"I think it's brave to be happy..."
Pushing Daisies has a bright, candy-colored surface, all the better to contrast with the sometimes murky issues it plumbs. If continuing to grow means continually giving birth to ourselves, how do we decide what to keep and what do discard? If we cannot let go of the past, is that a strength or a weakness? How do we balance our responsibilities towards others with our responsibilities towards ourselves?
Intimacy issues and their roots in childhood
The most obvious, of course, is Ned and Chuck's inability to touch, which seems to serve as a metaphor for the difficulty being experienced by two adults trying to connect despite having different—in fact, complementary—intimacy issues. In fact, all of the principal characters have problems establishing and maintaining intimacy, and none had an especially happy childhood.
- Olive was from a wealthy family, but neglected and unloved. As an adult, she focused her love on someone unable to return it (Ned) and couldn't see love that was offered (Alfredo).
- Ned's childhood was idyllic—until his power manifested, and cost him everything he loved at once. Adult Ned lived in self-imposed isolation, too afraid to love lest he lose it all again.
- Chuck was raised by loving but overprotective and needy aunts, and her filial responsibilities kept her from living her own life.
- Even Emerson, the only main character to have a warm relationship with his parent(s) as an adult, confesses to having "the whole set" of childhood issues, and Calista Cod seems to have always related better to her son as a friend than as a parent, even when he was a child and needed a parent.
Ned's developing sense of responsibility towards his power and his ownership of the choices he has made is one of the show's major themes.
Ironically, the death that hangs most heavily on Ned's conscience is the one he could not possibly have foreseen or prevented: Charles Charles, Chuck's father, in exchange for his mother's life. Ned only seems mildly guilty over the funeral home director's death (saying, in "The Fun in Funeral", that he was absolutely sure he had made the right choice in keeping Chuck alive even knowing what would happen), whereas Charles Charles' death affects Ned so profoundly that he struggles with overwhelming guilt for years, and even claims (to Chuck, early in season 2) that he would never have brought his mother back if he'd known the price.
Is Ned getting inured to killing people? Are his feelings for Chuck clouding his moral compass, or is she instrumental in the development of his moral compass? Does it matter that the man who died to keep Chuck alive was an awful person? Is Ned's refusal (at the end of "Corpsicle") to bring back Chuck's father an act of moral courage or turpitude? Is it negated by his subsequent change of mind?
Forgiveness and redemption
Season 1 has Ned's crushing guilt over his involvement in Charles Charles' death and hiding it from Chuck, and Chuck's struggle to forgive him after the truth comes out. Season 2 has a few more such arcs: Ned's growing awareness that he must forgive his father—and not for his father's sake, either—even if he's not ready to quite yet; Chuck's coming to terms with the truth of her parentage; Lily finally facing her own feelings about her daughter's life and death.
Chuck vs. Free Will
Chuck is the catalyst for everyone's changes. She is kind and compassionate, and genuinely wants to improve the lives of those around her. But the means she employs are sometimes questionable: she repeatedly overrides the expressed and clear wishes of her loved ones with her own judgment. Does it matter that she usually is right, that the lives of her loved ones do improve as a result of her actions?
Chuck's free will vs. her responsibility towards Ned
Chuck betrays Ned's trust several times, and in increasingly serious ways: in the very first episode, leaving Ned's apartment against his explicit wishes; then, harmless and anonymous contact with her aunts, via the pies; early in season 2, crank-calling Lily; finally—and most devastatingly—keeping her father alive. Was she acting in ways that would ultimately serve Ned's best interests, by demonstrating to him that his fears were baseless, or was she being unforgivably selfish?
But why should she obey him? What does Chuck owe Ned? Both of them agree that Ned does not get to order Chuck around, but does she have any responsibility to protect Ned's secret? When he admits, at the end of "Kerplunk!", that keeping Chuck away from her beloved aunts was more to protect himself than her, is he giving her permission to seek her aunts, or acknowledging that she would have reconnected with them no matter how much it might cost him? And is Chuck necessarily a bad person for that? (Note that, excessively repressed or not, Ned has a lot more to lose than Chuck does—see They Would Cut You Up.)
Consent to medication
Chuck repeatedly doses her aunts with antidepressants, despite knowing, in no uncertain terms, that they didn't want to be. (In "Girth", they say that they used to be afraid that Chuck would dose them without their knowledge, and checked the food for antidepressants so that they would not consume them.) Was she right to do so? To what degree is Olive—who is also aware of their wishes—complicit? What about Ned?
Magic in the Pushing Daisies world
While the world of Pushing Daisies isn't intended to be realistic, it isn't a Supernatural Soap Opera, either. In fact, there's really only one extra-normal aspect to it: Ned's power. The nature and origin of Ned's ability is purposefully left ambiguous in the show, but it's interesting that everyone—including and especially Ned himself—consistently characterizes it as "magic". Ned even links his ability to his father's and half-brothers' talent at stage magic.
Randy Mann as Ned's mirror reflection
It's no surprise; he was intended to be. But the image isn't always flattering to Ned, which makes it all the more surprising that Ned is able to embrace it before the end of "Frescorts", Randy's first episode.
- Both men grew up lonely; as adults, they had extremely limited abilities to form and maintain friendships. The first real friendship for each of them was with a business associate.
- Both are identified with death. In fact, both are capable of sustaining life after death: Ned more literally than Randy. The not-very-flattering aspect to this that Randy shows Ned for the first time is that it amounts to clinging to an illusion of life.
- Because of their unusual interests in death and life after death, both perceive themselves as extremely odd and not worth loving. Each immediately recognizes this aspect of himself in the other man, and in both cases it triggers a healthy re-evaluation of self: at the end of "Frescorts", Ned tells Randy to embrace his own uniqueness; at the end of "Window Dressed to Kill", it's Randy's mention that "people who have superpowers don't not want to use them" that makes Ned, once and for all, finally accept his ability.