As Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist approaches the final episode of its pitch-perfect first season, so does the drama and heartbreak that's about to come to a head.
All season long, Zoey and her family have been preparing to say goodbye to the Clarke patriarch, Mitch, whose degenerative brain disease is deteriorating at a rapid pace. With Sunday's finale titled "Zoey's Extraordinary Dad," one can surmise that the episode will focus around Mitch's final days and the family's reaction to losing their lynchpin. And, not to add more to Zoey's plate, the tech coder has been navigating the murky waters in her very own romantic love triangle between Max and Simon, who, like Zoey, is tuned into the loss of a loved one. Whatever happens, just know it's been one roller coaster of a ride.
"Specifically with Simon, a lot of fans and people that have watched the show have reached out to me and told me that they're grateful. They're grateful to see grief represented in this way. They're grateful to see someone that looks like them, that reminds them of what it was like to lose a loved one two years ago or six months ago or 10 years ago, you know?" actor John Clarence Stewart tells ET. "And it ends up being something that's very healing for them."
Ahead of Sunday's finale, ET hopped on the phone with Stewart to get a temperature check on where Simon is, the argument for Zoey to pick the newly single bachelor, why losing his own dad elevated his connection to the character and a look at the final episode of the season.
ET: There's a lot going on with Simon. At times, he's easy to empathize with. Other times, he makes terrible decisions. What is your personal take on where Simon stands right now?
John Clarence Stewart: Simon does have a lot going on and I think there's a romanticized way that we view grief wherein people make all the right decisions and their grief looks very linear. They go through all of the stages in an amount of time that's acceptable for everybody around them and they somehow don't leak their grief onto the people around them too much. They're able to maintain this balance. And I think that's a myth.
I lost my own father 13 years ago and it's one of the reasons why I felt so grateful to play Simon because his journey with grief is something that I'm intimately familiar with. It's beautiful to be able to go on this journey and to see the decisions that are being made, but to understand what's underneath them. It's someone that is very, very human and flawed trying their best and that's what we want to see. Yes, there are things that Simon does that are polarizing, but that's also the truth. That's very much the truth.
Zoey and Simon have a deeper connection than most, where they really bonded over the grief of losing their fathers. What conversations did you have about making sure that this was portrayed in a realistic yet respectful way?
Before I went into the [screen] test, [creator] Austin [Winsberg] and I had a lengthy conversation and it gave me an incredible amount of peace and honest hope. Austin told me why he wrote this show and what his personal connection is to the show. At that time, we had never talked about the reason I chose to audition for the show, just that Simon lost his father and he's going through this process of grief. What I saw was a creator who isn't afraid to go into the not-so-pretty spaces, who is using music as a conduit to get to the dark spaces that we all go through.
But I think the biggest thing that is the through line for all of us is not judging the characters. Austin was really clear about that and I'm very clear about that, that the characters are human beings living through these circumstances. No one is good, no one is evil. They're all just doing the best they can, and they're flawed and that's OK. I actually had some resistance towards some of the decisions that Simon was making throughout the season, but that was just part of me inside that was like, "Oh no, oh no. I don't want to do something bad." I was like, "John, stop." When I look back on my life, I realized the thing that made me uncomfortable was that I'm familiar with making some of those decisions myself.
A central hook for a lot of people is the main love triangle between Zoey, Simon and Max. What do you like about the show's portrayal of this tangled romantic web?
Skylar [Astin] and I were clear early on that we didn't want this to be some kind of cliche. We didn't want that and I know Skylar has been very vocal about it, but we didn't want it to be these two princes fighting over the woman in the tower where we're trying to save her. If anything, I am Team Zoey, and this idea of growth and evolution and ownership and responsibility and stepping into one's power is incredible. Everybody's on that journey of stepping into themselves and their power, and what does it look like to heal and be whole and be in a relationship in a way that's not toxic. But everyone's at a different place at a different time.
You're seeing all of these people in this triangle evolve at different rates. Some people are in a place faster than others, which means that sometimes two parts of the triangle get a little closer, while another seems further away. But then another one has a breakthrough and shifts the whole dynamic. It's just true. There is a specificity to the grief and the intimacy that comes along with that between Simon and Zoey, but I think there's also a refreshing, almost constant sturdy connection and intimacy that's been there with Max. They both have value, they both hold weight. And Zoey, having the opportunity to navigate what she wants as she evolves and as she chooses who she's going to be actively day to day, that's what makes the entire triangle dynamic.
There are moments where Simon seems to be a hair above Max and then times when Max has the upper hand.
When you think you know the way something is going to be, life has a way of bending and shifting, and unexpected things happen. And that's the beauty of it. The fact that there's this waffling between the idea of Zoey choosing either guy is a testament to the writing and that it's working. The best part is when people, at the end of an episode, feel very binary about it. There's this huge flip-flopping that's happening, which means that people are engaged and people are seeing themselves or seeing people that they know, which is wonderful.
Simon breaks off his engagement with Jessica. What prompted that decision? Is their story done?
This is what I'll say about Jessica. Simon proposed to Jessica on the back end of his father passing. I think there are a lot of things people do to try to maintain the sense of normalcy in their lives after something devastating happened. That's part of what was going on with Simon and Jessica, not to say that there wasn't genuine love. But there is something that happened inside of Simon and there was, I'd say, a sense of depression and being alone and isolated that he was filling inside of the relationship, and there's a responsibility he had to take for himself. Which meant he couldn't keep doing things or putting himself in a position where he had questions and was going to hurt someone he cared about, which is why I'm glad that things ended with Jessica the way they did.
At first, with that "Happier" number, it was going to be a solo number and it was going to be me singing. Austin told me, "We're going to make it a duet between you and Jessica." I listened to the lyrics and I was like, this is absolutely perfect. It's a conversation between these two people who have this deep, deep love for one another. It's just not right, and that's OK for it not to be right; it doesn't make anyone a villain. It makes Simon have to take responsibility, and have to own up [to their decisions]. But at the end of the day, they both make the decision from this place of love for one another. There's also the shifting of the archetypical way of ending relationships that has been deep and profound. There's the idea that it has to end with vitriol and, at least for me in my personal life, I'm grateful that there is a more difficult way of ending relationships, which is to choose to end it with love. It's saying thank you for everything you brought into my life and we both agree that this is no longer what we need and we need to move forward, whatever that looks like, away from one another.
Can you talk about being part of the "I Want You to Want Me" number because that was quite something...
That number specifically, I mean, real talk? I came to set and [Jane Levy] had been on set for hours already working on three other numbers. We start blocking, we went through the marks, Jane did the choreo and sang it and performed it and it was already breathtaking in the rehearsal. Then, on the day and I'm not going to lie, it was that sense of someone coming into the space and dancing "I Want You to Want Me" the way she does in the number, it'll make a brother flush, you know what I'm saying?
The story was being told throughout it all. Way before the song even starts, and I love the way that Jane plays this, there's this hint of subconsciousness and embarrassment and this knowledge that she's about to sing something she can't take back and she doesn't necessarily know where it's going to go. But she knows there's this foreboding sense to things. I love the way that they allowed me to respond to that, which is with humor. There is nothing that's going to happen here except for a fist bump and a wave, that's it. But then for things to progress the way that they did and for each element of the storytelling, that's all Jane and [choreographer] Mandy [Moore] crafting each element as she moves through the scene and adds all of that intention behind everything.
What can we expect from this final episode of the season?
In the final episode of the season, you're going to have plot twists and turns, but there's this duality of joy and heart and everything is on full display in the finale in a powerful way. You're going to see one of the most [ambitious numbers] -- it's my favorite number of the entire season -- that took all hands on deck to [achieve]. It's majestic what she did.
You're talking about the seven-minute final number that was all one take?
There are no mistakes. You can't mess it up. You have to keep going. It still blows my mind. The feeling that we had on set when we were doing that was, it was like this huge mixture of joy and pathos 'cause everybody was there.
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
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