Shonda Rhimes continues to flame suspicions that she's in cahoots with Kleenex. The latest proof of the payola scandal: Thursday night’s episode of Grey's Anatomy, which brought with it the death of one of the series’ original, and most iconic characters.
(Stop reading if you'd like to avoid spoilers. Though if you have the Internet and especially a Twitter account, we suspect it’s too late.)
After 11 seasons on Grey’s Anatomy, Patrick Dempsey’s character Dr. Derek Shepherd died in the last minutes of Thursday night’s episode. After spending the bulk of the hour playing infallible hero to victims of a car crash he just narrowly avoided, Dr. Shepherd became the victim of a separate car crash of his own.
He is rushed to a hospital as a John Doe—as it turns out, there are other hospitals in Seattle than the one that employs our love-hungry, catastrophe-prone team of surgeons—and, in essence, narrates his own death, providing voice-over that chronicles every ultimately fatal mistake the team of doctors operating on him makes.
“I’m going to die because these people aren’t properly trained,” Derek’s voice-over tells a nation of viewers, staring at the TV with their hands clutched to their hearts, barely breathing.
Framed beautifully with flashbacks to Dr. Shepherd's love story with Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey, the episode ends with Meredith being rushed to the hospital to identify her husband’s vegetative body, in order to grant the doctors permission to end life support. It’s at this point, as you approach critical dehydration, that you wish you had bought that package of Gatorade by the checkout line at the grocery store. And that you curse Rhimes’s undoubted partnership with that damned tissue monopoly.
Sdlfawe;j*&$(934sKnvw. Whoops, sorry—that was my keyboard malfunctioning. It’s on the fritz because it is soaked from ALL THE TEARS.
ABC did an admirable job spreading the word that Grey’s fan, both those still obsessed and who gave up on the medical soap opera back in the days of ghost sex and deer surgery, would be wise to check in for tonight’s emotional episode. “If you have ever seen #GreysAnatomy or even heard of it…THIS is the episode you have to watch tonight,” the show’s Twitter account sent out earlier Thursday afternoon, a message that quickly spread through fan retweets (and to this writer).
Suspicions were high that this would be the last episode for Dempsey’s iconic character (yes, iconic—he turned “McDreamy” into a McPhenomenon and now we put Mc in front of every McWord). Confirming these suspicions a half hour before the episode aired, a fan leaked a photo of an Entertainment Weekly issue he apparently received in his mailbox a day earlier featuring a postmortem chat with Dempsey on his exit. (EW apologized for the mistake.)
Rhimes released a lengthy statement on the episode:
“Derek Shepherd is and will always be an incredibly important character—for Meredith, for me and for the fans. I absolutely never imagined saying goodbye to our ‘Mcdreamy.’ Patrick Dempsey’s performance shaped Derek in a way that I know we both hope became a meaningful example—happy, sad, romantic, painful and always true—of what young women should demand from modern love. His loss will be felt by all. Now, Meredith and the entire Grey’s Anatomy family are about to enter uncharted territory as we head into this new chapter of her life. The possibilities for what may come are endless. As Ellis Grey would say: the carousel never stops turning.”
And Dempsey himself gave a statement to TV Line. “It’s been a remarkable ride,” he said. “The worldwide impact has been extraordinary. It is incredible how devoted and passionate the fans are, and I will forever be grateful and humbled by the experience.”
He’s not being self-congratulatory, either. Dr. Shepherd and Dempsey’s role on Grey’s Anatomy did have a worldwide impact. Getting cast in Grey’s Anatomy was an unlikely second act for the ‘80s and ‘90s heartthrob. Rhimes, though a juggernaut now, was an untested showrunner. Grey’s Anatomy was a midseason replacement. And its rise, set fire to by the incendiary chemistry between Dempsey and Pompeo, was so fast and remarkable that it is the benchmark that Empire was being compared to throughout this past TV season.
It was Sam and Diane for a new generation. Everyone wanted to see if Meredith and Derek would get together, because they were a couple unlike any TV had seen. They were both insufferably selfish and almost inexcusably flawed. They spoke in beautiful monologues that you won’t soon forget, even if you wish Meredith didn’t have to beg for love as she asked, “Pick me. Choose me. Love me.”
They had hot sex and affairs and swoon-worthy reunions and fights, and it was all set to Snow Patrol tearjerkers. You just couldn't help but want them to get married by Post-it note already.
Even once married, they proved to be one of the most complex and interesting couples on TV, bucking the rule that you never get a will-they-won’t-they couple together on TV series’ because then their relationship becomes boring. Theirs was rich, engaging, and heartbreaking, even 11 seasons in. And even when they were happy.
Those Twitter users who weren’t sobbing at Derek’s death and snarkily remarked on his 11-season run with droll quips like, “Whoa, Grey's Anatomy is still on?” Yes, it is. And it is still wildly popular, if not the water cooler sensation it was when bombs were going off in people’s bodies and Izzy was cutting L-VAT wires. It remains one of the highest rated dramas on television, period.
Thursday night’s episode was brilliant because of the way it invited old friends back to watch and made it easy for them to pick up the narrative. Especially as “Chasing Cars” played during the final moments, it was nice to be able to, as a person who hasn’t watched the series in a few seasons, jump right back in and ugly cry like old times.
(This is where it must be said that Ellen Pompeo gave one of the best performances she’s delivered, ever, in this episode.)
It proved that everything that made Grey's Anatomy such an addicting show—shameless emotional manipulation rooted in genuine, earned human moments—is still firing on all cylinders. Obviously, with Shonda Rhimes still manning the engine.
It’s also worth noting that Dempsey is one five original series regulars who was still around in season 11 of Grey's Anatomy, which, as Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff flagged, is insanely impressive cast retention in this day and age. Just to compare, ER had lost all of its original series regulars by the team Noah Wyle left in its season 11.
In other words, things look promising—or terrifying, depending on how you look at it. There are so many more tears undoubtedly still coming our way.