Photo: Grey's Anatomy (ABC)

There’s a great scene in Whiplash in which J.K. Simmons’ sadistic music teacher interrogates Miles Teller’s aspiring drummer about whether he was rushing or dragging his tempo. Teller’s character is an excellent drummer, but because everything is happening so fast and he’s nervous and his idol is yelling at him, he can’t figure out what he did wrong. And because he doesn’t know if his mistake was playing too fast or too slow, he doesn’t know how to fix it the next time the song starts.

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That scene is basically a microcosm of “At Last,” a subtly great episode of Grey’s Anatomy in which no one can quite figure out if they’re rushing into things or dragging their feet and therefore winds up making huge mistakes as they attempt to overcompensate. Since it’s the penultimate episode of the season, “At Last” can afford to make big definitive choices that are immensely satisfying to watch. There’s no wheel-spinning here; in fact the episode offers two proposals, two break-ups, an unexpected make-out session, and a heartbreaking death. Oh and did I mention there’s a flesh-eating bacteria too?

I’ve been going on and on lately about how this season’s best episodes have narrowed in on one particular character or storyline, rather than checking in with the whole cast. But tonight longtime writer/current showrunner Stacy McKee proves me wrong about the show’s inability to tell ensemble-based stories anymore. “At Last” effortlessly balances multiple character arcs and tones to deliver an immensely satisfying episode of Grey’s Anatomy that feels like a throwback to the show’s earlier heyday.

One thing I don’t think Grey’s gets enough credit for is how funny it is. From the beginning, the show has had a wry, often goofy sense of humor, and McKee puts that to good use in “At Last.” From Maggie and Riggs sharing bacon to Alex yelling at Meredith about being his best man, there’s plenty of enjoyable banter to go around. Even Ben and Bailey’s marital sniping—which has apparently been going on for months now—takes on a comedic edge tonight. There’s no real threat of their marriage falling apart; Ben tells Jackson that Bailey is the love of his life. But because they’re both incredibly stubborn, they’re dragging out a fight they should’ve probably resolved by now. It’s both funny and thematically relevant.

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Strangely, the silliest parts of this episode involve a life-threatening flesh eating bacteria that almost kills a teenager. But other than a short scene in which Meredith snipes at everyone to move faster in the O.R., the plot is mostly there for comic relief as the kid’s mom and her driving instructor boyfriend break up and then immediately get back together after she learns he helped save her son’s life. Meredith calls it a “post traumatic stress disorder romance” and it’s a phenomenon she observes first hand as he rushes into her own sped-up courtship.

After keeping him on the periphery all season, Grey’s finally pulls the trigger on a Meredith/Riggs romance. Or, at the very least, a hook-up, which happens after they berate each other in the hospital parking lot. I’m not sure the show has laid any particular groundwork for the pairing, but their palpable parking lot chemistry at least sells me on their impromptu decision to make-out. And, more importantly, it’s a fascinating development for Meredith Grey.

For most of the show’s run, Meredith was defined by her relationships with Derek and Cristina. But now that they’re both out of her life, she’s finally come into her own as an independent character this season. And it’s been a goddamn delight to watch, not least of all because Ellen Pompeo is clearly having a blast playing the more mature but also snakier side of Meredith. (To quote Harold Hill, she’s the epitome of a “sadder but wiser girl.”) Her status as a widow hasn’t defined her character, but it has shaped her in new and interesting ways.

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“At Last” does a fantastic job of tracking Meredith’s arc despite the fact that she actually has relatively little screentime. She stumbles upon Owen selling Derek’s trailer, which is upsetting not only because it’s another piece of Derek gone but because it means things are getting more serious between Amelia and Owen. When those two were screw-ups, Meredith could pride herself on being the one who had her life in order. Now that they’re moving on and building the kind of life she once had with Derek, it’s far harder to be magnanimous. She’s right to warn Amelia against rushing into things with Owen, but it’s also clear that her words are motivated as much by jealousy as by actual concern.

Meredith and Amelia function well together when there’s a clear status quo between them, usually with Meredith in the alpha position. But when things shift, they tend to lash out at one another. And Meredith’s cold accusation that Amelia is infiltrating her life sends them both into a tailspin. Meredith rushes into a romantic encounter with Riggs in order to prove that she’s still leading an exciting life and probably to punish Owen a little bit too. And Amelia and Owen rush into an engagement because they’re both terrible at making decisions for themselves.

Though Meredith at least seems to acknowledge she’s jumping into something that’s potentially unhealthy, the rest of the characters are more like Miles Teller: Unsure whether they’re rushing or dragging. Amelia and Owen convince themselves they’re actually stable enough for marriage (lolz); Callie argues it’s more logical to breakup with Penny now rather than drag things out and drift apart later; Penny rushes off to New York since she no longer has Callie to tie her to Grey Sloan Memorial; and Jo comes to the unexpected realization that she’s been dragging her feet for far longer than she let on. The way she says “oh god” in response to Alex’s request that she make up her mind about marriage implies Jo’s been having doubts about their relationship for a while now. And since Alex has decided their engagement limbo isn’t enough for him anymore, Jo finally has to pay the piper for her procrastination.

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Yet the episode’s most heartbreaking arc argues that no matter how much you impulsively rush or pragmatically wait, there are some things that are just out of your control. Stephanie was probably too hasty in her decision to break-up with Kyle and she’s objectively too pushy in her attempts to reenter his life. But though they make up and start forming big romantic plans, all that rushing and waiting ultimately proves fruitless after Kyle dies in Amelia’s O.R.

From the moment Kyle and Stephanie start planning for the future, it’s pretty clear he won’t make it through surgery, but that doesn’t make the actual moment of his death any less devastating. I would’ve liked to see a little more of Kyle and Stephanie’s actual relationship this season, but both Jerrika Hinton and Wilmer Valderrama sell the hell out of what they’re given. While Kyle’s flirtatious side felt right in Valderrama’s wheelhouse, he surprised me with his ability to project real vulnerability as well. And there’s a quiet dignity to Stephanie’s grief that I’m excited to see Hinton explore in the future. After watching Kyle die, Stephanie’s left with the realization that she spent most of their time together fighting, all because she made a snap decision to break up with him. I imagine that’s not something she’ll be able to brush away easily.

“At Last” has a strong grasp on its theme and tone, but what impresses me most about McKee’s script is how well she clearly knows these characters. (Which isn’t surprising considering she’s worked on the show since the beginning.) This episode features plenty of arguments, but unlike the custody battle last week, they don’t rely on anyone acting out of character for cheap drama. And even when characters make stupid or reckless decisions, I completely understand their motivations. McKee’s willingness to embrace comedy helps the moments of drama land with real poignancy. And she shakes up the show’s world in ways that have me genuinely excited to see what comes next. In other words, this kind of Grey’s Anatomy episode is exactly my tempo.

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Stray observation

  • Despite April’s reminder to be magnanimous, it takes Arizona all of one day to get self-righteous about Sofia’s custody. Partly that’s because she’s understandably mad that Callie dragged her through such a vicious trial. Partly it’s because being self-righteous is kind of Arizona’s thing. (Also technically wasn’t it Arizona that escalated their dispute into a full-on custody battle?)
  • Breaking up Jo and Alex is probably the best thing the show could do with them, as it both gets rid of a stagnant relationship and opens up a whole bunch of new storytelling possibilities. I also love that the show subverts clichĂ©s about men being commitment-phobic and women being obsessed with marriage.
  • Director Rob Corn does lovely work in the scene in which Richard notices the tense relationships around him and then runs into Catherine in the elevator.
  • Jo’s slo-mo running went from poignant to ridiculous really quickly.
  • Of course Shonda Rhimes already has access to Lemonade songs for her TV show soundtracks. (Also be sure to read Ashley Ray-Harris’ piece about Lemonade as a black album.)

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