Ellen Pompeo confirmed on Instagram on Thursday that last week’s episode Gray’s Anatomy was the last you’ll see of her…at least for now.
“I am eternally grateful and humbled by the love and support you have all shown me, Meredith GRAY and the show over 19 seasons! Through it all…none of it…would have been possible without the best fans in the world,” she wrote, thanking the audience for watching her 18-and-a-half season Meredith Gray play. “You are all RIDERS and you all made the ride so fun and ICONIC!!”
It’s a historic announcement; a series as long and as popular as the lead in a drama series is rare. And frankly, our girl deserves a break. Let’s discuss.
In season 12 of Gray’s Anatomy, a brain-damaged patient attacked Meredith. She was left on the floor, trembling and battered, while doctors tended to other traumas around her, unaware that she was practically dying in a curtained room. She lost her hearing for months. She also needed her jaw closed.
Mind you, this is 12 seasons deep. In the twelve or so years before that, Meredith nearly exploded in a patient’s chest cavity with a rogue bomb, drowned in Seattle harbor, lost her mother to Alzheimer’s disease, watched her husband get shot in the chest, survived under being shot, having a miscarriage, adopting an African child, losing custody of the African child, regained custody of that child, survived a plane crash, watched her sister get eaten by wolves, gave birth during a hospital-wide power outage, and lost her husband in a freak car accident.
Just witnessing the life of Meredith Gray is enough trauma for life. To imagine a real human going through it is…asinine.
So when it was announced this summer that Pompeo would be scaling back her work on the show after 18 seasons, I felt a sense of relief — for Meredith and the actress who has played her so dutifully for nearly twenty years. The plan was for Pompeo to appear in just eight episodes of Season 19. In last week’s episode, Meredith moved to Boston for a new job and for daughter to attend a better school, effectively writing the character off the show. It was the mid-season finale before a months-long hiatus.
Savvy fans will note that Pompeo has only appeared in six episodes so far, so it’s expected she could come back for more after the hiatus. Still, there’s something definitive and memorable about what the actress wrote in her Instagram message to fans: “I love you dearly and appreciate you right back. This isn’t the first time you’ve been on the roller coaster… you know that the show must go on and I will definitely visit again. With much love and immense gratitude.”
Sure, this is the title role. Pompeo is the “Grey” of Gray’s Anatomy. But this could be a good thing for the show. Going by her Instagram caption, Pompeo knows that too.
I think over the years we may have gotten our rating from Gray’s Anatomy wrong. When the show premiered in 2005, its first season was a perfect medical drama that mixed a bit of melodrama with sexy shenanigans. In the pilot, Queen Katie Bryce didn’t explode, shoot anyone, or even make a social commentary. She just had a hard-to-diagnose aneurysm, and the only way she would survive is if inexperienced surgical interns Meredith Gray and Cristina Yang found out what was wrong with her. They were ill-equipped, misguided twentysomethings tasked with saving someone’s life.
Diehards know that Katie Bryce not only survived, but lived to return to the hospital a few times. And as beloved as a patient is, we’ve largely forgotten about the Katie Bryces of the world, instead we’re sidetracked by the shock scenarios of the series: the plane crashes and mass shootings and hospital fires that leave this God-forsaken hospital in ravage Seattle.
The truth is that Gray’s Anatomy was at its best when it took no interns and turned them into something amazing, while at the same time providing thoughtful, organic commentary on the world around it. The populist climax of the series was when Dr. Katherine Heigl’s Izzie Stevens went berserk and cut a man’s LVAD wire in hopes that he would get a heart transplant. It was insane! But it was not far-fetched. It was something a rambunctious, sleep-deprived young adult might do because emotions enveloped logic (I’m not saying it’s particularly excusable, or even legalbut still).
In addition, it made for exceptional television.
With the current season, the series took a risk on five new interns. It’s two men and three women, just like in the debut season. But instead of half betting on it as the series has done with internal classes of old, Gray’s Anatomy made the narrative decision to go all in and create a fleshed-out storyline for each story in the same way the series did in 2005. These interns are optimistic and flawed, arrogant yet strangely worth defending. Meanwhile, the chaperones who have come before them deal with largely adult issues that are beyond the years of the interns below them. For once, the burden of the plot has been shifted to the younger generation.
That’s what the heart of Gray’s Anatomy always should have been. The “anatomy” of it all is figuring out how to exist in this adult world, as a functioning surgeon who is just as capable in their personal lives as they are in the operating room. I’m reminded of a quote from Meredith in the first season where she says, “We’re adults. When did that happen? And how do we make sure it stops?” After 19 years, the writers of Gray’s Anatomy took these characters from the first season and made them graduate. It’s not like being an adult has gotten any easier (for example, in the Season 19 midseason finale, Meredith’s old house burned to the ground). But the trials and tribulations don’t have to be so impossibly overwrought.
In some ways, it feels like a fitting farewell. The original house has burned down, but on the edge, Meredith holds the framed note she and her late husband once scribbled vows on in the residents’ dressing room.
As painful as it is to admit, Gray’s Anatomy doesn’t need Meredith anymore. Not in the way it once did, at least. And that’s a good thing, because it means she’s found some semblance of peace – the conclusion of one of the series’ most beloved lines: Why do I keep hitting myself with a hammer? Because it feels so good when I stop.
From what’s been reported, Pompeo will be hanging around doing voiceovers for each episode and making an occasional appearance in the finale. And so it should be. Gray’s Anatomy will always belong to her leading woman, but for Gray’s Anatomy to thrive into your 20s (gulp!), it must be willing to let its tone, not its characters, dictate the story. As the series enters the 1920s, he acknowledges that the most recognizable part of his plot is that no one people in their twenties know what they are doing. And that’s a disaster that never gets old.