“The Last Thing He Told Me” review – Jennifer Garner is as wooden as her fancy salad bowls
Behold the rotten fruit of Big Little Lies’ loins. Ever since Reese Witherspoon’s production company turned that Liane Moriarty novel into a glossy, compulsive TV hit series, no female-authored page-turner has been safe from miniseries adaptation. There was Little Fires Everywhere and Tiny Beautiful Things; now, there is The Last Thing He Told Me, adapted from Laura Dave’s New York Times bestseller of 2021, with Jennifer Garner (the erstwhile star of 13 Going on 30 and the ex-wife of Ben Affleck) in the lead.
Garner plays Hannah, a fortysomething woman whose dreamy life in the picturesque waterside community of Sausalito, California, turns nightmarish when her husband’s software startup is raided by the FBI and he disappears into thin air. All that is left is a handwritten note with the instruction “PROTECT HER”.
The “her” in question is Bailey, Hannah’s 16-year-old stepdaughter – there is never any question of it being otherwise – but the needlessly ambiguous phrasing is typical of a show that likes to introduce intriguing plot threads, only to leave them blowing in the breeze.
The salient point is that Hannah must now go about her husband-mystery-solving with a hostile teenager in tow. This sets up the expectation that there will be some sweet scenes of bonding, as stepmother and stepdaughter get to know and trust one another. Such scenes never materialise, however, because both characters are so shallowly depicted that there is nothing to get to know.
Who is Hannah, even? We see that the craft of wood-turning – not “woodwork”, mind – is her passion and her profession; apparently, she makes enough fancy salad bowls to pay the bills. Her home, besides looking too expensive to afford on wood-turning money, offers no further clues to her personality, or anyone else’s.
Hannah’s only other noticeable trait is a knack for getting past officious receptionists, security guards and others who stand between her, Bailey and the information they seek. She does this using her puppy-dog-eyed persuasive powers, or, in the more ludicrous moments, a disguise. Such spycraft makes little sense in the context of Hannah’s backstory, except maybe as a kind of Easter egg for fans of Garner’s most famous TV role, as a CIA double-agent in JJ Abrams’ Alias.
None of these details are enough to create the illusion that we are watching a real person. It also doesn’t help that Garner’s performance seems limited to a narrow range of expressions that reach from “confused” to “very confused”. Maybe those ornamental wooden bowls are a visual metaphor: here is a woman whose smooth, expensive-looking surfaces contain absolutely nothing.
The other characters are similarly underwritten and uninteresting, sometimes to an insulting extent. We are supposed to believe that Hannah’s best friend, Jules (Aisha Tyler), is Bailey’s confidante. Yet Bailey is a typically stroppy, standoffish teen who still resents Hannah’s intrusion into her tight father-daughter family unit 14 months earlier. Why – and when – are Bailey and Jules supposed to have grown close?
Perhaps the series’ most intriguing character is, not coincidentally, the absent one. As Hannah’s missing husband, Owen (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), appears mostly in flashback, he is allowed to exist in the present as a sort of “Schrödinger’s husband” – simultaneously devoted and dastardly, both GoT’s Jaime Lannister and Ben Affleck. This is the show’s pipeline to the well of anxiety that powers all these Big-Little-lite, airport-thriller adaptations, aimed at wealthy, coupled-up women: “Who is this stranger I’ve married? Is he going to try to murder me? Will I still fancy him if he does?”
But, again, the writing gets in its own way. Any narrative suspense around Owen’s potential sociopathy quickly evaporates under the steady, guileless gaze of his devoted wife. Hannah never doubts him, not even for a moment, as she tells Bailey: “Maybe that’s naive, but there’s something in my gut that tells me he’s doing whatever he’s doing for us … for you.”