Photo: Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
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I wrote last week about Grey’s Anatomy’s unique ability to pull from 12 seasons of history when it wants to confront its characters with the past. And that’s on display tonight as Meredith’s first ever patient returns to Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital with a brand new aneurism. As the episode reminds us in the “previously on” segment, Katie Bryce was the 15-year-old pageant girl whose mysterious case brought Meredith and Derek together (in the non-Biblical sense at least) in the pilot. As Amelia puts it, Katie is basically “Derek and Meredith’s surgical love child.” Actress Skyler Shaye returns to the role, but since Katie frankly isn’t one of Grey’s more iconic patients, her return doesn’t carry quite as much weight as the show wants it to. (The hashtag for this episode was #ReturnToDayOne.) Nevertheless, the episode manages to find some surprising nuance in its exploration of the past, the present, and the future.

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Photo: Grey’s Anatomy (ABC)

The theme of the episode is starting over, and “My Next Life” establishes a new status quo for just about all of the show’s characters: Jo and Alex agree to table their engagement plans temporarily but not permanently, Richard makes peace with the fact that Maggie is dating (and bedding) Deluca, Arizona gets her groove back, and April and Jackson are on surprisingly good terms, mostly because she still hasn’t told him that she’s pregnant. We also learn that April is thrilled about her pregnancy, something that was a little less certain in last week’s cliffhanger. While no one’s life is perfect, no one is in crisis either, which is pretty rare on Grey’s Anatomy.

While “My Next Life” checks in one just about everyone, it centers mostly on Meredith, Amelia, and to a lesser extent Riggs. Though Katie’s return is initially presented as this week’s big case, it’s recovering cancer patient Daphne (Meredith Salenger) who provides the more compelling arc. Estranged from her son David due to mistakes in her past, Daphne has spent the past six years getting her life back on track—working towards a college degree, holding down multiple jobs, and fighting off cancer. But just as she’s declared cancer-free, Meredith discovers an infection that puts Daphne’s life at risk. “My Next Life” doesn’t do the best job of explaining Daphne’s condition in layman’s terms, but it basically boils down to Meredith applying pressure to a bloody wound as they wait to see if Daphne’s blood will clot, which apparently means she’s in the clear.

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Photo: Grey’s Anatomy (ABC)

Daphne’s case deals most directly with the idea of moving on from the past. Although she’s clearly come a long way from the low-point that drove her away from her son, Daphne delays contacting David, arguing she still has more work to do. It takes Meredith and Riggs—two people who know what it’s like to have estranged relationships with people they care about—to basically force her to call David before she goes into surgery. That Riggs gets invested in Daphne’s happiness as well as her physical health is a good look for him, and one that clearly impresses Meredith, who was previously turned-off by his casual reaction to a patient’s death. Thanks to Riggs and Meredith, Daphne gets to have one last conversation with her son. By the time he arrives to see her, she’s dead.

Daphne is a likable patient, but we don’t spend enough time with her to feel the full tragedy of her death. Instead she’s more interesting because of what she reveals about Meredith. Forced to choose between helping an old patient with symbolic importance or a current patient she’s grown attached to, Meredith forgoes the past to deal with the present. Riggs offers to take over Daphne’s case, but Meredith ultimately decides she would rather stick by Daphne’s side than Katie’s. This is partly meant to show that Meredith really does have faith in Amelia’s abilities, but it’s also proof that Meredith no longer needs closure about Derek’s death. As her therapist told her a few weeks ago, she’s doing really well for someone who’s been through so much trauma. She’ll always miss Derek, of course, but she can also let go of their history together to focus on her new life.

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In fact, Katie Bryce proves to be more of an emotional button for Amelia than for Meredith. Confronted with her brother’s legacy (Katie literally asks, “Are you as good as your brother? Are you better than him?”), Amelia finally finds the courage to successfully operate on Katie’s massive aneurism. She adds her surgery to Katie’s file, right next to Derek’s own operation. More so than anyone, Amelia turns over a new leaf this week: She’s 60 days sober, “starting over” with Owen, and even beginning to make peace with her sister-in-law. Meredith and Amelia don’t really evolve tonight so much as take a step back to realize how much they’ve already grown.

Despite Daphne’s tragic arc and some Derek-related flashbacks, this is a surprisingly light episode of Grey’s with a particularly funny sequence in which Meredith and Amelia use Penny as their increasingly overwhelmed pawn. Plus Richard gets to be adorably bumbling as he alternates between wingman-mode and dad-mode with Arizona and Maggie. After a few heavy weeks, Grey’s understandably aims at something a little frothier tonight and while that makes for a refreshing change of pace, it also prevents the drama from fully landing.

Still the slow motion sequence in which Meredith and Riggs rush Daphne to the O.R. while leaving a trail of blood behind them is beautifully shot by Chandra Wilson (a.k.a. Bailey), who directed this episode. I particularly love the moment in which Meredith and Katie spot each other on the way to their respective O.R.s. The brief flashback to Derek announcing, “It’s a beautiful night to save lives,” before Katie’s original operation drives home the weight of Meredith’s decision to stay with Daphne.

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Although not as structurally inventive as “Unbreak My Heart” or “The Sound Of Silence” nor as insightful as “All I Want Is You,” this is nevertheless a solid episode that balances comedy and drama while clearing out the pipes and setting up the final third of the season. “My Next Life” isn’t quite as thematically potent as it could be, but it lets Meredith and Amelia’s stories play out in parallel without putting too fine a point on it, something that’s always appreciated in the soapy world of Grey’s Anatomy.

Stray observations

  • Riggs reveals the full story behind his “betrayal” of Owen’s sister: He let Meg ride on unprotected medical helicopter that went missing in battle. Either he’s hiding part of the story or Owen is holding a pretty unjustified grudge.
  • Speaking of which, am I crazy for thinking we’ll almost certainly see the return of Owen’s sister at some point? After all her helicopter merely “disappeared.” Maybe she has amnesia or is being held captive or something?
  • I loved Owen’s faux-scandalized reaction to Amelia’s kiss. For the record I am a big fan of Owen Hunt, although I’m pretty neutral about the Amelia/Owen relationship.
  • Maggie and Richard sneaking off to dinner while Deluca worked late was super sweet.
  • Is Riggs supposed to be from New Zealand or is Martin Henderson just doing a terrible American accent?

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