When it comes to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (a.k.a. “The Best Show on Television Right Now”), Zoey Clarke and Max Richman are soulmates. Don’t believe me? Ask Skylar Astin, who plays Max on the show.
His lack of chill about the future for the romantic arc in his series has been a breath of fresh air, helping Clarkeman fans cope during the long stretches between episodes. (Yes, the show has traditionally aired weekly, but those days in between have felt interminable.) Oh, and his real-life friendship with star Jane Levy is also adorable.
But while the show’s intended endgame is and has been – I think – pretty darn clear, a television show wouldn’t be a television show if they didn’t throw a love triangle or two into the mix. Enter Simon I-Don’t-Know-His-Last-Name, Zoey’s coworker and (temporary) love interest. Attractive, charming, grieving…engaged.
Since about the sixth episode, the Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist fandom has been rapidly taking sides in the Max versus Simon debate. However, the truth is that Zoey’s romantic arc (with Simon) and Max’s romantic arc (with Zoey) have been very similar, even running parallel to each other. And while the audience sees the series from Zoey’s point of view – making her perspective inherently more sympathetic – her motivations and actions have been strikingly similar to Max’s. It is in the differences between these stories make it clear why Max is ultimately the right person for Zoey. The strength of underlying friendship shows why their love story will win out in the end.
And if it by some chance doesn’t? Ugly tears, guys. You don’t even know.
Parallel 1: Hidden Feelings
In the show’s Pilot, both Max and Zoey are hiding their true feelings. Zoey is hiding her crush on Simon, and Max is hiding his love for Zoey. Max and Zoey have a well-established friendship, while Zoey has an unrequited (and unknown) crush on her coworker, Simon. However, thanks to her secret superpower, she quickly discovers that Max has unrequited feelings for her.
At about the same time, she discovers that Simon’s charming affability hides a secret sorrow.
Zoey uses this secret knowledge to get closer to – and befriend – Simon. It is a fact that he still doesn’t know to this day. Does anyone really think he’s going to be okay with the truth, once it’s revealed? Of course, I’m not saying she wouldn’t want to be his friend if she didn’t have a secret power giving her the Game Genie code to hack into his emotions. However, the simple fact is that Zoey and Simon weren’t friends until she listened in on his grief. Given her inability to break the ice with him, there’s a good chance they still wouldn’t be friends today if not for her superpower.
The same can not be said of her relationship with Max. Uncertain how to handle Max’s unspoken feelings, she tries to push him into Autumn’s arms (and shows a little bit of jealousy while he’s there). Still, even though she may not know how to respond romantically, his friendship is important to her. Her uncertainty stems in part from an desire not to to lose him or risk his importance in her life.
Incidentally, it’s important to note that even though Max is hiding his romantic feelings for Zoey at this point, his friendship with her – and caring for her – is genuine and exists independently of said romantic feelings. And he doesn’t just care about Zoey; he’s clearly good friends and genuinely cares about her family (particularly her father), as well. At a moment that he and Zoey are fighting, he brings her father butterscotch pudding after his date. This isn’t for Zoey’s benefit; he doesn’t even expect her to be there. He does it for Mitch; demonstrating true thoughtfulness and affection through his concern for Mitch’s dietary needs and preferences. All when he’s supposed to be on a date with another woman, no less. The way he talks about Mitch suggests underlying affection that goes much deeper than the show has explored to date.
Parallel 2: Love Revealed
At about the same time in both arcs, these secret feelings come out into the open. Publicly. And with a hefty dose of embarrassment all around.
Max puts himself out there for Zoey, risking public humiliation by confessing his feelings via a flash mob…
…after a very private moment in her parents’ foyer.
I know what you’re thinking. “Did she include that gif just because it’s the episode where she lost her entire damn heart to Max Richman?” MAYBE. BUT YOU CANNOT PROVE IT.
Back to the article. At about the same time, Zoey’s feelings for Simon come out in a very public way. Culminating in accidentally committing a small act of arson at Simon’s engagement party with another woman. After they have a Moment in her apartment.
Now, there’s a lot I can say about the dichotomy of these parallel revelations. Zoey humiliates herself unintentionally by confessing her feelings at Simon’s engagement party in front of his fiancé and accidentally setting their rose wall on fire. Jessica takes the revelation with about as good of grace as one can expect under the circumstances. Which is to say by publicly calling Simon out on what has been, at best, some pretty serious emotional infidelity.
Let me make one thing clear before I continue. While I am firmly behind #TeamMax, I like Simon’s character. I am sympathetic to his grief and motivations, if not his actions. I have a theory that his emotional infidelity has been an unconscious act of self-sabotage that stems from his loss. His relationship with Zoey has foundation of similar grief (and doesn’t seem to extend much beyond that and physical attraction). However, it started on a lie of omission on Zoey’s part. She was privy to his most private emotions, against his will and without his knowledge. Emotions that it seems he has hidden from everyone, including his fiancé. My theory about his character gives me a lot of sympathy for him – even though I don’t like some of his actions (or inactions). Specifically in regards to his love triangle between Jessica and Zoey.
Still, when Zoey’s feelings for Simon are brought out into the open, he is very passive in his response. He does not really comfort either Zoey or Jessica in that moment – and thereby commits fully to neither.
Meanwhile, Zoey panics and chooses a path of avoidance in response to Max’s feelings. Much as she did when she first learned of them through his heart songs. She responds by opening up to him about her powers. Some fans hold Max’s skepticism against him. However, I think the context of her confession is important. Zoey tells him about her powers to avoid a deeper conversation. (Also, she’s literally the only person on the planet to have any kind of superpower at all. It’s hardly probable from his perspective that she’s telling the truth.) In a world where absolutely nobody else has a superpower, that really is the least plausible explanation – definitely far below “she’s lying to avoid the matter at hand” and several hundred options beneath “she has an undiagnosed brain tumor, and we should get her to the hospital, STAT.”
And, in fact, her motives for telling him the truth at that moment are avoidance. Max may not know that she’s telling the truth right away, but he does know it’s a smokescreen to avoid talking to him about his confession. She makes herself vulnerable in one way in order to avoid having to deal with the reality of his emotions. It is something Mo calls her on, and she even owns up to, in the end.
But while she doesn’t know how to respond to Max’s romantic confession, she again does very much want to remain his friend. In fact, she is unsure how to respond to his romantic confession in part because she’s afraid of losing his friendship.
Parallel 3: Needing Time
With Simon’s engagement and Zoey’s personal crises, neither relationship is at a point where it can move forward. Zoey and Simon agree to be friends and keep their relationship strictly professional.
Zoey and Simon are both, at least ostensibly, on the same page at this point. They need to put their emotional flirtation behind them and move forward as colleagues and professionals. And perhaps friends. I’m sure Zoey would want to be Simon’s friend, regardless of her feelings for him. However, their friendship does seem to stall a little bit at this point. At least, we as an audience don’t see their friendship continue to grow outside of her romantic feelings (and similar grief experiences).
Meanwhile, although Max isn’t happy that he and Zoey aren’t on the same page romantically, he’s trying to get there. He accepts her request for time and asks for a little of his own space. He’s still there for her as a friend, but he needs to put their movie nights on hold. For a little while, at least.
No, Max isn’t being a “Nice Guy” at this – or any other – point. He is still 100% committed to their friendship, with no strings attached. Even though his heart is broken. In fact, he even suggests that he will soon be ready to resume their movie nights, after just a little more time. He also puts his job on the line and humiliates her publicly by coming to her aid when she begins singing in an important meeting, singing along with her to make it seem like a planned strategy as opposed to a mental breakdown.
He may love Zoey, but he is – first and foremost – her friend.
Parallel 4: Mixed Messages
Which is, of course, when things get confusing and mixed messages come into play, as it is Zoey who is compelled to sing about her feelings. She simply cannot help herself. She sings a love song to Max, in direct conflict with her earlier assertion that she didn’t know how she felt about him. Although Max had been 100% willing to give her time – and take the space he needed – he hoped that this was a sign that she was (or was close to be) ready to move forward with their relationship.
A few minutes later, she sings a song of lust and desire to Simon.
Was it a little hot? Yeah. But nothing has really changed for him, at this point. He’s still engaged to another woman. He still isn’t sure what he wants. She has, unwillingly, sent him mixed messages – asking for time, and then seducing him through song. And then the two of them kissed, making the entire situation even more complicated.
But the fact remains, their emotional connection is based off physical attraction and similar grief. Is there enough foundation for a relationship that extends beyond those two things? I don’t know that we’ve seen enough to say there is. And, again, their friendship itself may not be based on a lie, but it’s been built on a pretty big one.
Parallel 5: Needing Answers
Simon, Zoey, and Max were confused and trying to figure out how to deal with these new missed messages. Both Zoey and Max subsequently tried to figure out how the objects of their romantic devotion felt about them.
Max expressed his confusion about what – and who – Zoey wanted after hearing her two heart songs. As he pointed out, one song was about love, the other about desire. He knew which he would choose, but she needed to make a decision herself.
Another important thing to note is that, while Zoey has asked for time to process her own feelings, she hasn’t been the best at giving Max the time he needs. She was disappointed that Max needed to temporarily halt their movie nights, although she agreed to his request. But when he sees her heart song with Simon, she does not give him the space he needs to deal with his feelings, although he indicated that he wasn’t ready to have that conversation. (When Zoey asked him if they could talk about what he had seen, he responded not at that moment, but she followed him into the restroom to talk to him about it anyway.)
This doesn’t make Zoey a bad person, but it does show her internal conflict with what she says she wants and with recognizing when other people need the same thing. Of course, her personal growth is the driving force for the entire series.
It’s also worth noting that, even still, though Max was even more confused and heartbroken than before, he was still 100% there for her as a friend, comforting her about her father and helping her face what she’d avoided all day.
Shortly thereafter, Zoey asked Simon about his feelings, and his answer left her more confused than ever. Although Zoey doesn’t necessarily realize it, she and Max are essentially at the same place regarding their love lives. Like Max’s conversation with Zoey the previous episode, her initial conversation with Simon brings her no clarity. She admitted to Mo – while lying on the floor after taking apart her microwave – that she was confused about whether or not Simon really wanted her. (I think the fact he was still actively engaged to anther woman at the time was a fairly good indication that he wasn’t ready to be, or looking to be, with her at that moment. A fact I was somewhat surprised nobody bothered to point out to her. But I digress.)
Which is when things get even messier.
Parallel 6: Clearing the Air
In the face of significant mixed messages, both Zoey and Max come to a point where they need some clarity about their love lives. Zoey tried to get it from Simon throughout the entirety of the series’ ninth episode. Max sought clarity from Zoey in their discussion of his job offer. As a friend, he surely knew she would support him. But after the mixed messages of her heart songs, he needed to know how she felt about him, too.
Zoey probably gave the best response she could. He needs to decide what was best, and she will support him. However, in ending it with, “is that the right answer?” she suggested that she had not given him an honest answer about her feelings. She had told him what she thought he wanted to hear. And while that answer might have been the “right” one in terms of what he should do, it absolutely did not provide what he was really asking of her. The truth, good or bad, about her feelings and where she stood.
So, lacking the clarity they needed, Zoey and Max both made the only decision they could. It was, ultimately, the right decision for both. They chose themselves. Zoey decided that she couldn’t be the other woman in Simon’s relationship with Jessica. She would put her feelings for Simon behind her. For good this time. (At least, that was her intention. I suspect her discovery that he and Jessica ended their engagement will cause her to revise that decision.) And Max chose to take the job offer on the 6th floor.
Moving Forward: Where Do We Go From Here?
So where do these two arcs go from here? Throughout at least the first nine episodes of the series, Max and Zoey have been on similar romantic trajectories with their respective love interests. Their actions have been very similar, as have their motivations – even if Zoey’s have been made clearer by sheer virtue of the fact the series is told from her point of view. So what’s next?
This is where I think the two romantic arcs will diverge for the first time. I suspect that this move will give Max and Zoey the space they both need. I think Zoey will have to cope with the fact he’s not around like he used to be. Max needs time to sort through his feelings for Zoey, and Zoey needs time to sort out her own personal crises to figure out her feelings for him. She may even have been taking their friendship for granted, and putting a little distance between the two may also help her to see it.
I also expect that Simon and Zoey will move forward with a relationship, in the short-term, at least. But their relationship is primarily grounded on grief. While it is important to connect with someone who understands to some extent the loss of a loved one, that alone is not a sound foundation for a relationship. Outside of their grief, what do they have in common? If Mitch did miraculously recover tomorrow (which I’m not expecting), what would they have in common at that point?
Plus, there’s no getting around the fact that Zoey’s romantic (and platonic) relationship with Simon did start on a lie of omission. Simon may be putting undue stock into the idea that Zoey instinctively “gets” him, in a way that his fiancé never did. He may feel like this speaks to a deeper connection. The illusion of a deeper connection with Zoey may have caused him to doubt the connection he had with Jessica, that she wasn’t able to “read” his emotions as easily, without him having to say a word. Finding out about Zoey’s ability to hear heart songs may make him realize that he had been unfair to Jessica by not letting her in, as well, and giving her an equal opportunity to understand and empathize.
Zoey and Max, on the other hand, have a relationship that is grounded in genuine friendship. Their connection runs deeper than physical attraction and extends beyond their romantic entanglements. Max consistently gives Zoey support and genuine friendship. He puts his own feelings aside, even when he’s brokenhearted, hurt, and confused. Max listens when she says she needs time and is open about his own need for space. He puts his job on the line for her. He helps her confront the truth about her father’s terminal diagnosis.
It is the underlying foundation of genuine friendship, that pre-dated his crush and has continued to grow throughout the series, that shows why Zoey and Max have what it takes in the long run. It establishes Max as a genuinely wonderful character and not a subject of the “Nice Guy” trope.
In his own way, Max needs to learn to recognize and give space for other people’s emotions, as much as Zoey does. (After his breakup with Autumn, he didn’t immediately understand why it would be hurtful to her for him to come by her coffee house to make sure she was still okay with being dumped. However, when Mo explained the situation to him, he was willing to listen and learn, deciding not to put his own desire for everything to be “okay” with him before her emotional needs.) But the parallels in their romantic stories to date also show why Max really is Zoey’s soulmate.
I can’t wait for the two of them to realize it, too.