(Note: This piece contains specific plot details about the latest season of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.)
Shonda Rhimes, the head writer and showrunner behind such current primetime soap operas as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, may be a romantic, but she also has a ghoulish side: She loves to use death as a hand grenade, blowing up plotlines for the sake of a stunt. Untimely demises have become so commonplace in Rhimes’ work that fans know what to expect when they hear schlocky ABC promos in the vein of “Tonight, they say goodbye to one of their own,” or “The episode you’ll never forget.” The death toll on her shows are reaching serial-killer levels, especially on Grey’s.
Rhimes’ morbid fun is downright disrespectful to her viewers. Apparently we’re all supposed to gape in awe as she gleefully, maniacally upends the pieces on her chessboard. At the end of last week’s Scandal, Jake (played by Rhimes favorite Scott Foley) is seemingly stabbed to his death by Olivia’s latest hookup, left in a puddle of blood on the OPA office floor. Promos for the following week featured Quinn shouting, “Jake’s dead!” and evil B-613 mastermind Rowan proclaiming, “Jake Ballard has been eliminated.” Foley himself took to Twitter to stoke the fires:
Eagle-eyed readers would notice that Foley still used the present tense here, not the past. Still, Twitter exploded, and speculation ran wild. In what I’m presuming was a boneheaded play on ABC’s part, since these pictures have since been taken down, promo shots for the following episode showed Jake Ballard bandaged up but alive:
As the reviewer of that episode, I tried to stay spoiler-free and focus on the episode at hand, but yeah, it was fairly obvious that Jake Ballard had not left this world for good. Last night’s followup had Papa Pope amending his “Jake Ballard has been eliminated” statement with a virtual “NOT!”
And there was an even huger Rhimes bombshell last night. A very special Grey’s episode, harking back to one of the show’s signature songs—The Fray’s “How To Save A Life”—features the heroic death of Patrick Dempsey’s Derek, a.k.a. McDreamy. Derek being Derek, he saves the lives of four people in a car crash before he is senselessly smashed by a semi as he searches for his cell phone in the car. (Let this be a lesson to us all!) It’s interesting to hear Derek’s perspective as a patient on a gurney rather than a surgeon, as we see all the missteps that led to his death: For instance, the renegade warehouse surgeon that saved Jake Ballard’s life was apparently more effective than this actual hospital. Before his death, we do get a tear-inducing montage of Meredith and Derek, and we wonder where Meredith could possibly go from here.
Death is an easy shortcut to drama. There’s no reason why Dempsey should have remained shackled to the show he’d called home for 11 years, but Derek had a job in D.C., for God’s sake. That could have provided a more graceful out.
Rhimes has gone to the shocking-death well so often that it has lost all significance. The ending of a life means very little in Shondaland. Sure, the hospital is named after the late Lexie Grey and Mark Sloan, but how often do their actual characters come up anymore? Meredith Grey even got a brand-new sister, right off the conveyor belt. When bomb expert Kyle Chandler was blown up in a season-two Grey’s episode, the stunning ending worked well because it was unexpected. We didn’t know the extent of Rhimes’ passion for narrative homicide yet.
But then the evidence came rolling in. When T.R. Knight left the show, he received a heroic sendoff in the season-six premiere, just like Derek: His character, George, jumped in front of a bus to save someone. Two interns were shot in the riveting season-six finale. Another was electrocuted in the season-ten premiere. Even Meredith’s dog died.
Not everyone gets the fallen-hero treatment. When on-set conflicts or off-set personal problems threaten to interfere with production, the culprits find themselves with a more perfunctory on-air farewell. Rhimes runs a tight ship, so if people squabble on set—like Isaiah Washington—or have major offscreen personal problems—like Columbus Short—their characters are dismissed with minimal sentiment. Short didn’t even get to die on screen (one season ended with a gun to his head, and his funeral began the next), and the tiresome Washington didn’t even die—he was simply disappeared from the show after a dramatic aborted wedding. Poor Tim Daly wanted to leave Private Practice, so he was dispatched with an offscreen heart attack and left in a ditch. Katherine Heigl’s public complaining had pissed Rhimes off, so her character, Izzy, didn’t get to die of her cancer; she just walked off in a huff.
Contrast these Shondaland escapades to one of TV’s earliest and most memorable surprise deaths: when Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) left M*A*S*H. In his last episode, this beloved character was finally leaving the Korean War to go home to his family. All was well. Later, Radar stumbled in with the news that Blake’s plane went down over the Sea Of Japan, and there were no survivors. The uninformed cast reportedly learned of Blake’s death on-camera, and the results were appropriately devastating. The unexpectedness of this death had a reason beyond shock value, though. It brought the audience’s perspective in line with the characters’ to give viewers a taste of war’s emotional toll. “The reaction was absolutely overwhelming,” cast member Loretta Swit remembered, as M*A*S*H was flooded with protests. By Swit’s reckoning, the message was, “You’re mad at the war. The war killed that character that you loved. That’s what we’re trying to say with the series, that war is hell. It was an opportunity for the audience to feel the impact.”
A more recent example was the death of Josh Charles’ character Will Gardner on The Good Wife last year. Like Dempsey, Charles was looking to leave the series but had kept his departure quiet. Will Gardner’s death in a courtroom shooting marked a key turning point for the series, but again, his death had a profound purpose. Life can turn on a dime. The last time you talk to someone might in fact be the last time you talk to someone. The suddenness of Will Gardner’s death affected all of the now-shaken characters, especially Alicia Florrick, who, despite her rift from Will, realized how much he meant to her and mourned the fact that he died before they repaired that. The impact of his death, and the history of the character, is still being felt on The Good Wife today.
Conversely, death on Shonda Rhimes’ shows has become more rote than transformative. By the time the plane crash rolled around for the season-eight finale of Grey’s, it was common knowledge that at least one character would not survive. (Actually, considering that it was a small plane crash in the middle of nowhere, the surprising part was that there were any survivors at all.) The ultimate victim of the crash proved to be a surprise: It was Meredith’s sister Lexie, as the actor Chyler Leigh wanted to spend more time with her family. Eric Dane’s Sloan, injured in the crash, lasted only a few more weeks. Still, the impact was blunted by the fact that we knew death was coming. It was a Grey’s season finale, after all.
What’s worse is when these ramifications barely make a ripple. In last season’s Scandal ender, the president’s son, Little Jerry, is killed by an agent from the shadowy B-613 agency, on orders from Olivia’s father. You would think the fact that Olivia’s dad killed Fitz’s son would be enough to keep the two apart forever. Yet there proved to be minimal fallout. Jerry is hardly mentioned at all anymore. Sure, the first lady started out the current season drunk in a bathrobe, mourning appropriately. But now she’s rebounded enough to run for Senate, and Fitz and Olivia are sure to find their way back into each other’s arms at some point.
It’s an easy dramatic ploy that cheapens the value of life itself. On Grey’s, Derek’s death will undoubtedly send Meredith into a depression spiral, but it does open her up for future romantic entanglements, which hasn’t happened for quite some time. Maybe Cristina will come by for a visit to help. But Rhimes dangles the shiny object of death in front of her viewers, which is insulting to people who have actually lost someone. Death is an actual life event that has more effect than a Twitter explosion and a brief bump in ratings. Dempsey, among others, deserved better.