As a long-time devoted fan of ABC’s internationally-acclaimed medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, I’m no stranger to heartache, tragedy and tears. As any loyal viewer could tell you, the doctors at Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital (formerly Seattle Grace, and Seattle Grace Mercy
Death West), have seen their share of death, drama, dysfunction and despair. (In fact, I’ve recently been re-living all of it on Netflix.) While every character departure has come with a lot of feels, the most recent is sure to leave a McDreamy-sized hole in the hearts of many.
Spoilers after the break; you’ve been warned.
On 4/23/2015, Dr. Derek Shepherd, played for 11 years by Patrick Dempsey, lost his life.
I had yet to even watch last night’s episode, but in an unfortunate moment of foolishness, I neglected to avoid Twitter until after I’d had time to catch up, and was immediately spoiled by a post from TV Guide that, while attempting to be vague, did very little to mask the fact that Grey’s original leading man was leaving the show.
Derek Shepherd went out the way a character like his is meant to, as a hero. After uttering his famed catchphrase (“it’s a beautiful day to save a life”) one last time and saving the lives of those involved in a motor vehicle accident he witnessed, Derek was unexpectedly hit by an oncoming semi-truck as he pulled away from the scene, distracted by his ringing cell phone that was just out of reach. He was unable to be saved by the questionably inept hospital he was sent to, and in the end, Meredith had to make the heartbreaking decision to remove her husband from life support.
Grey’s Anatomy fans are notoriously passionate about this show, and these characters. Now in it’s 11th season, Grey’s has put us through an emotional ringer for so long, it’s incredibly difficult not to feel a personal connection to these charmingly flawed and familiar people. Social media channels blew up almost instantly with fans in shock that McDreamy would no longer grace our screens weekly.
As with all traumas, healing for many will take some time, but as someone who always tries to look at every issue from many angles, I wanted to share my thoughts on this storyline – how it’s seemingly been in the cards for some time, and how, despite hurt feelings right now, Grey’s fans should see this as a sad, but exciting development to see the series’ central character come full circle, and come to terms with the dark & twisty demons she still carries deep down.
Season 11’s focus and theme thus far has been Meredith’s journey to stand on her own as a surgeon, a mother and a person. Meredith’s own “people”, Cristina and Derek, both left Seattle to pursue career opportunities and Meredith found herself trying to navigate her very busy life without them. Despite the struggles she faced, we saw Meredith grow in many ways. We saw her learn to open herself up to other people as she became closer with Alex and her newly discovered, half-sister Maggie, and we saw her begin to really succeed and develop confidence in her work as she realized that she has evolved in to a reputable and extraordinary surgeon.
As for Derek’s permanent departure from the show, all of the cues were there, so while his death is saddening, it’s somewhat hard for me to really call it shocking. I’ll recap:
- Derek and Meredith’s relationship has been on the rocks for the better part of a season, with Dempsey being largely vacant from season 11 as a whole.
- His sister, Amelia, a former character from now defunct spin-off Private Practice, became a series regular, and battled her own struggles of living in Derek’s shadow as she took over his post as head of Neurosurgery. With her own successes in the position, she conquered that demon, and upon his recent return, he gave her his blessings and his endorsement, wrapping up a long-term story arc involving tension between the siblings.
- It was also revealed that Derek flirted with infidelity with one of his interns in DC, and while he came back to Seattle to fix things with Meredith, he never told her about a kiss he shared with the intern that prompted him to get on a plane. While the morality of these actions is open to interpretation, this put Derek’s character in to a different light for many fans.
- Despite this recent return and re-commitment to moving back to Seattle, it was evident that he was returning to a completely different life where, in many ways, the show had established that he was no longer vital to keeping the heartbeat of Grey’s Anatomy pulsing.
- When Derek revealed, after all of these promises and hopes for the future, that he needed to return to D.C. to tie up loose ends, and left their home recalling his “wait for me” moment from the Season 4 finale, it was obvious that he would not return. Where back then, Meredith merely dreamed about Derek being involved in a fatal car accident after he didn’t return when expected, that classic scene now exists as a piece of foreshadowing of Shepherd’s fate seven years later. Lightning, nor luck, ever strikes the same place twice.
As is often the case in television writing, the happiest couple is often the first to be stricken with tragedy, and as last week’s episode revealed, Derek’s renewed focus on his marriage painted a fairy tale picture of reunion and the promise of happily ever after for pair who’ve given us so many of TV’s most romantic and endearing moments. This “fake out” of sorts, is a common television trope (See: Willow & Tara’s reconciliation in Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and likely the reason why people are so hurt and surprised about this story line development.
So hopeless romantics everywhere are heartbroken, and it’s understandable. Meredith and Derek were a prime example of an enduring television couple. Rarely does any relationship last as long as theirs has on any dramatic TV show, but I urge everyone to stop typing the latest addition in a string of tear-soaked hate mail to Shonda Rhimes and think about what all of this means for Meredith, who has always been the show’s central character.
Meredith has never been more in Ellis Grey’s shoes than she is now. While she got there by a different path, she is now an extraordinary general surgeon, who’s husband is gone and she will now have to navigate the waters of being a good mother while continuing on her career path. While she’s succeeded thus far, with Derek simply out of state, this loss will surely bring back a bit of dark and twisty Meredith and challenge her to not spiral down the same isolated roads that Ellis took when she was dealing with her own losses.
This arc could enable Meredith’s character to truly come full circle, which is an idea that has been expertly woven throughout Season 10 and 11 with a lot of connections being drawn to past episodes and seasons. These connections provide the appearance that these story lines have been planned for a very long time, and go a long way to maintain a viewer’s emotional investment in the material. Despite the range of emotions people are feeling, Shonda’s team have succeeded in running this show for so long because these characters are beloved enough to cause this kind of outrage, and despite how each of us may feel, you have to give the whole team behind the scenes at Grey’s Anatomy their props for a job very well done, even if we don’t always like where the show takes us.
I’m truly very invested and excited about what’s to come for this Meredith, despite my own sadness over Shepherd’s passing. Hopefully, when the anger and the tears pass for other Grey’s fans who are feeling really betrayed right now, they’ll be able to agree.
R.I.P. McDreamy. You’re gone but not forgotten.