UPDATE: ABC has announced they will reveal Karev’s fate on the March 5 episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
The doctor is out.
It was reported Friday that actor Justin Chambers is leaving Grey’s Anatomy after 15 years. Writing off a character like Dr. Alex Karev will be nothing new for the team behind ABC’s longest-running drama. In fact, with Chambers gone, Ellen Pompeo (Meredith Grey), Chandra Wilson (Miranda Bailey), and James Pickens Jr. (Richard Webber) will be the only actors left of the show’s 13 original series regulars.
Over the past fifteen and a half seasons, the series has said goodbye to almost 20 regulars and countless recurring and guest stars. Some of these characters got heroic sendoffs, while others were dismissed with the all the sentiment of a blank greeting card. It’s a bit odd that Chambers’ final episode has apparently already aired, but it does seem like the actor’s claim that he’s “for some time... hoped to diversify [his] acting roles and career choices” is indeed the reason he’s leaving Grey’s, and not because of behind-the-scenes tension. The evidence? “Truer words have never been spoken,” Pompeo gushed on Twitter in response to a Vanity Fair tweet professing that the show “is about to feel one of its biggest losses yet.”
But that doesn’t answer if or how Chambers’s absence will be explained when Grey’s returns for its January 23 winter premiere, which will be a two-hour crossover episode with its spinoff Station 19. Karev was last seen on the November 14 episode celebrating Meredith getting to keep her medical license. (There have been over 350 episodes; it’s shocking that this storyline hadn’t happened already.) The following week’s midseason finale was Karev-free, with just a brief mention that he’d gone home to care for his mother (Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner), who has schizophrenia.
In honor of Karev’s departure, we’re looking back at five different ways Grey’s characters have been killed—or at least written—off and rating how likely it is that Karev will see a similar end.
Fourteen years after being told to put the lotion in the basket in Silence Of The Lambs, Brooke Smith made her Grey’s Anatomy debut as cardiothoracic surgeon Erica Hahn. Graduating from guest star to series regular in season four, Hahn entered into a relationship with Sara Ramirez’s Callie Torres—a storyline culminating in one of the show’s most moving monologues.
But just two episodes after that Emmy-worthy moment, Hahn disappeared. Smith has said she was given no notice that her character was being written off. In episode six of season five, it was explained that Hahn—after fighting with Callie—quit her job off-camera and moved away. Five episodes later, Jessica Capshaw joined the show as Callie’s new love interest, Arizona Robbins.
Chances of déjà vu: 2/10. While Karev’s absence was initially described in a similar way, it was implied that he would return to his duties as chief of surgery at Pacific Northwest Hospital, the dilapidated hospital across town from Grey Sloan Memorial. There’s very little chance the Grey’s writers will give up a chance to reflect on Karev’s legacy, so don’t expect so swift an exit.
At the end of season five, fans were shocked to learn that the unidentified man who had been hit by a bus after pushing a woman out of harm’s way was actually their beloved George (T.R. Knight, who asked to be released from his contract). The hero had come in with his face so badly swollen that it was impossible to tell who he was. Meredith only discovered his identity when he used his finger to write out “007” (his nickname after losing a patient early in the series) on her palm. His death is revealed in the final moments of the episode, and season six picked up with the entire hospital mourning his loss.
Chances of déjà vu: 4/10. If Chambers is indeed not returning to the show at any point to provide closure, having Karev similarly unrecognizable would be the only way to give his character a long, dramatic death, like they gave Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh) after season eight’s plane crash and Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) after that roadside accident in season 11.
Actress (and medical scrubs designer) Katherine Heigl had one foot out the door as soon as she made those infamouse comments in 2008 about not submitting herself for awards consideration because she did not feel she was “given the material this season to warrant a nomination.” So for season five, the writers gave Heigl—who had won an Emmy for her work as Izzie Stevens in 2007—a brain tumor and… a ghost boyfriend.
Heigl adopted a daughter at the start of season six and went on family leave, her character’s absence explained by Izzie being fired for a professional mishap. Izzie returned one last time, in January 2010, in an episode in which she was given a clean bill of health. With the tumor behind them, her husband, Karev, told her he couldn’t forgive her for leaving.
Izzie has never again appeared on the show, but that wasn’t supposed to be the case, as Heigl still had 18 months on her contract and was scheduled to film more episodes. “I went on my family leave and spent three months in Utah and just got to be a mom, and it changed my whole perspective,” she told Entertainment Weekly in May 2010. “That was really the turning point for me. So before I was due back, I spoke again to [creator Shonda Rhimes] about wanting to leave. Then I waited at home until I was given the formal okay that I was off the show. The rumors that I refused to return were totally untrue.”
Chances of déjà vu: 1/10. While Chambers appears to have walked away earlier than the showrunners were planning on writing his character off the show, it’s not at all likely that they will deal with Karev’s departure as they did Izzie’s. Karev and his new wife, Jo (Camilla Luddington), have had a hard time, but their love is strong and both have fought to stay together. The chances of Karev leaving Jo a note saying they’re done are too low. Then there’s the whole fact that Jo has basically adopted the baby she was caring for after it was left at the fire station, though maybe the writers will reveal that Jo’s impulse adoption is the result of knowing that Karev is gone already and she’s been lying about where he is. Stranger things have happened on this show.
It’s kind of hard to narrow down the show’s out-of-left-field doctor deaths to the most bizarre (remember that active shooter episode?), but somewhere at the top of the list would be intern Heather Brooks’ electrifying end. Season nine concluded with a cliffhanger: Webber lying unconscious in the watery basement after investigating an electrical issue. Fans tuned into the season 10 premiere to find out his fate, only to see Brooks (former child star Tina Majorino) go looking for the chief and getting electrocuted as well. The result? Webber made it; Brooks did not.
Chances of déjà vu: 3/10. This coming midseason premiere is sure to be deadly, as we last saw many of Grey Sloan’s and Station 19’s favorite employees trapped in Joe’s after a car crashed into the bar. But in the extended trailer, Chambers was not seen among that unlucky group—nor in the car. Though Joe’s is in a basement.
The Grey’s romances are great, but the best relationship on the show was always the friendship between Meredith and Cristina (Sandra Oh). Luckily, viewers had a lot of time to process the idea that Oh was leaving the show. The actress announced her departure at the beginning of season 10, with the May 2011 finale marking her final appearance. In the episode, Meredith bid farewell to her “person,” who was off to become the head of a hospital in Zurich that had been founded by Cristina’s ex Preston Burke (disgraced actor Isaiah Washington, who was somehow allowed back on the show for a quick guest spot).
For a while, fans didn’t hear from Cristina. But recently the Grey’s writers have taken to showing text messages from her to Meredith on screen, and in Chambers’ final episode, he read from a letter she wrote defending Meredith’s medical license.
Chances of déjà vu: 7/10. Taking another job has always been the perfect “we’ll leave the light on for you” way to write off a character that the Grey’s team wants to possibly see return. This is by far the least dramatic way for Karev to leave the show, but it’s the most likely. And, hell, two seasons ago Kim Raver became a series regular again after five years away. So if Chambers does the same, that means Karev fans just have to hold out until season 23.