On Thursday night, ABC’s long-running medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” said goodbye to its titular character, Dr. Meredith Grey.
To some extent, it was a long-anticipated occasion. Star Ellen Pompeo has discussed the possibility of leaving for several seasons. At the start of the show’s 19th season last fall, ABC announced she would only appear for a handful of episodes as she prepares to move on to new projects, including starring in and executive producing an upcoming Hulu series.
In preparation, the first six episodes of the season laid the groundwork for Pompeo’s exit, placing Meredith in a moment of major life transitions. First, she grappled with whether to accept a dream job away from her beloved Seattle, and her relationship with boyfriend Nick (Scott Speedman) reached an impasse. Then, following a series of anxiety attacks, her daughter Zola (Aniela Gumbs) fell in love with a new school in Boston that was a better fit for her. And in a cliffhanger, before the show went on mid-season hiatus until Thursday’s episode, Meredith’s beloved home caught on fire.
So, how would the hit show pull off a fitting exit?
Previous cast departures and major milestone episodes have pulled out all the stops, like big guest stars, stirring monologues, callbacks to the show’s early seasons, and many tears. However, the farewell to Meredith was surprisingly understated and, frankly, underwhelming. Mostly, it felt like a typical “Grey’s” episode. Meredith’s impending departure from Seattle was just a standard plotline among several other plotlines that were largely business as usual.
Taking place on Meredith’s last day of work at Grey Sloan Memorial, the episode begins with Meredith’s usual voiceover narration. As longtime viewers know, it often references some of the themes of the episode to come, bookended by more voiceover narration at the end of the episode, which sums up those themes.
“Often, surgery is just the beginning of the healing rather than an end. Because for weeks or months post-op, people have to learn how to live without the part of their body we’ve just removed. And that’s not always easy, and it’s never painless,” Meredith says here. “So surgery is not the ‘happily ever after’ our patients hope it will be. Like everything else in life, it’s an evolution.”
We learn Meredith is dealing with the logistics of the move while assessing the damage to her home. It’s still standing, but the fire burned a giant hole where the attic once was. Also, things continue to be tense with Nick, who remains angry he was not informed of Meredith’s move. Later in the episode, the two operate on a patient, a famous author named Tessa, and end up unable to save her. Normally, this would be dramatic. But over the 19 seasons of “Grey’s,” where many, many patients have died during surgery, it was pretty run-of-the-mill.
At the end of the day, her colleagues throw her a surprise farewell party with cake and sparkling cider. It was touching to see Meredith’s mentors, Bailey and Webber (played by Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr., the two remaining members of the show’s original cast), struggling to find the right words to bid her farewell. But it was much more brief and abrupt than expected, given the history these three characters share.
Now and then, a “Grey’s” episode will give viewers some clever callbacks and parallels to classic episodes. However, those were in short supply here. Toward the end of the episode, former Grey Sloan surgical resident-turned-Joe’s bartender Taryn Helm (Jaicy Elliot) tells Nick to go after Meredith and make amends. In a similar cadence as some of the show’s signature speeches when a character provides an impassioned defense of another character, Helm says of Meredith: “She’s brilliant, and she cares, and she can be mean sometimes, but only when she needs to be, and she can be selfish sometimes because she has earned that right.”
And in the episode’s most direct callback, giving us a hint of what could have been a bigger and more complete farewell episode, Meredith announces to Nick that she is picking herself, her kids and her career over a man.
“I’m not going to beg you to love me,” she tells him, a reversal of her famous “pick me, choose me, love me” speech to Patrick Dempsey’s McDreamy in Season 2.
It’s proof of how much Meredith has grown and changed since the start of the show. Yet aside from that, there was not much fanfare in this episode. It’s especially stark compared to previous character farewells, like the multi-episode goodbye for Dr. Cristina Yang when star Sandra Oh left the show in 2014, or even the departure of Jesse Williams as Dr. Jackson Avery two seasons ago.
Two moments at the end of the episode could serve as metaphors for the role of this farewell episode. First, a trio of the show’s newest surgical interns have now taken up residence in Meredith’s old house and have been tasked with managing the repairs. It’s parallel to the early days of “Grey’s,” when Meredith opened up her house to her fellow interns at the time. It also marks the show’s current transitional period. The new intern characters have played a much larger role throughout the season than previous sets of new characters introduced in past seasons. The show has made a concerted effort to develop their backstories. For example, Meredith has bonded with new intern Simone (Alexis Floyd), who, like Meredith, has experienced the painful process of gradually losing a family member to Alzheimer’s. Handing the house to the new interns signals that the show is now in their hands.
In addition, Meredith’s final scenes are also like a handing-off. In a nod to one of those rom-com airport chases, Nick drives to the airport to catch Meredith before she and her kids take off. When he realizes he won’t make it in time, he declares his love to her on the phone. But Meredith, who is already on the plane, says her cell reception is bad, tells him she’ll call once she’s settled in Boston, and hangs up. On the plane, she reads a draft of Tessa’s final novel to her kids, which includes some lines that are pretty clear references to her trajectory on the show.
“I’ve saved lives, and I’ve had my life saved. I’ve been through broken bones, and a broken home, and the death of people I love, but I’m still here,” she says. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my adventures, it’s that there’s no such thing as a life lived happily ever after unless the ‘happily’ means simply that we’re still alive, that the sun is rising on another day… So the end of my story is not any kind of ‘ever after’ because I’m still alive. I’m still here, and the sun still rises on my life.”
It’s possible that no ending would have felt satisfactory for such an iconic and enduring TV character. But for a show with so much drama throughout its 19 seasons — shocking character deaths and myriad traumatic events befall Meredith — it’s a strange feeling watching its titular character quietly exiting into the background. But perhaps it’s also a reminder of what we’ve known for a long time coming: “Grey’s” is a different show now. It’s the end of an era.
Like Meredith’s house, the show still stands, but we’re left with a huge and potentially irreparable hole.