This post contains spoilers for Grey’s Anatomy Season 16, Episode 16, “Leave a Light On.”
After all these years, Grey’s Anatomy said goodbye to Alex Karev by sending him back to an old flame: his ex-wife, Izzie Stevens.
ABC made an event of Justin Chambers’ exit from the show, which the actor announced in January. “For some time now, however, I have hoped to diversify my acting roles and career choices,” Chambers said back then. “And, as I turn 50 and am blessed with my remarkable, supportive wife and five wonderful children, now is that time.”
Chambers’ last on-screen appearance came during the November episode “My Shot.” After that, Karev had supposedly left Seattle to care for his mother in Iowa—but it turns out he’d actually reconnected with Izzie Stevens, his ex-wife, played during the show’s early seasons by Katherine Heigl. (Heigl left in Season 6 following some tensions arose with creator Shonda Rhimes.) Izzie left Seattle after surviving brain cancer—and as Alex explains in letters to his loved ones in Thursday’s episode, she secretly gave birth to her and Alex’s twins, Eli and Alexis. It turns out, Karev abandoned everyone he loves in Seattle—including his wife, Jo—to be with Izzie and their children.
Justin Chambers is one of the few remaining stalwart performers who has been with Grey’s since its premiere season. With him gone, only Ellen Pompeo, James Pickens Jr. (who plays Richard Webber), and Chandra Wilson (aka Miranda Bailey) remain.
Karev’s development over the years was striking. When the medical drama first debuted, his character seemed like a one-note misogynist with an anger problem. Over time, though, he softened and matured and realized his potential as a pediatric surgeon. He even went on to become interim chief of Grey Sloan Memorial for a time.
It’s pretty hard to believe that after all that growth, Karev would disappear on Jo and Meredith the way he did—but then again, he does acknowledge that in his letter to Jo. “I’m sorry,” he wrote. “You deserve more than a letter. This cowardice, this letter, it’s officially the worst thing I’ve ever done. But it’s about me, Jo; it’s not about you. It’s not what you deserve. You deserve and have earned so much better than this.”
Karev added that things always felt unfinished with Izzie, so he reached out—“and it scared the crap out of me because it felt like no time had passed, like Izzie and I were kind of frozen together in time. And now, now we’re not.”
“Izzie had my kids, and I know you get what that really means,” he wrote to Jo. “I know you of all people know why I can’t just leave now. I have a chance to make this family whole, and I just hope you love me back enough to let me take it. I need to give these kids the family you and I never had.”