I had not heard Don MacLean’s “American Pie” before Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist—and before even watching, I didn’t spoil myself to see what songwriters would have chosen to address the Clarke family’s grief. It worked and it worked beautifully. It worked because not only did it give each character the most appropriate part to sing along to while creating a masterful, single-shot frame, but it worked because grief isn’t linear, and the lyrics could not have been more telling of that detail.
Howie describes grief in one of the most nuanced ways I have heard thus far when he states: “Death is hideous, ugly, and grotesque, and wildly, wildly unfair. Or maybe, death is beautiful, and spiritual, and transcendent, and sometimes a very necessary, and a very freeing escape from our physical bodies when they are no longer habitable.”
Grief never looks the same for two people no matter how closely shared your experiences are. It’s different for everyone. It has no timetable. It does not usually come with a warning even if the death is expected. And ultimately, you never stop grieving—it doesn’t even get easier really, you just grow to understand it more. I suppose you get used to it. And that might be the saddest notion in the world—you get used to it. Something so dark and so complex, you get used to it.
I held off watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist because I know what it’s like to lose a father and even though it’s been years for me, watching things like this can still be triggering—it could still hurt. When you’ve gone through something dark and sad, you wouldn’t wish such things even on your worst enemy. You don’t want to see it with the fiction you consume either.
Grief is strange. Sometimes you find yourself staring at a picture for hours and you can’t even cry. Sometimes you’ll talk of fond memories without a single stab in the heart—just fond memories, just joy. And then sometimes as you’re out on the street walking, you see someone whose back vaguely resembles the person you’ve lost, and you break down right then and there. It feels like the first moment you found out all over again.
It’s interesting because on TV, so often it’s raining when there’s a funeral, and while some may think it’s set to make it look darker, to emphasize the emotions of grief, I’m here to say that though it was not raining the day my father died or the day of his funeral, I have never seen darker nights in my life. I remember looking up at the sky and thinking it’s never been this dark before and perhaps for someone who hadn’t just lost one of the closest people to them, the sky didn’t seem as dark. But to me, it was jarring and horrifically so.
I say this every time I write about Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, but heart songs are such a riveting, nuanced concept because they’re told through one person’s point of view, and they always work beautifully in revealing what’s really inside the characters. And with this “American Pie” performance, no two people are grieving the same way even though they are all connected, brought together by their love for Mitch, their love for Zoey, and their love for humanity. This is the moment where I thought to myself, if we had a different cast, this show wouldn’t feel the same. But the way they each performer brought painfully harrowing emotions to life with poise somehow hurt even more.
“The day the music died” is the concept that describes it best—something in us dies when we lose someone we love. Whether it’s the music, the words, the love. Some things will never be the same. Some things will never sound the same. Some things will never look the same. We will never be the same and this scene is a stunning showcase of everyone’s diverging paths with grief told through the perspective of the character whose grief I understood more closely than I wished.
This is the kind of scene that tells us that even though grief never gets easier, even though it’s something that looks different for everyone, the celebration of life with people will always matter. No one is meant to sing alone every day of their lives. Sometimes the songs that are sung in groups are the ones that heal. They are the songs that stay with you. And even when the music dies, even when you know you will never be the same again, it’s cathartic knowing you are never alone. This “American Pie” number reflects and touches on grief beautifully in a way that works in showcasing that complexity that is tied to loss.