SPOILERS! If you haven’t seen the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy, turn back NOW.
Season 11 of the Shonda Rhimes-helmed Grey’s Anatomy has been a tumultuous rollercoaster for the show and it’s fans. After the previous season-long departure of original cast member Sandra Oh (who played fan favorite Cristina Yang), season 11 felt largely unknown. How would Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) survive without her “person”? Would the show survive another original cast member’s departure? How could anyone ever replace Dr. Yang?
Unlike the deaths of George O’Malley (T.R. Knight), Mark Sloan (Eric Dane), and Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh), all characters who were loved by fans and whose deaths proved to send shockwaves through every single Grey’s viewer’s hearts, Cristina was allowed a proper goodbye. Her character was poised to win a Harper Avery, the most most prestigious award a doctor could receive in Shondaland, but lost due to the Harper Avery Foundation’s ties to Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital. So, in order to fulfill her career goals, she followed her ambition to a new job — on a new continent. The farewell felt real, genuine, and properly handled. Season 11 picked up right where Cristina left, and to fill the hole left by her absence, Shonda and the skilled writers began threading together storylines that were years-in-the-making. Meredith’s half-sister Dr. Maggie Pierce (played by Grey’s newcomer Kelly McCreary) got a chance to shine in a story arc that tied up loose ends from Meredith’s mom’s suicide attempt, and plugged the holes of her relationship with Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens); Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) worked through their relationship issues in a stunningly heartbreaking episode that ended with them officially separating after two seasons of them fighting to hold on to their love; Geena Davis created a cold, calculating character that audiences actually grew to love while simultaneously catapulting Amelia Shepherd (the incredibly intoxicating Caterina Scorsone) to superstar status; even Meredith went on an incredible introspective journey to discover who she was as a doctor and a wife.
Season 11 was a year of growth in many respects.
Except for Derek Shepherd.
Last year, it was announced that Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey had signed contracts for two more seasons of the hit show. MerDer fans were able to breathe a sigh of [extreme] relief. After all, when a series regular wants off the show, Shondaland tends to throw the worst at the characters — save for Yang: Izzie Stevens (the infamous Katherine Heigl) was given terminal brain cancer that she ultimately beat, and then was fired because of a mistake she made on her first day back after treatment, George O’Malley was hit by a bus after a season of standing in the background, Mark Sloan and Lexie Grey were killed in a plane crash, and lets not forget about the shooter-in-the-hospital episode that took a few doctor’s lives. Nobody expected Derek Shepherd to join the laundry list of memorable characters who got the axe.
On the April 23rd, 2015, episode, “How to Save a Life,” Derek Shepherd was killed off in a blaze of glory. Quite literally. He was the ultimate hero. On his way to the airport to wrap up his job in Washington D.C., he witnesses a car crash and stops to help. He saves the lives of two teenagers, a mom, and a young girl. He even says his famous line, “It’s a beautiful day to save lives.”
Then, once the ambulance comes to help the victims, Derek gets in his car, fumbles for his cell phone, and is hit by what looks like a semi-truck. The rest of the episode, penned by series creator Shonda Rhimes, which took place entirely from Derek’s point of view, followed Derek as he was taken to a hospital ill-equipped to handle incoming traumas. The doctors fumbled to figure out what to do first; it acted as a foil to Grey-Sloan Memorial, which is jam-packed with caring doctors who would know exactly what to do in order to give Derek his best changes at survival. This hospital had staff that weren’t trained properly, and it was glaringly obvious. The stark contrast between the hospitals was brutally evident, and the effect created a Grand Canyon-sized pit in my stomach as I watched and Derek narrated, unable to speak, but still knowing exactly what to do to save himself. It’s that irony that creates the tension between the viewer and the narrative: Derek can save everyone’s lives, but not his own. This is even more heartbreaking because he does know exactly what to do. The writing during this episode was exquisite; it was paced beautifully and created a haunting tone that persisted throughout the last half. As an episode, it’s one of Grey’s best and most well-written.
And then the crushing reality sinks in that, by the end of the episode, Derek is on life support, brain dead. And Meredith is by his side as the doctor unplugs him. She says her tearful goodbyes to him, and the episode fades out as Meredith clutches herself, self-comforting, and completely alone.
The problem is not with this episode. The issue I have with Derek’s death is not that it happened, but how it happened. Season 11 began with Derek wanting to move to Washington D.C. to work for the President of the United States. Meredith and their children were supposed to go with him, she chose to stay in Seattle and further her career the only way she knew how. She made the choice to focus on her own career, a decision that made complete sense given that, during season 10, Derek pledged to scale back his career in order to allow Meredith to find herself as a doctor. Then he went and got a new job and sprung it on her, and when she said she wouldn’t move, she told him to go. Ultimately, he declined the offer and took it out on her. Then, after a few episodes of acting like an immature child and treating his wife like everything bad that happened in his life was her fault, she told him to take the job … and he did. He left her. Without a word.
For three months, Derek Shepherd was nowhere to be seen. The writers of the show committed character assassination on him. They took a once beloved character and destroyed his spark, his integrity, and ultimately, his chemistry with his on-screen wife. Their scenes were awkward and tense — and this is a credit that goes out to both Dempsey and Pompeo, who are brilliant actors with insane natural chemistry — but that’s how they were supposed to feel. It was a gut-punch to watch Meredith cry over Derek. But then something wonderful happened. In Derek’s absence, Meredith began to discover who she was; she developed a 89 patient winning streak, she spent time with herself and got to know herself again, and she ultimately realized that she could live without the love of her life, but she just didn’t want to.
As far as setting up Meredith’s character and her arc, the writers did a brilliant job.
But what about Derek?
Derek was left to rot in Shondland. The better part of the season worked to destroy everything fans loved about McDreamy, and then he shows up, decides he wants Meredith back after she calls his phone and a mysterious woman — a women that, was revealed to viewers, but not Meredith, he kissed — answers his phone, and dies ironically in a car accident. Sure, he redeems himself just in time to die, and so in some twisted way, his hero’s journey came full circle, but at what cost? While the episode itself was beautiful and left me breathless, his death just felt sour. Sure, his “goodbye” was given more screen time than George O’Malley’s — who essentially had two lines at the beginning of the season 5 finale, and then disappeared completely, only to reappear as a mangled corpse that nobody recognizes (symbolically irony?) — but that wasn’t enough for Derek. He was one of the first characters introduced in the pilot, and whose relationship with the show’s star was the central story, the glue that held most fans together over the last 11 years. His death felt rushed, like a plot device to open up more storylines (because we haven’t seen Meredith cry enough over the last 11 years) and leave the deadweight ones behind. Maybe if his character growth was explored more and he never disappeared for months on end, it could’ve felt appropriate, the way Cristina’s exist felt natural. Instead, the writers essentially fed viewers the whole “Ok, he’s been for 3 months, but trust us, he changed!” story, and expected fans to be ok with his death?
It doesn’t sit well with me.
How can Grey’s Anatomy survive without it’s patriarch? How can Meredith, the character, subsist without Derek? In an exclusive interview with Entertainment Weekly, Dempsey said (about working with his on-screen wife): “It was magic. It’s beautiful. We’re like a married couple. It’s 10 years, and it was magic from the beginning. Chemistry right away.” So how can one survive without the other? For 11 years, Grey’s has been an exploration of this beautiful symbiotic relationship. The hospital was the setting. The patients were the plot devices. Meredith and Derek were the heroes, the protagonists.
It’ll be interesting to see how Meredith can survive this. And to see if the Grey’s writers can redeem Derek’s character assassination after his death.
And unfortunately, it’s not some cruel joke. The doctor is officially out:
Creator, writer, and showrunner Shonda Rhimes issued this statement:
Derek Shepherd is and will always be an incredibly important character — for Meredith, for me and for the fans. I absolutely never imagined saying goodbye to our ‘McDreamy.’ Patrick Dempsey’s performance shaped Derek in a way that I know we both hope became a meaningful example — happy, sad, romantic, painful and always true — of what young women should demand from modern love. His loss will be felt by all. Now, Meredith and the entire Grey’s Anatomyfamily are about to enter uncharted territory as we head into this new chapter of her life. The possibilities for what may come are endless. As Ellis Grey would say: the carousel never stops turning.
Only time will tell what will happen in the wake of McDreamy’s untimely passing. It will certainly allow for great exploration of Meredith’s character and how she’ll survive in a post-Post It world. Or this could be signaling the ultimate demise of one of TV’s most beloved dramas?