Photo: Grey's Anatomy (ABC)

Tonight’s double-header offers a perfect case study in what separates an average Grey’s Anatomy episode from a great one: Focus. The first episode, “There’s A Fine, Fine Line,” narrows in one on event to tell a tight, tense story that offers welcome stylistic flourishes and refuses to pull its punches. It’s one of the strongest episodes of the season and one of the better Grey’s entries across the board. Meanwhile the second episode, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” is—well, it’s there. It checks in on a bunch of plot lines, features characters making characteristically terrible choices, and swings from comedy to drama to mawkishness at the drop of a hat. In tonight’s first episode, Grey’s Anatomy swings for the fences and hits a home run. In the second, it’s barely even bunting.

Given all that, it was probably a mistake to air these two episodes back-to-back. The weaknesses of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” might not have been so apparent if it had aired next week, but it’s such a noticeable step down from “There’s A Fine, Fine Line” that it’s hard not to feel frustrated with things I might’ve otherwise been more lenient on. I understand the decision to air these episodes together as one “event” since Ben’s potential medical malpractice is at the heart of both, but they wound up making for an awkward double feature.

So let’s get the bad out of the way first, shall we? “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is an episode in which everyone makes terrible decisions that are incredibly frustrating to watch. Yes flawed characters are interesting characters, but when those flaws cross over into blatant stupidity, the characters just become unsympathetic. For instance, after realizing she overreacted with her restraining order, April immediately decides to start a fight with Jackson over which of them gets to work on a hernia patient. All I have to say is: Pick your battles, girl! The decision to cause even more conflict right after learning Jackson might try to sue for full custody is beyond inexplicable.

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So is the fact that after deciding she wants to follow her girlfriend to New York for a year, Callie casually informs Arizona that she wants to move their young daughter to an entirely different state. In what world would Callie think it’s okay to drop that bombshell on her ex-wife without consulting her first?

And perhaps most frustratingly of all, Ben throws a hissy fit after learning he’ll face a relatively minor punishment for what is, frankly, an act he should be worried will permanently ends his career (more on that in a minute). Ben carved up a woman in a hallway and wound up killing two patients. Even if he feels justified in his action, the idea that he’s not even a little worried about his job makes him seem like a petulant child. The first episode goes out of its way to highlight Ben’s empathetic qualities; the second undoes all that.

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To be fair, there are things to like in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” April’s panic attack is a heartbreaking reminder of just how traumatizing her first pregnancy was, and Jackson’s eventual olive branch is a lovely bit of acting from Jesse Williams. Before Callie becomes a naïve airhead, she gets a nice moment of friendship with Arizona and some sweet scenes with Penny. But for the most part, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” feels like it’s just going through the motions.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about how great “There’s A Fine, Fine Line” is! As I mentioned up top, having a specific focus seems to be the key to making Grey’s Anatomy work in its dotage. The standout episodes from this season have all zeroed in on one particular storyline, whether it’s that tense dinner party in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Meredith’s recovery in “The Sound Of Silence,” or April and Jackson’s relationship in “Unbreak My Heart.” “There’s A Fine, Fine Line” offers the structural originality that made those episodes unique while also shining a light on some underutilized aspects of the show: Namely, Ben Warren, Miranda Bailey, and the ethics of being a doctor working alongside your loved ones.

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The episode kicks off with a cold open that turns out to be a bit of a fake-out. Alex pressures Bailey into putting the hospital on “Code Pink”—an intense lockdown procedure that happens when a kid goes missing. Alex almost immediately discovers that the kid is hiding, not kidnapped, but during that brief lockdown a handful of lives are irrevocably changed. Bailey is called to what looks like a scene out of horror movie: Ben is holding a newborn baby he and DeLuca delivered via C-section in hospital hallway. The mom is bleeding profusely and the baby doesn’t seem to be breathing so the doctors mobilize to save them both while Bailey tries to figure out what happened and whether her husband was justified in taking such extreme action. As Weber explains in an incredibly on-the-nose piece of dialogue, “Was this a mistake or was it hubris? Was he doing his job or did he overstep?”

Grey’s Anatomy has played with this Rashomon-esque structure before, most notably in “I Saw What I Saw,” the season six episode in which April is eventually fired for forgetting to check a patient’s airway. But this episode puts an additional spin on that structure by having Bailey investigate events that transpired mere hours, if not mere minutes, ago. That means the present and flashback storylines are equally tense, since we’re invested in both learning what happened during the Code Pink flashbacks and finding out whether or not Gretchen and her family will survive in the present. Like the “rewind” device in “Unbreak My Heart,” the quick cutting transitions are an elegant way to visualize the time jumps without constantly using “present” and “past” text. And the short timespan drives home the idea that doctors have mere seconds to make decisions that can change (or end) their patient’s lives forever.

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Even more so than “I Saw What I Saw,” “There’s A Fine, Fine Line” elevates its central mystery with great character work and tense interpersonal relationships. Bailey isn’t just investigating one of her surgical residents, she’s investigating her husband, which forces her to try to both identify and overcome her biases. But Bailey isn’t the only one with preconceived notions about Ben: Citing that time he operated on a patient using a clipboard in “All Eyez On Me,” Stephanie assumes Ben acted recklessly this time around too—especially because she was also excited about the idea of having to operate outside of the O.R. during the lockdown. But April, meanwhile, points to Ben’s general composure and competency as evidence that he must have made the right call.

The ultimate “twist”—that the Code Pink ended and the elevator doors opened just seconds before Ben cut into Gretchen—is a strong one because it changes the dynamics of what we know without providing a firm answer on whether or not Ben was right or wrong to operate. The advisory board later accept his argument that he literally didn’t register the fact that the doors opened because he was so wrapped up in the moment, but it’s clear that Bailey—and potentially a good chunk of the audience—have reason to be skeptical about him now.

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“There’s A Fine, Fine Line” also puts a lot of focus on its patients, which is something Grey’s has been struggling with this season (look at the way hernia boy drops out of the story entirely in the next episode). The flashbacks humanize Gretchen McKay and make her eventual death particularly devastating. And that loss is felt even more keenly through her older daughter Jasmine, who learns of her mother’s death and immediately asks Bailey for money so that he little brother can still be visited by the tooth fairy that night. (Stoic, mature children will always make me cry.) Whether or not Ben was justified in his action, the fact of the matter is three young children are left motherless and the episode doesn’t shy away from that reality.

“There’s A Fine, Fine Line” doesn’t pull any punches as it kills not only Gretchen but also her unnamed baby, which means Ben can’t even claim his extreme actions at least saved one life. But the episode doesn’t depict Ben as a villain either. Far from being a brash surgeon looking to cut, during the flashbacks his main focus is assuring Gretchen that her kids are okay. He’s attentive, detail-oriented, and compassionate. And that makes it harder to judge him for his impromptu surgery, at least until he starts acting strangely callous in the next episode.

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“There’s A Fine, Fine Line” raises a lot of questions about responsibility: Who is actually fault for Gretchen’s death? Is it Ben for deciding to cut into her? DeLuca for not stopping him? Bailey for calling an unnecessary Code Pink? Or even Alex for pressuring her to do so by playing on her own maternal instincts? Unfortunately, almost all of those questions go unasked in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” which is yet another reason “There’s A Fine, Fine Line” would’ve been better as a stand-alone episode.

Still, there’s far more good than bad here, especially because the double-header puts Bailey front and center, and allows one of Grey’s best players, Chandra Wilson, to sink her teeth into a juicy storyline. The episodes also does some much needed work with her significant other too: Ben was first introduced back in season six with the sole intention of being Bailey’s sexy dream man (which, as I wrote about here, is a pretty cool thing to see happen with a larger female character). But since bringing Jason George on as a main character this season, the show has struggled to figure out what to do with him. Tonight’s episodes don’t decisively prove whether he’s found his place on Grey’s (he was excellently used in the first episode and a little too one-note in the second), but I nevertheless appreciate the effort.

With Jackson and April reaching a truce, Ben and Bailey are now Grey’s resident rocky relationship. The fact that Bailey thinks her husband’s action was a fireable (and potentially immoral) offense won’t be an easy thing to mend no matter how much they try to separate “church and state.” So here’s hoping their continuing marital drama produces another episode as great as “There’s A Fine, Fine Line.”

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Stray observations

  • Speaking of Ben, whatever happened to his transgender sister, who was introduced in season 11 and then never heard from again?
  • Personally none of the DNR stuff involving Gretchen’s husband Omar really worked for me. I was incredibly frustrated with the grandma for taking medical advice from a child, and Omar’s miraculous one-in-a-million recovery felt like a copout. Plus the episode missed a chance to tie Bailey’s reckless (successful) decision to ignore the DNR to her husband’s reckless (unsuccessful) decision to operate on Gretchen.
  • Shout-out to all the commenters who predicted—basically verbatim—how that first Jackson/April interaction would go down.
  • That Code Pink lockdown procedure seems incredibly insane and I hope no real hospital ever traps its dying patients in hallways for indeterminate amounts of time.
  • However, it was a nice detail that the more seasoned doctors immediately understood the procedure of the Code Pink while the younger doctors were confused by it. I particularly loved Callie calling for the kid in the O.R. as her way of “helping.”
  • It felt weird for “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” to feature an extended Maggie/Riggs heart-to-heart when I’m pretty sure we’ve never seen those two characters have a positive interaction, or, in fact, any real interaction since he started working for her.
  • I know he’s just an intern, but it’s odd that DeLuca faces no potential disciplinary action for helping Ben and that we don’t even see him come in front of the advisory panel at all.
  • I literally laughed out loud at how eagerly Owen tried to turn Ben’s advisory panel into an excuse to fire Riggs. Dude has a one-track mind.
  • “There’s A Fine, Fine Line” is named after an Avenue Q song that just happens to be one of my all-time favorite musical theater numbers. Who would expect a raunchy puppet musical to contain such a poignant ballad?

  • Next week: Grey’s Anatomy tackles gun control! Oh boy…

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