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Death continues to be temporary on Greys Anatomy

Illustration for article titled Death continues to be temporary on Grey’s Anatomy
Photo: ABC
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The knee-jerk response to anything related to Grey’s Anatomy anymore is the inevitable question: “Is that thing still on?” And it is, having just kicked off its 17th season, even though it seems like thousands of cast members have rotated through its ranks and even show creator Shonda Rhimes is now over at greener pastures at Netflix. Yet Seattle’s Grey Sloan hospital perseveres, and this season may be one of its most effective yet. Because Grey’s Anatomy is one of the few TV series that is tackling our current hellish landscape head-on: Like the rest of us, the staff and patents at Seattle’s Grey-Sloan hospital are living through a pandemic.


Most shows right now are not acknowledging COVID-19, having taped before this all started or finding it difficult to weave the global pandemic into its storylines. As a result, normal shots of, say, people in a crowd in a big city have the effect of making us feel anxious, as most of us have not seen large gatherings of people for awhile. Grey Sloan’s embrace of the pandemic is downright genius: By bundling its cast up in PPE, not only is Grey’s still able to shoot, but the current crisis gives its plethora of doctors a whole new series of traumas to tackle. The staff of Grey Sloan has lived through fire, floods, bomb explosions: It’s perfectly equipped for a pandemic disaster.

Last week, to kick off its 17th season with a double-run of episodes, Grey’s played hardball, showing the ramifications of even an innocent, presumably masked social gathering, and the cost it could have on not just the lives of COVID patients, but their relatives and caretakers. The various staff members are understandably breaking down over the long list of casualties they’ve seen lately. Grey’s has been known to play up certain storylines for the drama element, but this season the message is spot-on and resoundingly clear: STAY HOME. WASH YOUR HANDS. WEAR A MASK.

Not content to inflict just this level of pain, Grey’s then offered up its ultimate sacrificial lamb. Last week ended with a collapsed Meredith Grey, who then showed up on an idyllic beach, as her dead husband Derek Shepard, played by Patrick Dempsey, waved to her. The cameo rivaled George Clooney’s appearance in Julianna Margulies’ last episode of ER in the category of difficult-to-pull-off-casting-surprises. Except Doug Ross was not dead, and Derek is. So what are we to make of his reappearance?

For the rest of the world, death is a pretty permanent state of (non)existence, but in Shondaland, not so much. Lord knows that the COVID-afflicted Meredith Grey has had her brushes with death; she’s even seen dead people before. In season three’s “Drowning On Dry Land,” a comatose Meredith encounters passed-on people like bomb expert Dylan Young (Kyle Chandler) and Izzy’s love Denny (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). So this is not really new for her… but seeing Derek again, who died in season 11, is.

Fans were shocked last week when Derek reemerged, especially considering the unceremonious way that he died (smashed by a bus). Subsequent interviews with the cast and the staff revealed that not only did he show up in the show’s season premiere, he’ll be making a few more appearances this season. Like tonight, for instance. Other than the obvious fan service and gimmick casting, let’s pretend that Grey’s is actually trying to communicate something to us all with Derek’s appearance. But what?


Lord knows, it would be nice to think that our loved ones are waiting for us on an idyllic beach when we reach the other side. But depending on your religious and spiritual beliefs, that may not gibe with what you actually think is going to happen when you kick off. On the beach, Meredith wonders why she can’t reach Derek; he says it’s because she’s thinking about the kids. Will the ties to her children keep Meredith tethered to this mortal coil, instead of letting go to hang out with Derek in the surfy hereafter? (If you’re wondering what’s likely to happen, quick question: Have you seen this show before?) She tries to run to him and, hilariously, falls down. But it’s really just another indicator that she’s not ready to be where he is.

The season-three limbo was effective because a depressed Meredith had to decide whether she really wanted to live or not. Fourteen years later, she’s hardly the same woman. Meredith is now the rock the hospital rests on (she even owns it, as she points out this episode). She is an invaluable part of her sisters’ and coworkers’ lives, as well as being the mother of three children. This Meredith shouldn’t have any qualms at all about choosing life over death. So what is Derek doing there? What possible lessons could he have for this now-solid Meredith about her existence? And, as next week’s promos hint: What other dearly departed cast members will be showing up next week? (Probably Lexie, right?)


It’s fun to see Meredith and Derek together again, but it also plays like a cheap gimmick. So far it seems like he’s there not for any real plot purpose, but just because it seems enjoyable to have him there. Like so many of us right now, Meredith is surrounded by death and despair, trying to find the strength to get through another day in a pandemic lockdown. So the escape to the infinity beach with Derek may seem appealing, but we know our Meredith Grey: She has a lot more work to do.


Stray observations

  • Some other stuff happened this episode, I guess: Link headed back to the hospital, Teddy and DeLuca committed to Meredith’s care, Koracick inherited a fleet of new interns. It’s hard to get hopped-up on some of the newer cast members, with so few veterans left on board, although Jo and Jackson’s almost-tryst last week seemed promising.
  • Speaking of those veterans, this week’s episode was directed by Owen himself, Kevin McKidd.
  • The lady pregnant in her liver seemed like one of those classic Grey’s allegories: Sometimes we get what we really want, just in unexpected places.
  • This is not a kickoff for regular Grey’s coverage, by the way, just a drop-in to see what the hell was going to go on with Ghost Derek. But since it seems like he’s sticking around for awhile, we may return as well.

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.