Photo: Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
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Any show churning out over 22 episodes a season is going to wind up with some filler. After the inventive storytelling of “The Sound Of Silence” and “Unbreak My Heart,” Grey’s has been spinning its wheels and waiting for another big event—which looks to be next week’s two-hour hospital lockdown episode. That’s far from the worst thing in the world. My general affection for these characters and this world carries me through even a so-so episode. But it’s hard not to notice that other than inching the April/Jackson story forward a tiny bit, “I Wear The Face” doesn’t really do much to advance the season’s larger arcs. And, unfortunately, there’s not much compelling episodic storytelling to make up for that either.

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But, hey, it does feature the debut of Wilmer Valderrama as recurring MS patient Kyle Diaz, which is apparently a big enough deal that Grey’s felt the need to announce it in last week’s preview. In addition to engaging in some aggressive flirting with Stephanie (some of which took place during brain surgery!!), Valderrama is here to verbalize the theme of the episode: Competition. After hitting it semi-big as the opening act of a 13-city tour, Kyle’s struggling musician friends suddenly made themselves scarce. When you both live and work with people who feel like (or sometimes literally are) your family, tensions and jealousies are bound to flare up.

“You know how it is, you’re hanging out down the street. The same old thing we did last week.”

Stephanie, Penny, and Jo deal with competition in the most literal manner this week as they all apply for the Preminger Grant, which gives one resident funds to travel for a year of research (or something like that, I was a little fuzzy on the details). In a show full of overly confident characters, I’m fascinated by Penny’s general passivity. Jo and Stephanie both assume they’re shoe-ins for the grant, but Penny doesn’t even feel she should apply. And when she overhears Stephanie belittling her, she can barely verbalize her frustrations to Callie. Interestingly, when she is finally spurred to action, Penny winds up receiving the grant, which mostly makes me wish we could’ve seen the attendings reach that decision. There’s certainly a case to be made that quiet competency should be rewarded, but the show sidesteps a potentially illuminating character moment to foreshadow some Penny/Callie relationship drama instead.

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Stephanie doesn’t take the news very well, assuming Amelia passed her over in an attempt to send Penny away from the hospital. It’s a big leap to make after their sweet conversation earlier in the episode, but given the way Amelia believed Jo over Stephanie earlier this season, it’s not an entirely unfair assumption on Stephanie’s part. Without a love interest or a trusted mentor, Stephanie is a bit unmoored at the moment. And on a show all about interconnectivity, that will hopefully allow her to stir things up a bit.

Which would be a nice change of pace because this recent stretch of Grey’s episodes could use a dose of new energy. Everyone is stuck rehashing old arguments this week, the most frustrating of which is Owen and Riggs’ ongoing competition. Meredith joins the two warring friends on an entirely pointless ambulance journey to retrieve a heart from a donor. (They get stuck in traffic and by the time they arrive the heart is compromised, which seems to be why you would use the siren and/or a helicopter for this sort of thing.) On the way back she learns that Riggs hasn’t been entirely honest about his role in Megan’s war zone disappearance. Megan didn’t board that medical helicopter just to help her patient, but also to escape Riggs, who was cheating on her. Unfortunately, understanding the reason for Owen’s protracted anger doesn’t make it any less tedious to watch, and at this point I have no idea why Riggs doesn’t just get a new job at a different hospital. Surely there are far less hostile work environments out there for him.

“Don’t look now, mate, but I think this room is shrinking.”

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While the Owen/Riggs tension continues indefinitely (or at least until Megan’s inevitable return in the season finale), “I Wear The Face” puts a temporary button on the Arizona/April fight. The two doctors disagree on whether or not to inform a 14-year-old patient’s mother that her daughter is pregnant, which is a ridiculously literal way to explore April’s anger over the fact that Arizona told Jackson about her pregnancy. The episode seems to decide that because April tells Jenny’s mom about the pregnancy, Arizona is off the hook for telling Jackson, but that logic doesn’t really track. Jenny is a minor deciding whether or not to have surgery for a dangerous medical condition while April was a perfectly healthy adult deciding when to inform the father of her child about their pregnancy. Given that April doesn’t really forgive Arizona so much as admit she has no one else to vent to, I’m hoping Grey’s won’t drop April’s anger entirely.

I praised last week’s episode for allowing the characters to make mature choices and the strongest elements of “I Wear The Face” do the same. Richard is dead set against Catherine’s decision to (potentially) sue April for full custody, but he lets her know that while still respecting both Catherine’s autonomy and the strength of their relationship. His firm but loving disagreement inspires Catherine to open up; after their messy divorce, Jackson’s father tried to take her son from her and Catherine had to fight for her parental rights. Fearing Jackson might wind up in a similar situation, Catherine overreacted, failing—as Richard reminds her—to consider that Jackson and April have a very different relationship than the one she had with her ex. The fact that Catherine’s machinations bring about the very thing she fears is a plot straight out of a comic book villain story, but I’m glad the show can at least bring some grounded emotional reality to her motivations.

I was hoping Catherine’s scheming would add a new dynamic to the April/Jackson relationship, perhaps by letting them join forces against her. And to Jackson’s credit, his mother’s manipulations push him to reach out with kindness, extending an olive branch to April in the form of a crib. She, however, is spooked when she overhears Catherine discussing a possible lawsuit and files a restraining order against Jackson, which is apparently a thing you can do in one afternoon and with absolutely no justification. Looks like we’re headed towards our umpteenth retread of this April/Jackson fight, which isn’t something I imagine anyone wants to see at this point.

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All of these macro complaints probably make it seem like I enjoyed “I Wear The Face” a lot less than I did. But on a scene-to-scene level it’s full of plenty of stuff to enjoy, like Penny’s adorable “mic drop,” Valderrama’s charming performance, and the eerie image of a man nailing an impressive guitar solo while his brain is open during surgery. There’s a definitive “shit or get off the pot” feeling with some of the longterm arcs, but several nice character beats at least keep things interesting in the interim.

Take, for instance, the bookending vignettes of Amelia’s uneasy integration back into Meredith’s house. Maggie—who’s never had siblings—is pushing for perfection in their sisterly relationship. Amelia and Meredith—who know far too well that families are always a challenge—remind her there’s nothing more sisterly than squabbling over open cabinet doors. “I’m annoying,” Amelia casually admits. “She is,” Meredith agrees before they start to rag on Maggie.

Yes, this is a filler episode, but longterm fans will also recognize it as something else: Perfectly enjoyable comfort TV.

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Stray observations

  • According to my in-depth research (a.k.a. a quick Google search), “federal and state statues legislating a minor’s right to medical confidentiality are often vague, and many times the decision whether or not to disclose medical information is left to the doctor’s discretion.” Wish the show had gotten into that a little more in the April/Arizona storyline.
  • Don’t they generally shave at least part of your head before brain surgery? Valderama was sporting a full head of hair in his final scene.

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  • The music felt even more melodramatic than usual in this episode, which is really saying something.
  • The reveal that Jenny’s Type-A mom only wants to love and support her daughter was very sweet, even if I didn’t buy that actress as a 28-year-old woman who had a kid when she was 14.
  • Meredith’s voiceover starts by discussing the symptoms of a heart attack and ends with a boxing metaphor. I’m 95% sure those monologues are written with Mad Libs at this point.

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