The beauty of Grey’s Anatomy is in the way it becomes a surrogate for your own emotions — how you can watch it while in the midst of your own problems and cry not for yourself, but for these complex characters that Shonda Rhimes and co. throw into tragedy over and over again. At its most horrifyingly sad moments — George O’Malley dying in a bus crash, Mark Sloan and Lexi Grey dying in a plane crash, and now, Derek Shepherd dying in a car crash — the push and pull of the heartstrings can become overwhelming. It feels cruel even if, like many viewers, you’ve been watching Grey’s for more than a decade. This is why nearly 100,000 people have signed a Change.org petition asking Rhimes to bring back Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), the beloved male lead on a show full of smart, complicated women.
This screed states, in part: “You do not have someone survive a mass murderer, a plane crash, A FREAKING PLANE CRASH, AND A crushed hand, as a neurosurgeon…just to kill them off on a BEAUTIFUL DAY!!” It’s an extreme position, sure, but the intensity of Grey’s fandom is matched only by the intensity of the show itself. To stick with Grey’s Anatomy to this day requires some of the television-watching community’s most immense commitment; there have been so many obvious exit signs, particularly in the last few years.
If fans thought Derek’s tidy death last week (written by Rhimes herself) was unjustly brutal, this week’s portrayal of the year following Derek’s passing might have been too much to stand. It’s not enough that Meredith Grey — the once-fragile phoenix risen from the ashes of freakish catastrophe after freakish catastrophe — must wake up every morning without seeing that gorgeous, silver-streaked coif and those icy blues. Like Ellis, Derek has become another ghost haunting her memories, a reminder of which is written on a Post-It note, framed and hung over the bed they once shared. That realization was palpable throughout this week’s Grey’s Anatomy, but now there’s another thing to remind Meredith — and the viewers — of Derek: another miracle baby, Ellis.
In the now-infamous pillow talk scene shortly before Derek’s death, he told Meredith that he wanted more kids. The look on her face was exasperation: “But I already have two and I’m a surgeon and please don’t forget that my mother screwed me up,” it seemed to say. But with Derek back from DC, anything seemed possible. Derek and Meredith should not even be alive; they can handle the stress and sleeplessness of having three children, two intense careers, and zero nannies.
She may see Derek’s face in Ellis, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be any less alone in raising her brood and brooding as usual. It’s a hard truth that will alter Grey’s dramatically from here on out, however long that may be for the ShondaLand-loving ABC, and it seems particularly cruel on a show that’s increasingly haunted by the ghosts of former cast members. Even when they eventually give Meredith a new love interest — Twitter suggested, um, Karev — Grey’s Anatomy will never be the same. There have been so many cast changes that threatened to dismantle the entire show, but none short of Ellen Pompeo — not even the departure of Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) — could so effectively end one of TV’s most successful and longest-running current dramas.
Try as she might, Rhimes cannot will the memory of Derek Shepherd away from her viewers. A two-hour special that shows how Grey’s Anatomy lives even if Derek doesn’t, won’t salvage things. Rhimes’ continued insistence that show continue on past its prime, even as its leads walk, is undoing the strong legacy that Grey’s Anatomy once seemed destined to leave. Amid primetime network soaps, the show has led the pack with its character development, commitment to diversity, and discussion of mortality. To push forward this far after the show’s heyday seems like a disservice to how great it once was, and still can be from time to time.
When Derek’s death made headlines last week (thanks, Entertainment Weekly), the Twitter snark was in no short supply: “Wait, that show’s still on?” You can see why people would think that; with the departure of each of its stars, Grey’s has faced the question, “Is this finally the end?” And every time, for the most part, the writers have managed to breathe a little more air back into the show, most often by introducing new and equally complicated characters into the mix. Jackson and April replace Lexi and Mark as the couple to root for, Amelia becomes the one you want to see with Chief Hunt, Karev replaces Cristina as Meredith’s person. There’s nothing, no one, who is going to replace Derek in the hearts of fans. Eleven years later, Grey’s Anatomy is over — even if Rhimes doesn’t know it yet.