Over the years Grey’s Anatomy has had a complicated relationship with the idea of “happily ever after.” From the beginning, Meredith and Cristina were the kind of people who rejected the idea that everyone deserves a fairy tale ending. And the show toyed around with their dark and twisty philosophy by positioning both women in situations where their dreams seemed to come true and situations where they were ripped away from them, like Burke leaving Cristina at the altar. But once the show firmly paired Meredith with her McDream man, it transitioned into a new phase of exploring what happens after happily ever after.
And then Derek died.
Though Patrick Dempsey’s departure was determined more by contract negotiations than by organic storytelling, the Grey’s showrunners turned lemons into lemonade. Derek’s absence (and to a lesser extent, Cristina’s departure at the end of season 10) forced the show to reexamine its identity and evolve in its 12th season, something many long-running series don’t have to do. That’s a big part of why Grey’s has had such a powerful renaissance this year.
Alex tells Jo that he’s grown up, and that’s true of Grey’s Anatomy as well. It’s always going to be a soapy show, but Grey’s has more mature aims in its post-McDreamy era. Where the show’s characters once focused on sex, dating, and establishing careers, this season has explored loss, grief, forgiveness, career advancement, parenting, and long-term friendship. Derek’s death has loomed large over this season—especially since the phenomenal “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”—and it plays a major role in “Family Affair,” coloring how both Amelia and Meredith conceptualize the idea of “happily ever after.” Yet rather than merely wallowing in the sadness of Derek’s absence, there’s also something incredibly hopeful about “Family Affair.”
We often think of optimism as a youthful quality and cynicism as a mature one, but the reverse can be true as well. Sure you face more heartbreak and disappoint as you grow up, but with the right perspective that can make you more appreciative of the good things that do come your way.
In other words: When you’re younger, you’re more likely to see rain on your wedding day as a catastrophic event. When you’re older, you’re more likely to see it as just rain. Or, hell, maybe you’ll even see it as good luck. It all comes down to perspective. Maybe you’ll live a long and healthy life or maybe you’ll die in a random car accident. Perhaps you’ll be the perfect parent or perhaps you’ll wind up failing your kids in some way. Maybe people only get one great love or maybe they get dozens. “Isn’t that better? Just to believe that?” Meredith asks. Sometimes in the face of uncertainty you just have to have faith because the alternative means not living a life. There’s a surprisingly fine line between recklessness, optimism, and maturity.
What makes this finale such a joy to watch is the way it puts its focus squarely on its characters. With barely any medical cases to get in the way, most of the scenes feature characters just talking to each other about their feelings—from Alex and Meredith’s lovely opening chat to April’s adorable excitement at being Owen’s best man to Maggie, Amelia, and Meredith’s discussion of love. Those conversations pay off not only this season’s arcs, but also years of investment from the audience. William Harper’s nuanced script, Debbie Allen’s gorgeous directing, and Danny Lux’s score combine so that “Family Affair” feels like a gift to the fans without devolving into fan service, which is a neat trick to pull off. The show can’t be this character focused every week, but it makes for a nice change of pace in the season finale.
When it comes to character-based dramas, it’s easy—and not entirely unfair—for viewers to mistake a flawed character for flawed writing. After all, as an objective observer, it’s easy to see that Meredith was way out of line in berating Amelia for invading her life last week. But watching a TV series full of flawless character would be incredibly boring, not to mention unrealistic. So the job of the writer is to give each character flaws that are believable and logical from their own internal point of view. The custody battle episode missed that mark because it asked me to believe that Callie and Arizona would be petty and argumentative about their co-parenting, which isn’t something we’ve ever seen in the five seasons since Sofia was born. But Meredith’s rant against Amelia worked because we’ve frequently seen her project anger at Derek’s death onto his sister. And the rant confirmed that as much as Meredith claims to be over Derek’s death, a part of her never will be. In other words: The character is flawed; the writing isn’t.
“Family Affair” similarly does a great job at having characters make flawed choices that nevertheless feel fully motivated. April’s commitment to having an in-home C-section without anesthesia is fairly insane, but it also follows from what we know about her improvisational skills as a trauma surgeon (remember when she moved a whole crushed car to get a guy to the hospital?) and her inability to handle losing another child after Samuel’s death. And while Ben’s decision to actually perform the surgery is also kind of insane, we’ve seen him make bold choices in a medical crisis before and I believe he’d take the risk here, especially with Arizona, Jackson, and Bailey supporting him over the phone.
And the same can be said for the episode’s central storyline, which involves Amelia getting pre-wedding jitters and Maggie and Meredith struggling to comfort her. “Family Affair” clarifies the dynamic of the three sisters in a way I hadn’t been able to put my finger on before: Maggie’s the young optimist who’s yet to experience the great joys or great tragedies her sisters have lived through; Meredith’s the stoic, grounded leader; and Amelia falls somewhere in the middle. She shares Mer’s cynical outlook on life, but she’s also open with her emotions like Maggie. As Alex points out, Amelia isn’t Cristina. Nor is she Derek. And while it’s not fair for Meredith to hold that against Amelia, it’s also understandable that she would.
Which helps explain why Meredith makes so many contradictory moves in this episode. She counsels Owen to give Cristina a call before the wedding, just to be extra sure that marrying Amelia is the right move. But when Amelia calls her out for that, she also goes ahead and declares herself full Team Amelia, offering the kind of tough love that Maggie can’t. The episode doesn’t suggest that Meredith and Amelia’s relationship is “fixed” now. In fact, it’s likely they’ll never have the warm and fuzzy sisterly dynamic of Maggie’s dreams. But “Family Affair” does establish that when the chips are down, Meredith and Amelia will always be there for one another. Like most things in this episode, it’s a grown-up understanding of sisterhood that toes the line between cynical and optimistic. And it leads to a fantastic scene in which the three women run off to get Slurpees before Amelia decides she does actually want to be married after all.
It’s hard to tell what to make of Amelia’s cold feet. On the one hand, literally running away from your wedding isn’t a great sign that you’re ready to get married. On the other, the cold rejection from Amelia’s family would be enough to send anyone into a tailspin. Derek was the Shepherd peacemaker and the one who was supposed to walk her down the aisle. It’s understandable that Amelia’s wedding day would bring up a lot of conflicting emotions for her.
Maybe Amelia and Owen getting married is a huge mistake—and I’m still not convinced it isn’t—but maybe not getting married would be an even bigger one. In an episode full of people making irrational decisions, Owen stands as the biggest pillar of solidarity. He’s not thrown by Amelia’s pre-wedding freak-out because in his eyes, she’s earned the right to his trust. That, more than anything, implies that maybe their relationship is a stable one. She needs someone to be a rock during her ups and downs; he needs someone to take care of. Maggie thinks a wedding should be a “love day,” and in their own idiosyncratic way, that seems to be what Owen and Amelia have.
And that takes us back to the idea that “grown-up” doesn’t have to mean cynical. This finale argues people can find happy endings even if the road to happiness doesn’t feel like a fairy tale. After months of squabbling, April and Jackson wind up with a healthy baby girl and a stable friendship. Ben and Bailey make up. Arizona and Callie agree to co-parent Sofia as they did before their custody battle. Amelia actually makes it to the altar and Owen doesn’t hold her moment of panic against her. Even Owen and Riggs decide they’re sick of their endless squabbling (finally!) and bury the hatchet. A lot of those decisions happen because—as Arizona says—people just decide to be happy. It’s a perspective that’s equally childlike and deeply wise.
Even the two big cliffhangers—Alex punching DeLuca and the reveal that Maggie and Meredith *gasp* like the same boy—are relatively tame by Grey’s standards. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’ll cause more drama down the line, as will many of those “happy endings.” But no one was shot and no one went down in a plane crash. That counts as a good day at Grey Sloan Memorial in my book.
Maybe there are no real happy endings. Maybe Meredith will never have another love as great as Derek Shepherd. Maybe Grey’s will never recapture the magic of its early seasons. But if in trying it keeps producing seasons as strong as this one, I’m more than happy to stick around.
Finale grade: A
Season 12 grade: B+
- The biggest twist of this entire season is that Owen’s seemingly dead sister didn’t make an unexpected reappearance during his wedding. I guess the show wanted to leave something for season 13.
- Congrats to those who correctly predicted that Jo “I Lived In My Car” Wilson was already married. She says she’s worried that asking for a divorce will mean putting her in the path of her abusive ex, and she can’t tell Alex because… I don’t really know why. The idea that Alex comes home just as a drunken Jo is undressing in front of DeLuca was far too contrived for me. But I did love Camilla Luddington’s delivery of “Oh my god, this isn’t even my purse.”
- I liked the little we saw of the injured mom with dementia, but I wish she had tied more firmly into Jackson’s story, other than just making him contemplate being a husband and father.
- I though the use of rain in this episode was gorgeous and a nice way to give the finale a unique visual flair.
- Phone acting is always hard, but Caterina Scorsone sold the hell out of her one-way emotional conversation with her mom. Also, damn, Mrs. Shepherd is cold.
- I really can’t overemphasize just how deeply upsetting I found April’s “all natural” C-section. I walked around my apartment muttering, “No, no, no” for a good 10 minutes after I finished this episode. Also, yes, it’s a real thing that’s happened before.
- April and Jackson’s daughter is one of the most egregious examples of “giant newborns” I’ve ever seen on TV. No wonder April couldn’t deliver her!
- The work Ellen Pompeo has done to evolve Meredith Grey this season has been fantastic. And she’s become the most consistently hilarious part of Grey’s too. If there were an Emmy for “Best Late Series Character Development” she would absolutely deserve it.
- “You’re probably going to see my vagina, which might be weird.” The “probably” in that line cracked me up. Also Sarah Drew is phenomenal this whole episode too. “The light is better in the kitchen,” was epic.
- So many great scenes I didn’t have time to salute in my review! That opening with Meredith and Alex lying in the grass like Meredith and Cristina used to do is just perfect. And Meredith and Rigss are pretty damn cute together, both in their flirty banter scene and when they bond over losing a loved one. Let me know your favorite moment in the comments!
- Speaking of which, thanks to everyone who followed along on this half season of regular coverage. Getting to review this show is truly a dream come true and reading your comments has only made it better! Feel free to find me on Twitter whenever you need to chat about Grey’s.
- UPDATE: Here’s a tweet from Sarah Ramirez about her future on the show: