Grey’s Anatomy is one of those shows that automatically entices a “Jesus god, is that still on?” when most people hear it mentioned nowadays. Now midway through its 12th season, the ensemble hospital drama has seen a multitude of cast turnover, any number of medical oddities, but most importantly, numerous tragedies that befall its good-looking lead cast. If it was a more supernatural type of show, no one could be blamed for considering that Grey-Sloane Hospital must be located near some sort of hellmouth. Fires, floods, car crashes, truck crashes, plane crashes, bombs, mad shooters, cancer, plagues, loss of limb: They have all attacked the Grey-Sloane staff, to the point where even the characters themselves mutter out loud, “Why does this stuff keep happening to us?”

From its onset, Grey’s has used the various cases on the show as an analogy to what was going in the characters’ lives, particularly their love lives. Typically in an unsubtle fashion, like an about-to-be-separated pair of conjoined twins representing the codependent friendship of Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Cristina (Sandra Oh). These heavy-handed allegories are Shonda Rhimes’ way of entwining romance through medical procedures, and usually, some sort of life lesson to boot.

For this first episode after this winter break, Rhimes went back to a familiar well: namely, beating up on her favorite punching bag, Meredith Grey. Literally, as it turns out, this time. Grey has already been through so much horror: the death of her mother, following a traumatic childhood; standing down the mad shooter to save her beloved Derek; that plane crash, which resulted in the insurance money that enabled her and her friends to buy the hospital; giving birth in a blackout; the loss of Derek in the truck crash last year. Job looks at Meredith Grey and shakes his head.

But this episode may be Meredith’s most traumatic to date, which is really saying something. While she’s treating a large man, he rises from an unconscious state to beat Meredith senseless, then goes into convulsions. Her injuries are so grave, she has to stay in the hospital for six weeks.

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This could all be typical Meredith martyr territory (and in fact, kind of is), if not for one particular saving grace—well, two really. The first is Denzel Washington’s effective direction of the episode. The Oscar-winning actor has directed two features: The Great Debaters and Antwone Fisher, but this is his first foray into episodic TV direction, and he hit it out of the park. And the key player in Washington’s creation is Pompeo, who is heartbreakingly vulnerable as the usually emotionally shattered, now physically shattered Meredith. Told only from her perspective, it’s a powerhouse episode for her.

The most effective part is that, for the thousands of patients we’ve seen wheeled into Grey’s at this point, we haven’t seen it from their perspective. Or if we have, certainly not for as long as Meredith’s trauma lasts here. Naturally, the vast majority of the hospital staff rushes in to save her, even/especially the ones that she’s closest too, like Richard, and her sister, and most effectively, a choking-down-tears Karev. She can’t hear, so she can’t be certain what’s going in: For a moment, the staff is terrified that she’s paralyzed when she doesn’t wiggle her fingers and toes when they ask, but the problem is that she can’t hear them asking her.

Bailey is saved from this particular exercise, and only one staffer can’t deal: Derek’s sister Amelia, who has drug and alcohol issues, which becomes a problem again, unsurprisingly, later on in the episode. But for the first 20 minutes or so, we don’t hear anything, just like Meredith, and this effectively conveys the terror of what it would be like to be that helpless patient on a gurney. Washington goes no-holds-barred here, unflinching, not shielding the viewer from anything from that perspective. For example, to make enough room to get a proper airway into Meredith, the trauma team has to break her jaw, so she is now immobile, deaf, and can’t speak.

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We see how her injuries gradually lessen (even the makeup team deserves kudos this episode); we see how she’s limited to just witnessing things outside her window. She sees April and Jackson fighting, and a drunk Amelia lurking outside her room. She knows what’s wrong with her due to what doctors are in her room: Torres, the bone doctor, is obviously there because she can’t walk. The devoted Karev, of course, sets up camp beside her bed. Arizona tries to help set up a meeting for Meredith and her kids, but her wired-shut jaw is too traumatizing for them, leading to what is possibly the most devastating moment in an episode chock-full of them.

The unspoken moral here is that every patient wheeled in the hospital has a similar devastating story. But turning the tables and showing Meredith’s side makes that moral a reality. Meredith, with her voiceovers that carry us through each episode, has always been the go-between for viewers: Here she shows her audience the patient side like no other character could.

The spoken morals are, in Rhimes’ typical unsubtle fashion, proclaimed to the high heavens. The overarching one, stressed by Richard as he gets Meredith outside the hospital for her first time in weeks: Forgiveness. The man who attacked Meredith was in some sort of seizure fugue state and had no idea what he was doing. Washington sets it up like a scene right out of a horror movie: The supposedly unconscious person rising up, unbeknownst to the oblivious Meredith; the smashing of Meredith against the window blinds, which we only see from the other side. She agrees to meet the man, Lou, and finds that he has a wife and two kids, and he is devastated by what he did to her in this fugue state, that that kind of anger and evil is somewhere inside what appears to be such a nice man. Meredith generously forgives him by grabbing his hand, kicking off a different round of healing on all sides.

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She’s not as generous with Amelia, but for that matter, neither is Amelia, who appears determined to make everything about her, all the time. She whines to Meredith (who’s in bad patient mode, hilariously throwing ice cubes and smoothies at people), “Do you know how hard it was for me to see you like that?’ at which point, broken bones or not, I would have crawled out of bed and bitch-slapped Amelia to snap out of it, already. Meredith and Amelia have a painful relationship because they’ve suffered the same loss: The hole between them is Derek, and as Richard smartly points out, is almost too painful for either of them to bear. Neither of them are ready to forgive each other just yet. And at least Meredith has come to an understanding with Penny, the doctor she initially blamed for Derek’s death, as Penny turns out to be her absolute champion: the one that found her on the floor, the one who shows her her chart, the one who compassionately unwires her jaw after the painful kids’ visit. But there’s still a lot left for Meredith to deal with.

Which is just fine. There’s a lot left to the season. Unsurprisingly, next week will feature Meredith’s aftermath, because it wouldn’t be Grey’s if there wasn’t some traumatic followup (like Cristina’s PTSD after the shooter, Arizona losing a leg after the plane crash). Now that Meredith can talk, she ends the episode by pointing out how important it is to say something when you have a chance, because you may not always have that chance. It’s a mantra Meredith Grey knows as well as breathing, and a theme Rhimes has visited before. But never in such an unconventional and effective manner, 250-some episodes in.

Stray observation

  • This is not a kickoff to regular Grey’s coverage, but this episode was so noteworthy last night, we thought it deserved a writeup. (People were even talking about it in my Scandal review!) So, feel free to discuss below.

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