Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist was – and is – a truly, well, extraordinary show. Show runner Austin Winsberg took a premise that was more than a little cheesy and turned it into a story that was filled with honesty, humor, and heart. It’s a celebration of the terrible beauty in life – in the profound struggles we bear to find love, both in ourselves and with others, and in the devastating grief that gives life its poignancy and meaning. After all, part of what makes life so precious is that it is so comparatively brief. The series is a reminder that, yes, life can be unpredictable, difficult, and incredibly unfair. But it’s also filled with beauty and compassion and hope and – most of all – love. It is filled with so much love. And that’s a reminder we need now more than ever.
In Part 1 of this article, I wrote about various forms of love that were demonstrated by the characters of Zoey, Max, Mo, Simon, Tobin, and Leif. But Joan, Mitch, Maggie, Emily, and David embraced love in their own ways, which are equally as worthy to explore.
Joan: Have Compassion (For Yourself and Others)
Out of all the characters on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Joan is perhaps the one who has consistently had the firmest grasp on what she wants out of life. True, at the beginning of the series, she struggled with the crumbling of her marriage. She initially tried to hold on to something she should have put behind her long ago. But it didn’t take long for her to realize that her future was in moving forward. That what lay before her (whatever it may be) had to be better than what she was putting in her rear view mirror.
In this sense, Joan bucked traditional storytelling tropes in interesting (if not always positive) ways. Upon deciding her marriage to Charlie was over, she spent little time on “what if”s and self-doubt. Which isn’t to say she didn’t regret their divorce, on some level. She grieved, but she didn’t let that grief sway her from her purpose. Or her knowledge that she deserved better.
Her romantic plot with Leif, so divisive in the fandom, was also a departure from storytelling norms. Joan wasn’t painted as the desperate, love-starved Woman of a Certain Age who fell for a younger man’s charms when she was at her most vulnerable. Indeed, she was vulnerable, but that ultimately didn’t matter. She still knew what she wanted. And what she didn’t. And what she wanted was a fling with a younger man. A fling that, for her part, at least, wouldn’t go anywhere. Nor did she want it to. So it was actually the younger man who fell, wanting something real rather than the manipulation it might have been on another show. And it was Joan who drew the line, who knew what she had wanted from their affair and stuck to it. And continued to move forward with compassion, for herself and others.
Her compassion might have seemed like an odd dichotomy in her character. But it was an intrinsic part of her throughout the season. Admittedly, it was well-hidden at times. But when she spoke of her own mother’s death to Zoey, it wasn’t a sudden, uncharacteristic departure for her character. Rather, the show was finally allowing the audience to fully see the woman behind the curtain. The woman we’d glimpsed but not fully delved into before.
Joan’s absence from the second season was yet another consequence of the pandemic. The delay in filming created a conflict with actress Lauren Graham’s schedule. But fans had reason to hope (have reason to hope) that she’ll return for a third season. Is it any wonder they want to see more of her?
Maggie: Carry On
The theme of the series’ second season was “carry on.” It’s a message that is perfectly highlighted in Maggie’s character. While not the focus of either the season or the series, it is perhaps Maggie who is the most affected by Mitch’s death. And for good reason. Yes, Zoey and David lost their father, and that is nothing to underestimate. (Believe me, I never would.) But, depending how old one estimates the Clarke matriarch to be, more of Maggie’s life was spent with Mitch than without. it’s likely, given their ages when they met and the duration of their time together, that Mitch had as profound an impact on Maggie’s perception of the world and her lived experiences than even her parents would have had. Maggie is no longer one-half of Maggie-and-Mitch. So is it any wonder she found it so hard to figure out who solo-Maggie is now?
It was a struggle that largely took place on the sidelines and behind the scenes. Should she move on, find someone else to love, find happiness, as Mitch had made it clear he wished her to do? Could she? Would choosing said happiness and newfound love truly be honoring his memory and his love for her? Or would it be in some way a betrayal? The final act of letting go of someone she had loved so deeply?
For the audience, there is no recrimination in Maggie’s decision to carry on, to move forward at the end of the season. Although much of their relationship was filtered through the prism of Mitch’s final illness, we saw enough of what it was and had been to have no doubt of what Mitch would have wanted for the woman he loved so much. We know he wanted her to carry on and find joy again. Just as she genuinely would have wanted the same for him, if her heart attack had indeed proved fatal.
For many, the act of moving on after such a profound loss can feel like a betrayal of the one we loved. I’ll be honest and say that, if the worst were to befall my husband, I know he would want me to move on and find happiness again. But I’m not sure that I ever could. I don’t know how I’d ever try. And that’s where Maggie was last season. Before (as Deb so eloquently put it) she got on that train that doesn’t make any stops and chugs onward whether its passengers would wish it to or not. She couldn’t imagine her life without Mitch. Until she was given no other choice.
And as painful as it is, it is perhaps the truest acknowledgment of love and greatest honor of Mitch’s memory, that Maggie finally realized there was no shame or betrayal in moving on. Love isn’t a finite resource, with Mitch carrying so much of it that there can be none left for anyone else. She can move forward, she can find happiness and even love again, without loving and missing Mitch any less. It would be a greater disservice to assume his impact upon her life and heart would be so fleeting as to diminish or disappear after his passing.
Maggie will always carry Mitch with her, as we carry all those we have loved and lost. There is no shame or betrayal in continuing to embrace life. Even as we carry the memories of those we will always love, in life and in death, in the scars grief etches upon our hearts.
Mitch: Our Love Outlives Us
In speaking about the first season finale, show creator Winsberg indicated that the handling of Mitch’s death was a form of wish-fulfillment for himself. He has memories of his father’s final moments that are very different than what he wanted for Zoey. It’s a message that resonates more strongly with me than I would wish.
As much as we all would love to have the ability to curate our experiences – or, barring that, our memories of them – that isn’t the only way that Mitch’s presence on the show is a form of wish-fulfillment. If there is one universal longing in this world, it’s the desire to know that we mattered. Not necessarily in epic ways that will be written about in history books for centuries to come. But to the people closest to us, who we love and who love us. We want to know we mattered. We want to know that our love will outlive us, long after we’re gone.
And there’s no question about it. The love Mitch had with his family will carry on. Not just now, less than a year after his passing. But into the future. Zoey, Maggie, David, and Emily will always carry a piece of him in their hearts. Because they do so, Miles will do the same, even though he never had a chance to know Mitch. The stories his family shares of the man they loved will create an image of his grandfather in his mind. And he will carry that image moving forward.
It’s something it seems everyone is told after losing someone they loved. “The ones we loved will live on in the memories we carry in our hearts.” There is both truth and comfort in that. But Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist doesn’t stop there. It takes the message one step further.
Mitch’s love for his family lives, even after his body is gone.
That message is most obviously shown in his final scene with Zoey (perhaps my favorite of the series). Mitch is part of “the universe” now. Watching over her. Guiding her. Still loving her. Sending heart songs her way. Okay, that last one probably is specific to just Zoey, but the others are universal.
It’s also a message more subtly told in stories such as Maggie’s, where she finds the strength to carry on and keep living because she knows that it’s what Mitch wanted for her. Even after his death, she still feels the love he had for her in life. She knows that moving on isn’t a betrayal of his memory, because she’s not casting aside the love that she shared. It’s still inside her. The knowledge that it was there and it was real and that it exists even beyond death is part of what gives her the strength to take that next step.
If there’s a universal in life, it’s that we want to know that we mattered. But part of that is knowing that the ones we love will continue to know how we loved them, even after we’re gone. They’ll still feel the comfort of our love, long after we can no longer remind them of it with words. Our love will continue to give them strength and courage, solace and, yes, joy.
We want to know that our love will outlive us. And in Mitch, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist reminds and reassures us that it will. Even if we can’t quite do it with a song and a dance.
Emily: It’s Okay to Lean On Others
The glimpses of Emily and David that I got in the first season made me love them. Seeing their relationship get fleshed out was one of the greatest gifts of the second season of the show. You can ship Zoey and Max, or Zoey and Simon, or even Zoey and Leif, and I’ll understand where you’re coming from even if I’m not boarding the same ship. If you don’t absolutely adore David and Emily, though, I don’t even want to know you.
In the show’s first season, it perhaps would have been easy to fall into the trap of assuming Emily would adhere to the typical-for-Hollywood “strong woman” trope. She isn’t one to suffer fools lightly. In fact, she doesn’t seem the type to suffer non-fools lightly, either. There were glimpses of more going on under the surface, but it might have been a little tempting for fans to take Emily at face value. Celebrating her somewhat acerbic outer demeanor while failing to recognize the softness that is every bit as much a part of her.
And that failure would have been understandable to a point, because too often shows do seem to think that “strong female character” types necessitate the eradication of all softness and femininity. That to be strong, a woman has to either be written as essentially “a man in a skirt” or as a creature too scarred from past trauma to feel anything other than hatred, rage, revenge, and determination.
Which makes it all the more important that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist treated Emily’s character with refreshing honesty. Yes, she is sometimes acerbic. If you ever find yourself going into a verbal knife fight, there’s surely nobody better to have by your side. She’s practical and disinclined to get overly sentimental about things in life that are not deserving of such emotional investment.
But the strength of her character in the second season wasn’t in pushing people away and keeping them at an arm’s distance. It was in her recognition that being strong doesn’t always mean standing by herself. Sometimes the strongest – and bravest – thing you can do is to admit that you can’t do everything alone. That you need help. Trusting that the people you love will be there for you, without reservation or judgment.
That realization was a greater reflection of the depth of love Emily has for David than even her support of his desire to become a stay at home dad. (Though I did love that moment for her, as well.) It is often easier to be a shoulder for others than it is for us to ask for help ourselves. We’re too often scared of what that vulnerability might mean, and how our “weakness” might change the perception of our character in their eyes. We also don’t want to be a burden, or to make the ones we love worry about us. Particularly when, like David, they have emotional trials and tribulations of their own.
Sometimes the bravest and strongest thing we can do is to acknowledge to those we love that we can’t do it alone. That we’re not okay. To recognize that it’s okay to not always be okay. And to trust that, when we need someone to lean on, their shoulder will be there for us. But leaning on others isn’t a sign of weakness. It takes more love – and faith in that love – to be vulnerable with the people we care the most about than we sometimes realize.
It’s okay to not always be okay. We need that reminder now more than ever.
David: Love Unconditionally
If there is one lesson David taught us throughout Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, it’s to embrace unconditional love. As I wrote above, the glimpses of his relationship with Emily made me love him in the first season. But the second is where he was able to truly shine.
More than his struggle to find a work-life balance, more than his desire to relive his former glory as a musician, unconditional love was David’s story this season. It was the backbone of his character, motivating and driving his story. It was in his love for his son, who he didn’t want to have to leave every day to return to work. His love for his wife, making his support of her during her struggle with postpartum depression unquestionable. His love for his mom, leading him to support her in her efforts to move forward, even as he worried for her. And his love for Zoey, which…okay, probably traumatized him when he realized the subject of the song “Crimson Love.” He loves his sister unconditionally. He does not love her in that way.
But, perhaps more than anything else right now, that’s what we need to remember. We don’t need to love everyone, of course. Some relationships are toxic or harmful or even downright abusive, and we need to let those go for our own mental, emotional, or even physical wellbeing. But when we do find love – the right kind of love – we should embrace it. What’s more, we should do so with every part of our beings. Unconditionally and without equivocation. We shouldn’t be afraid to give to others the type of love we wish to receive. That kind of love – the kind that is genuinely both expressed and accepted – can get us through even the worst of times.
What reminder is more important for the world right now than that?