It’s almost hard to remember just how much sex and romance defined the early seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. The show’s public image was of sex-crazed doctors who hooked up in on-call rooms and gave each other flirty McNicknames. Grey’s Anatomy wasn’t just a medical procedural, it was a sexy medical procedural. And that—along with the show’s willingness to throw its doctors into insane life-or-death situations—is what made it such a cultural phenomenon when it first premiered.
But as much as its identity was based on romance, from the beginning Grey’s had two other big focal points too: friendship and career. Over the years the balance of power has swung from one of those three big touchstones to another. Once Meredith and Derek were relatively stable, the show began to focus a bit more on the doctor’s struggles to find their specialties and advance in their careers. Season 12, meanwhile, has once again shifted the balance. Most of the doctors have reached a level of stability in their careers and while their romantic relationships are still tumultuous, they no longer consume their lives the way they did when they were younger. So now it’s the longer-lasting platonic bonds that wind up taking center stage. Grey’s Anatomy has decided that friendship truly is magic.
Take for instance, “When It Hurts So Bad,” which is an episode that’s actually all about romantic relationships: Three couples break-up, one is strengthened, and one is complicated by a meddling mother. Yet those relationship shifts are explored first and foremost through the prism of friendship.
After waking up to the sound of Meredith frantically kicking Major Thorpe (a.k.a. Major McCreepy—thanks to the comments section for the name!) out of her bedroom, Maggie and Amelia go into crisis mode: What happened? What does Meredith need? And how can they help? Meredith, however, doesn’t want to do anything but clean her house. So Maggie and Amelia take the day off and grab the carpet steamer. They don’t try to force Meredith to open up, but they make sure she knows they’re there for her, which is a nice testament to their bond.
Since Mer won’t talk, the cleaning becomes a therapy session for Amelia and Maggie, who are also having trouble with their respective beaus. And both ultimately come to the same conclusion: They can’t be with someone who is weighing them down. Maggie won’t put up with DeLuca’s waffling over their public relationship and Amelia can’t forgive—or more like can’t overlook—Owen’s recent bought of drunkenness. Though they eventually confront their boyfriends, the most interesting parts of the episode are when the three women are working through their problems together.
This season started by positioning Maggie, Amelia, and Meredith as the show’s new core, and while it’s lost sight of that at times—particularly since it’s come to realize just how great the Meredith/Alex friendship is—“When It Hurts So Bad” does a nice job of putting the focus back on the “sisters” while weaving Alex into the fold too. After learning last week that it’s never wise to doubt Alex Karev, Maggie immediately calls him to help deal with Meredith’s odd behavior. And he’s the one she finally feels comfortable opening up to.
The fireplace chat is the episode’s strongest scene not only because it utilizes the always-great Alex/Meredith friendship, but because it allows Meredith to have a grounded and mature perspective. It turns out the sex with McCreepy was great and that, more than anything, is what made Meredith freak out. She pushed herself to take a physical step she wasn’t ready for emotionally. But while she might need a day to process (and clean), this isn’t some huge setback for her. She’s not overcome with guilt or thrown back into mourning for Derek. She’s just a little more clear on her boundaries and a little more certain about the fact that she’s not ready to date yet. More than a case of one step forward, two steps back, Meredith takes one step forward, one step in a different direction.
In fact almost everyone is making mature, self-respecting decisions this week, which is kind of shocking for Grey’s Anatomy. Not only do Maggie, Amelia, and Meredith extricate themselves from unnecessary drama, Penny and Callie have a much needed conversation about their relationship too. But not before Penny’s unreciprocated “I love you” and her ER meeting with an injured Sofia send Callie into a panic about how quickly their relationship is moving.
Penny gets a great scene in which she rightly demands Callie be honest with her. And after some tough love from Arizona (basically: sort your shit out without throwing me under the bus) and some slightly less tough love from Bailey (basically: dating as a mom is tricky but don’t use your kid as an excuse), Callie officially introduces her new girlfriend to her daughter and kicks off the next phase of their relationship. For a show that has a tendency to go real soapy, real fast, it’s nice to see Grey’s present a realistic relationship conflict that gets resolved in an adult way.
The overall maturity level of this episode cleverly lulls the into audience submission when Catherine Avery sweeps into town. She magnanimously reconnects with April, and the two women bond over the difficulties of performing surgery while pregnant. Their conversation seems to soften April and she reaches out to Jackson to try to make amends for their most recent fight. Only it turns out Catherine’s kindhearted grandma act was just part of her plan to gather intel she and Jackson can use to sue April for divorcing Jackson without revealing her pregnancy.
It was a great twist I didn’t see coming, especially because the episode is so focused on supportive friendships, and Catherine and April really did seem to connect during her last pregnancy. But it also makes sense that perpetually business-minded Catherine has something else up her sleeve. We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out, of course, but Catherine’s scheming could be a good way to switch up the familiar Jackson/April dynamic with an outside force.
Much as the show keeps returning to Jackson and April, I highly doubt this is really the end of the road for Amelia/Owen, Maggie/DeLuca, or Meredith/McCreepy. But “When It Hurts So Bad” proves that even without those romances, there are still plenty of relationships to care about on Grey’s Anatomy.
- There’s only one patient storyline this week: Ashley is left with two dislocated legs after attempting to have sex with her much, much bigger boyfriend, Chris. The sex attempt fits with the episode’s “push yourself” theme and the fact that she dumps him fits with the “women pragmatically put themselves first” theme. But while the actor playing Chris made me laugh (“Ashley’s dead, isn’t she?”), overall this story felt like an afterthought.
- I did, however, really enjoy Ben speculating on how a German Shepherd could mate with a Teacup Chihuahua.
- Other great friendship scenes: Ben talking to Owen about the importance of apologizing, even when your mistake was unintentional. And Jo being no-nonsense/vaguely sassy about Penny’s relationship drama. Looks like Meredith is finally rubbing off on her.
- Sofia is so big! When was the last time we saw her?
- I’m wondering if Caterina Scorsone lost her voice while they were filming or something because all of Amelia’s lines seemed to be ADR’d. (UPDATE: Turns out that’s exactly what happened!)
- I was almost ready to give Major McCreepy a pass this week until he responded to Meredith’s request for space by telling her he was going to continue to text, call, and show up at her door because she’s worth waiting for. YOU HAVE BEEN ON THREE DATES WITH THIS WOMAN, DUDE. LET HER LIVE HER LIFE!
- Perhaps I’m too sensitive to this kind of thing, but there seemed to be an element of “stick around to see if Meredith was raped” to this episode. Even though sexual assault isn’t ultimately a part of Meredith’s storyline, I still found the meta dynamic kind of unsettling.