He Told Me” is handsomely shot by an all-female team of directors, and each episode builds to one of the novel’s more gobsmacking cliffhangers. Add in Garner’s intuitive performance, and the show makes for a perfectly entertaining experience — albeit one that settles for replicating the novel rather than expanding it. There’s a folded handwritten note under your remote containing a single instruction: “Wait a few weeks and watch ‘The Last Thing He Told Me’ in one sitting.”

“The Last Thing He Told Me” premieres with two episodes on Apple TV+ on April 14, followed by one episode dropping weekly on Fridays.