Though it’s certainly fair to call Grey’s Anatomy a medical procedural, that term implies a kind of repetitiveness for which Grey’s has never really settled. Sure the show has aired plenty of straightforward episodes that balance medical procedures with soapy relationship drama, but since the beginning it’s demonstrated a willingness to play around with its structure. We watched as Meredith spent time in purgatory with Denny, we flashed back to the early days of Ellis and Richard’s careers, and we even got a glimpse of an alternate universe version of the show for pretty much no reason at all. Hell, Grey’s even did a goddamn musical episode five seasons ago!
While that kind of structural playfulness has long been a part of the fabric of show, it’s been especially noticeable this season, as if the death of Derek Shepherd emboldened Grey’s to take more risks. “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” dedicated almost its entire runtime to an excruciating dinner party that put Meredith through the emotional ringer. And the stellar “The Sound Of Silence” explored a patient’s point of view through the eyes of Meredith, who this time around was put through the physical ringer.
“Unbreak My Heart” is yet another episode that adds a twist to the conventional Grey’s Anatomy structure. We follow April Kepner and Jackson Avery’s tumultuous relationship backwards, Memento-style, from the present where they are signing divorce papers all the way to their first day together at Mercy West. The idea—as April helpfully points out in her voiceover—is to get to the root of their relationship problems. To look at the trauma, assess what happened, and figure out a way to fix it.
Perhaps the single most compelling thing about Grey’s Anatomy at this point is how much history it has. Fans who started watching this show as high school freshmen could be wrapping up their final year of med school right now. While other shows might need to invent backstory for an extended flashback episode, “Unbreak My Heart” simply pulls from the six season of stories that have unfolded since Sarah Drew and Jesse Williams joined the cast. We get a glimpse at the previously unseen moments that happened around her escape to Jordan, the loss of their child, their impulsive elopement, their initial hook-up, and their shared sadness at losing friends in the hospital shooting. This episode makes Grey’s Anatomy’s long, winding history a feature not a bug. And it feels like a reward for those who have invested 12 years of their lives into this show.
Yet at the same time, this episode also relies a little too much on its audience’s memory to keep everything straight. I’m a pretty big Grey’s fan yet even I struggled to remembered the exact timeline of April and Jackson’s relationship. The episode gives visual cues as it “rewinds” through past episodes, but specific scenes—like Jackson missing his plane—landed with a thud when I couldn’t remember just how much was at stake. Thankfully, ”Unbreak My Heart” anchors itself on three big, memorable events in the April/Jackson relationship: Their elopement, the loss of their son, and April traveling to Jordan for a year.
Leave it to Grey’s Anatomy to take a nutso rom com premise like April and Jackson running away together on April’s wedding day (leaving their devastated respective partners behind) and mine it for real drama two years later. As we learn in the flashbacks, the excitement of their whirlwind elopement allowed them both to ignore the fact that they have fundamentally different worldviews. April defines herself by her relationship to God, her self-reliance, and her ability to compartmentalize—which is what makes her a great trauma surgeon. Meanwhile Jackson defines himself by his level-headedness, his reliability, and his skills as a caretaker—which is what makes him so great with his long-term burn patient, Tatiana, whose story also unfolds backwards tonight. When their relationship is going well, April and Jackson’s two points of views compliment each other. When their relationship is struggling, they pull further and further away from one another. (Another difference: No one in her family is divorced and everyone in his is.)
The one thing most directly responsible for driving April and Jackson apart is the different ways they handled the trauma of losing their newborn son, Samuel (which, for my money, was the most devastating plot of last season, far more so than Derek’s death). Independent April found purpose as a military surgeon in Jordan, while caretaker Jackson couldn’t properly heal without his wife at his side. But the episode’s ultimate point, once again spelled out by April’s voiceover, is that relationships aren’t usually destroyed by one explosive act, so much as the cumulative weight of a whole bunch of small problems. “We can’t boil every injury down to one single blow,” she explains. There’s always been a gulf between April and Jackson about religion, class, and basic values. “Unbreak My Heart” proves just how deep that gulf runs. (All the way to throw pillows!)
This episode reminded me of the similarly harrowing season 10 episode, “Do You Know?”, which flashed forward into two possible futures for Cristina and Owen, ultimately proving that their differing opinions on whether or not to have kids made them incompatible. The idea that two people can love each other and still not be right for each other on a purely practical level is pretty heavy stuff for a soapy show to touch on, and Grey’s once again explores that concept head on.
Both Drew and Williams are fantastic in this episode, imbuing their relationship with an easy chemistry while modulating their performances to show the passage of time. Drew has a showier role because April is a more demonstrative character, and she nails the whole gamut of emotions she’s asked to play, from her exhilaration at eloping to her disgust at Jackson’s suggestion that they try for another baby immediately after Samuel’s death. Though he’s playing a more stoic character, Williams nails the moments when Jackson’s masks slip—particularly when he smashes up their now unnecessary nursery. Carrying the whole episode on their backs, Drew and Williams knock it out of the park, much as Ellen Pompeo did two weeks ago. This season’s stylized episodes are a great reminder of just how deep the Grey’s acting bench is.
It can sometimes feel like Grey’s keeps pairing together and breaking up the same characters over and over again because it’s run out of ideas (I’ve lost track of how many times Callie and Arizona have reunited then split). The reveal that April is once again pregnant means Jackson and April will still have plenty more storylines together, even though their divorce is now final. That could be frustrating for those who feel “Japril” has run its course. But in changing up its format and embracing its history, “Unbreak My Heart” proves Grey’s Anatomy still has fresh stories to tell with its familiar faces.
- Welcome to regular coverage of Grey’s Anatomy! Thanks to those of you who read and commented on our past two reviews for convincing the A.V. Club higher ups that this show is worth discussing. I’ve spent more hours than I can possibly count crying at Grey’s Anatomy, and I’m excited to have a place to talk about this show each week.
- I think it was fairly obvious that the opening scene with Jackson comforting Tatiana on her wedding day was a fake-out, but let me know if you were fooled by it!
- Also please feel free to let me know which Grey’s Anatomy plotline has made you cry the most. For instance, how about this throwback to the time Daredevil’s Foggy Nelson comforted his daughter as she died?
- It’s corny as hell, but I love the scene where the various characters walk in on Jackson and April dancing and just decide to join in, no questions asked (except Karev, of course).
- I’m glad Grey’s remembered the burgeoning April/Arizona friendship, and that it totally embraces the fact that April was basically an entirely different character in her first few seasons.
- Pour one out for Charles Percy (Robert Baker), who makes a cameo in the Mercy West scene. Coincidentally, his death also qualifies as one of the scenes I’ve cried hardest at.