Before I delve into my review of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist 2×13 “Zoey’s Extraordinary Goodbye”, I have to take care of some unfinished business. Two weeks ago, I wrote in a review that I was pretty sure that I knew where the show was headed in the finale, particularly in terms of ships. However, I promised to gladly eat my words if I was proven wrong.
In many respects, I was proven right. Zoey did have a moment of awakening and realized she was about to lose Max. She realized she wanted to tell Max the truth about her feelings. Of course, an inconvenient misunderstanding got in the way. And there was a cliffhanger that puts the show on the path of the return of Clarkeman in the next season.
But for as much as I was right about so many things, I was wrong about one big one. I didn’t see the twist at the end coming. At all. It was a cliffhanger so unexpected and yet so intriguing that I cannot wait to see what the show does with it next year. And that…well, it warrants I gladly eat at least a little crow. Does it retroactively fix some of my criticisms of the season? Well…let’s dig in to the review of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Goodbye” – a goodbye that I hope, at least, will only be temporary.
LOVE AND LOSS
Last week, Zoey’s therapist remarked that the story of her first day at SPRQ Point was about love as much as about grief. Yes, it was the day her mother had a heart attack, but it was also the day she met Max, who would become, romantically or platonically, an important person in her life.
While shippers do what shippers do (dissecting that remark for every possible connotation), the fact of the matter is that this description doesn’t just apply to Zoey’s relationships to either Max or Simon. It is actually a perfect description of the show itself.
Above all else, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a story about grief and how we learn to live in the wake of it. How we learn to move on. But beneath that, it’s a story about love. It’s a concept that is perhaps best encapsulated in what I imagine is now the most famous quote from WandaVision: “What is grief, if not love persevering?”
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is filled with love. Between Zoey and Max and Zoey and Simon, sure. But also – and as importantly – between Maggie and Mitch; Mitch and Zoey; David and Emily. It’s about the love between characters like Zoey and Joan; Max and Mo; and Leif and Tobin.
Of course, I could go on. But if the first season finale focused on Zoey’s loss, then the second focused in many respects on love. Not just the love she feels, but the love that surrounds her. It was shown in the storylines of several of the characters, which in turn set up their direction for the third season. It was in Maggie’s decision to try to move on and find happiness again. In Mo’s recognition of how important her friendship with Max had become to them both. In Danny Michael Davis listening to and demonstrating faith in Simon, showing his growth from the beginning of the season. It was in Mackenzie, when she displayed a rare moment of vulnerability as she sought Zoey’s advice about her relationship with Tobin. And, of course, in Zoey’s memory of her father and the pride and love he had for her. As well as his hopes for her future.
And, yes, it was between both Zoey and Simon and Zoey and Max. More on that in a moment, but before I get to the ships (and the cliffhanger), I want to recognize that Zoey wasn’t the only person this year to experience character growth. All of these other characters had amazing journeys of self-discovery, and I can’t wait to see where their stories go next season.
In terms of personal character stories, Simon had one of my favorites this week. His arc didn’t go in the direction I expected, I admit. It went someplace even better.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning” set up an interesting story for Simon that subsequently didn’t seem to really go anywhere. There were the occasional lines to remind the audience of the seeds that had been planted in terms of Simon’s story in that episode. However, they didn’t really come to fruition. At a certain point, it seemed unlikely that they would this season, so I resigned myself to the fact that we might need to wait until next year to see them do so.
To be fair, the real payoff for that episode will apparently happen next season. But “Zoey’s Extraordinary Goodbye” put Simon’s storyline on that path. He will be heading up a new division at SPRQ Point, dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs of color – who are often denied the funding and other resources they need to survive in the tech industry. (And, it warrants pointing out, in many other industries, as well.)
It’s an intriguing direction for Simon’s character. It’s also the logical progression of his story, taking it in a direction I can’t wait to see further explored next season. More than anything else I want for Simon, I want him to be happy. And so I was glad to see the exuberance with which he threw himself into his only solo heart song this week, “I’m Still Standing”. There was such joy in his performance (along with a few moves only he can do). I hope to see much more of that next year. Particularly given all that he went through in the show’s first year.
And, okay, this one. Because Simon didn’t just undertake a new career direction in the finale. He (and Zoey) also made some decisions about their romantic relationship. Decisions that undoubtedly will not be well-received by all fans.
A lot has been said in fandom about Zoey’s refusal to tell Simon her secret. While I don’t necessarily think everyone is entitled to her secret, I do think Simon is. Particularly at the point at which they became romantically involved. There are a number of reasons for that, but at the heart of the matter is this: when you’re in a relationship with someone, whether or not you owe them your secrets, you should feel comfortable turning to them with your problems.
Beyond everything else – including how she and Simon first became friends, Zoey’s powers are a huge part of her life. Yes, they sometimes can lead her to beauty and occasionally joy. But they’re also a source of stress, of concern, of confusion, and even of a sense of isolation and despair. They are an ongoing, constant, undeniable force in her life. To make any romantic relationship work, Zoey has to open herself up to the person she’s with enough to trust them with one of the biggest stressors and driving forces in her life. And, at the end of the day, that was something she felt she couldn’t – or was afraid to – do with Simon.
Now, there’s a lot of speculation about how Simon would handle the truth of her powers. Some think he would have no problem accepting Zoey’s secret from the start. Personally, I think he wouldn’t (even shouldn’t) be okay with the truth at first. But I’m confident he and Zoey would eventually work through it, and their relationship – romantic or platonic – would be stronger for it. However, the point isn’t really how Simon would (and hopefully one day will) react. The point is that Zoey could or would never open herself up enough to him to tell him. And that isn’t on anyone else. It isn’t on Simon, and it certainly isn’t on Max, much as some fans would like to blame him for it. That’s on Zoey, and saying so isn’t an indictment of her character or whatever love she and Simon share.
Sometimes you can genuinely love someone and yet realize that the relationship you have with them isn’t the kind you want. It was a realization Simon had this episode, demonstrating, perhaps more subtly, his own character growth from the first season. Last year, he struggled to be emotionally honest with other people, including his fiancée. He also held on to a relationship he seemed to know wasn’t the right one for far too long. This year, he seems more aware of the type of love he wants to find, more able to share of himself in order to find it, and less willing to settle for anything less.
And, honestly? I hope next season he finds it and it brings him the happiness he deserves.
WHAT THE FU-
It isn’t always that the audience finds themselves saying the exact same line as the characters at the exact same time. At least not for shows they haven’t seen before. But that definitely happened this week, because when Zoey and Max ended the show with “What the fu-” as they tried to process the fact Max now shares Zoey’s powers, I was yelling the same thing. In a good way.
Which is really when I realized I was going to have to eat some crow this week. Show runner Austin Winsberg took my expectations for the finale, gave me almost all of them – both the ones I wanted and the ones I didn’t – and then hit me with a surprise so huge, I’m still processing it. And I first watched the finale three days ago.
Up until that twist, I had started to think that those last five minutes were going to be the point at which the episode went off the rails for me a little. I admit, I was starting to feel a little disappointed in the direction the seemed to be going. As much as I ship Clarkeman and know it’s endgame, I was really rooting for Max to go to New York in the finale. All of the characters in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist are flawed. Max included. And I thought that it would be good for him to get away for a bit. Perhaps giving him the opportunity for some personal growth and emotional maturity. There are so many things that he needs to work through – both as a person and as a romantic partner. His issues with his dad. His self-consciousness about his power. How to communicate his feelings in a constructive way. In a way other people will be able to hear what he’s trying to say.
So when he showed up at the bench, as sweet as the moment was, I was…disappointed. As a shipper and as a fan of the show. Particularly when it was established that he and Rose broke up at the airport because he’s still in love with Zoey. (As an aside, this series has a habit of introducing female characters you can’t help but love, even if they’re introduced as obstacles to your preferred romantic ship. Then, as soon as their role as romantic obstacle is completed, they’re written out again. I get that it’s the way television works, but it’s still disappointing.)
It all seemed like the kind of ending that…well…that shows do. And this show is at its best when it goes a little against the grain. So I settled in, ready to be overall positive about the finale, but with a tiny twinge of disappointment at the very end. And then. And then.
In fandom, for every one minute of episode footage, you get a hundred theories. So going into the finale, I thought I’d heard them all. Zoey wouldn’t tell Max her feelings, and he would go to New York. Zoey would tell Max her feelings, and he would go to New York. Max would decide to stay behind and Mo would go to New York. Nobody would go to New York, and Rose and Max would stay together until next season. They’d all be trapped together in a big spooky house, someone would be killed with a candlestick, and they’d have to figure out the identity of the murderer.
Okay, that last one might be Clue.
But, amongst all the theories being tossed around about the “cliffhanger” in the finale, somehow “Max gets Zoey’s powers” was never on the list. Looking back, there was some definite setup to it happening. Most obviously with Zoey remarking multiple times in the finale about how lonely it is to have her powers. How being the only person with them makes her feel so isolated and alone. As well as Dream Mitch’s reminder that the universe does things – including giving her powers – for a reason.
I want to hit pause for a second for an aside to talk about this final scene with Mitch. The entire scene was beautiful and, I think, Peter Gallagher’s best song on the show to date. What he said to Zoey is what I imagine all children would want to hear from their parents. As his scenes often do, it left me in tears. But it also presented a lovely (almost undoubtedly intentional) parallel between the first and second season finales. In the first, Zoey had just gotten on the same page with Max when she lost her dad. Her last dance with Mitch as he was slipping away was the moment that necessitated a pause in her relationship with Max. Separating the two. In the second season finale, Zoey and Max were separated when her father visited her in a dream, healthy and vibrant. She danced with him one last time, and that interaction with him was the last push she needed to stop embracing fear. And that helped bring her and Max back together.
Back to the season-long setup to the cliffhanger, there was also the repeated focus on Max self-consciousness about the imbalance in emotional honesty between them, due to Zoey’s powers and difficulty expressing her feelings. Insecurity the show had not consistently addressed to allow for growth throughout the season. There was Zoey claiming her powers were the reason she and Max broke up. Even though the problem was less that she could hear his feelings and more that she wasn’t able to fully share her own. There was even Zoey’s struggle to be fully honest with Simon, although she genuinely did care for him. As well as the fact that Jane did more singing this year than she did in season one, and Austin said he was always looking for ways for her to sing more. And perhaps a dozen other “hints” at what was to come.
All of this combined really should have been a clue that someone would get her powers. And with the specific setup with Max’s character – as well as Zoey and Max clearly being the projected endgame, and his need to have a better understanding of her powers to come to terms with them – it should have been obvious it would be him. But still, nobody saw it coming. Austin Winsberg, you clever, clever man.
In retrospect, it does help contextualize some of the choices made this season. Particularly early on. Many fans – including yours truly – wondered why, if the show was so determined to have Zoey and Simon explore their connection before returning to Clarkeman at the end of the season, they didn’t just explore that relationship first. Put the two of them together in the first few episodes, explore the relationship throughout most of the season, and then have them break up in a way that would allow for the shift to the endgame ship. Having seen the finale, I won’t say I’m thrilled with the way the love triangle played out. But I do have a better understanding of what I assume was the thought behind it.
They wanted to show that Zoey’s powers would always get in the way of her romantic relationships, even if she genuinely wanted to make things work. There would always be a part of her that would be hidden from her partners, regardless of whether they know about her powers or not. And, particularly with Zoey’s struggle to be emotionally open with others, there would always be an imbalance. We saw it play out in her relationship with Max, and we saw it play out in her relationship with Simon. Though it played out in different ways and for different reasons.
It seems likely they also wanted to foreshadow Max getting Zoey’s ability to hear heart songs, with their heart song duet in the second episode. At the time, it just seemed like a top-tier OTP moment. (And it certainly was.) But there was foreshadowing in the fact that heart songs kept getting between them, until Zoey “shared” his heart song in the duet. At which point, the two of them were able to move forward together. Without heart songs getting between them anymore. It was a brilliant, subtle form of foreshadowing that slipped past everyone’s radars until the last few minutes of the finale.
So in retrospect, yes, I do think I get what they were going for. Does that mean I’m happier about some of these choices in retrospect? Honestly, I don’t know. There are still things I wish could have been done differently. Things I would have loved to have explored in more depth. Plot points I wish they could have lingered on instead of rushing through. But all of that would have taken more time. More time in each episode. More episodes in the season. Perhaps even the security of advanced knowledge of a third season, in which to draw out the story longer. And the season just didn’t have the luxury of any of those things. (Which is a good reason to petition for networks to start giving shows more than one-season deals. If they want to keep competing with the quality of streaming content, they need to give show runners the security of knowing they will have the time they need to let their stories breathe.)
As I wrote above, Max getting Zoey’s powers is a twist I still haven’t fully processed, even several days later. But I do know two things. 1) If NBC doesn’t renew Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist for season three, I’m going to scream, because I need to know where this story goes next. And 2) As disappointed as I was that Max didn’t go to New York (because I do think it would have been good for him), what the show actually did may lead to a more satisfying story in the long run. Yes, a trip to New York and the resulting distance could have given him some emotional maturity. But, given the nature of television and filming, all of that would have to happen offscreen. Max would leave in the finale, return in the premiere a slightly different man, and the audience would have to fill in the gaps of what happened in between.
Zoey’s ability to hear heart songs have already changed her for the better. Though she wasn’t always happy about it, and that change didn’t always come easily to her. But they helped her to connect to other people. To understand their problems and her own ability to help. They’ve helped her understand her own emotions, as well as those of the people she hears.
Similarly, I’m sure Max will struggle to come to terms with his new powers. He probably won’t always be happy about it, and it won’t always be easy. But, like they did with Zoey, they provide him the opportunity for character growth – both individually and as a romantic partner – that fans have been hoping for him to have. Just…not in the way fans expected. As a bonus, Max having powers will allow Zoey to step into the role Mo held for her during the first season. Allowing her the opportunity to grow in a new way, as a mentor and confidante. She will have to help Max navigate this new landscape and learn what he needs to do about the songs he hears. She also won’t feel quite so alone anymore. And, as an added bonus, it almost certainly means more of Jane singing next season.
And what could possibly be wrong with that?
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is available on the Peacock app.