[Warning: The following contains spoilers from the Season 1 finale of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. Read at your own risk!]
After the Clarkes went shopping for Mitch's (Peter Gallagher) coffin and burial plot in the penultimate episode of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist's first season, fans should have been prepared for a tragic finale. But even if you expected Mitch, who has suffered with progressive supranuclear palsy throughout the show, to take a turn for the worse, the devastation and heartbreak his death brought to Zoey (Jane Levy) and her family was felt in every note of the season's final song: Don McLean's "American Pie."
This episode was particularly personal for showrunner and series creator Austin Winsberg, who not only penned the hour but lost his father to the same disease. Zoey has been preparing herself for losing her father for the entire season, and now that it's happened, it'll cause a large shift in her perspective on life and what she wants from it.
This will make her already complex personal life even more complicated. Before learning that her father was beginning his final downturn, Zoey was hooking up with Max (Skylar Astin) after being drawn to his newfound confidence. However, it clear that Simon (John Clarence Stewart) has better insight into what Zoey is going through as she navigates the loss of a parent.
TV Guide spoke with Winsberg about the deeply emotional episode, how this affects Zoey and her love triangle going forward, and what exactly was up with the doctor and his magic MRI machine.
Was there anything in this episode that you had Zoey say to Mitch that you weren't able to say to your own dad? Was there catharsis in that?
When she gives him the speech at his bedside -- that's actually paralleling the speech that she gave for her father in the pilot. In the pilot, she's talking about how she's got this new power and she doesn't know what to make of it. The guy she likes at work has a fiancée and so many things are going wrong in her life. And then to show over the course of those 12 episodes that she actually now feels like there's some good that's come from the power, and she sees the possibilities of the power and the ability, and that it's not just a negative for her. That the guy who she liked at work likes her, work stuff is going well, and she tells [Mitch] that she's okay. By telling him that she's OK, I feel like that is the thing that sort of gives him permission to move on. I feel like I don't know if I quite got that moment with my father, but I liked Zoey letting him know that she was going to be all right and that was important. That's part of the positivity and the optimism [of the show].
I think with some perspective after my father's death, and it took time, but I think with some perspective, I tried to turn that tragedy into a positive, and to embrace the compassion and the empathy and some of the other things that I think I got out of it. It sounds strange, but trying to put a somewhat positive spin on [Mitch's death] was important for me. The other big wish fulfillment thing was [that] I was there with my father until the very end. And I like the idea that Mitch calls [Zoey] away from that. In that moment, it's for her so that she doesn't have to be there to witnesses [his death]. They're able to get this last dance together, but that last dance is also for her to not have to witness [Mitch dying].
Losing your father was obviously a seismic event in your own life. Can you talk about how this will change Zoey moving into Season 2?
I think it changes everything. I think when you lose a parent, your whole worldview starts to shift in some ways. I think it forces you to grow up quicker. I think that the other thing is you ask a lot of questions backwards about why. A lot of what I would like to do in Season 2 is kind of looking at the idea of rebounding and how do we recover after a tragedy, and a little bit of sort of exploring man's search for meaning -- how do we find meaning in our lives after tragedy and what kind of people do we want to be? And I think that not just for Zoey, but I think it's also [important] for everything that we're all going through in the world right now. We're seeing so much tragedy right now and we're all kind isolated on our own little islands. What happens when we come out of this? What new perspective do we bring and what kind of humanity do we bring with us? Zoey is going to be struggle with all those questions.
The episode ends with Zoey singing the line "The day the music died" with no musical backup. How much should we be reading into that choice?
Whatever you would like to read into that. ... The show is a musical, so I can't imagine us not having a musical element in the show going forward. But the way in which it happens and what it means -- I think that's all stuff that is worthy of thought and conversation.
Before Zoey found out about Mitch, she was in the middle of a pretty hilarious hookup with Max where he couldn't stop singing. Is that something Zoey is going to have to deal with a lot in the future, or is that uniquely a Max problem?
Well, I think that Max is clearly somebody who wears his emotions on his sleeve and has a hard time covering his emotions for Zoey. So I imagine that there's a challenge built into that relationship that she hears a lot of what he's thinking all the time. And because of that, too, there's also inevitably -- we talked about this in Episode 7, I think as well -- an inherent inequality in the relationship because she knows what he's thinking and he doesn't know what she's thinking. And because of that, that always can create conflict and obstacles.
What does it mean for Zoey and Simon's relationship now that she's officially lost a parent as well?
My goal from the beginning was to make sure that both men felt viable, and also that both men brought different things to the table and satisfied or fulfilled or match different aspects of Zoey's personality. Definitely one area in which Zoey and Simon have always bonded is over grief. The cards have been flipped a little bit in that I think he's finally on the other side of it, just as she's really going down a different path with it. ... There is a big difference between when somebody is alive and you're grieving, and when they're gone. Simon says at one point, "You can still hold his hand. You can still talk to him."
I remember that I thought I had prepared myself for my dad's passing in some ways during the last six months that he was alive, but it is fundamentally different the moment they are no longer there. So I think that there is going to be a connectivity and a bond that is going to continue with Simon. And I think that there's going to be Max and his new confidence and new ways in which he approaches the world that become very attractive to Zoey. I'm going to continue to go down different paths with both of those guys in different ways.
In this episode, we very briefly reacquaint ourselves with the doctor who gave Zoey the MRI that gave her this power and he sings "I've Got the Music in Me." Should we be thinking her getting these powers wasn't an accident?
I think you can extrapolate a bunch of stuff from that moment. ... I think you could have stuck with he could have done it. I think you could extrapolate that maybe he has the power as well. Or maybe he was just referencing the MRI machines do amazing things and he just had that song in his head.
Could we meet more people with Zoey's gift in Season 2?
That's a really interesting idea. ... Here is my longer answer to that: I think that the mythology of the powers is something that's an interesting thing to explore and it's something we've talked about a bunch in the writers' room. And I think there are definitely roads we can go down. This is not me being diplomatic or political there. I think there's definitely roads we could go down that have to do with somebody else having the power. You know, someone using the powers for good or for evil. I think that those things tend to start to feel a bit fantastical and a bit like a superhero show. ... I'm always trying to figure out the line that feels right tonally for us. I worry about some of that stuff potentially feeling a little bit jump-the-sharky. So, my concern is, if we're going to go down some of those roads that we do it in a way that feels tonally right for our show.
Have we seen the last of Peter Gallagher as Mitch Clarke?
I think that we all love having Peter around. ... The character Mitch does so much for Zoey. There have been ways in which I have felt the relationship continue with my father after he passed -- you know, memories flashbacks, dreams, those kind of things. So I think the idea of bringing Peter back is very exciting to me. It's figuring out the right ways to do it.
Is there anything else you'd like to say to your fans after they watch this emotional episode?
Hug them if you're quarantining with them. Know that life is short and unpredictable, and to try to live in the moment and appreciate what you have. Have compassion and empathy for others that may be going through stuff you're not aware of.
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist has not yet been renewed for Season 2 at NBC. Season 1 episodes are available on Hulu.