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Is ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ trauma center of prime-time television, flatlining?

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MAY 22, 2017

The season 13 finale of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” aired last week. We need to talk about it.  

Let’s start with the penultimate episode — damn, was that one trauma-packed hour of television. Everyone knows that showrunner Shonda Rhimes can really pack a punch, but this season of “Grey’s” has gone out with a bang (literally) — one that almost overshadows the several intersecting plotlines that the show is known for.

Two weeks ago, several life-altering conflicts arose in just one episode of the medical drama. A character’s sister was found alive as a prisoner of war — she had been presumed dead for nearly a decade. Another character pursued the secret abusive ex-husband of his unrequited love, fantasizing about sabotaging his career.

A romance began brewing between two step-siblings, and an injured rapist threatened one of the doctors with a surgical blade, before taking her and a missing girl hostage and blowing up a wing of the hospital.

Last week, as the hospital flooded with firefighters, we were left to wonder if the explosion was a lead-in for Rhimes’ new firefighter spinoff of “Grey’s.” Needless to say, the episode had me screaming at the screen.

These episodes attempted to deliver what “Grey’s” has always served: distraction from distress with drama of the moment. Everything from the overly dramatic everyday moments to the traumas and disasters are what tie us to the character’s long-arcing (some longer than others) stories. They remind us why we’re so invested in their survival and why we’ve stuck around through it all.

That’s not to say we haven’t seen our fair share of wild events on the show. “Grey’s” has put its fans through all sorts of shit.

I was there when Meredith Grey’s (Ellen Pompeo) mother died, and through all the flashbacks of her mother’s violent suicide attempt that Meredith witnessed when she was just a child. We stuck around for several plane crashes that brought amputations and deaths for major characters.

We’ve been there from the beginning: when Meredith pleaded with Derek (Patrick Dempsey) to “choose her.” We were there through miscarriages happening alongside operations while the surgeons were held at gunpoint. We were there for births in blackouts and C-sections on kitchen tables without painkillers. We were there for all of it, in spite of how ridiculous and painful it may have been. These years of consistent audience investment say something about the show’s integrity. Thirteen seasons in, we’re still here for an episode with a comparably minor explosion and a hostage situation.

The show has reached its breaking point.

Starting a few seasons back, conversations began circulating around “Grey’s” as pain-porn, and I got it. There’s only so many times so many explosions, plane crashes, car accidents, hostage situations and so much unfathomable violence and trauma one can take before it feels like too much. But, beneath the surface of its catastrophic unreality, “Grey’s Anatomy” provides a strangely cathartic escapist entertainment. It’s emotionally tolling, but only because it has successfully accomplished a deep investment in the well-beings (however unbelievable) of its characters.

The finale ends with a monologue from a once-passionate doctor who decides she doesn’t actually want to practice medicine anymore. It makes sense that she needs to explore life outside of hospitals — and perhaps that’s what Shonda Rhimes and the cast are telling us as well. Perhaps life outside of “sterile gowns” and all the messiness around them is what former cast members who have left the show have sought, too. Maybe that’s what we as an audience are seeking now.

I guess what I’m saying is “Grey’s” is heavy, it’s complicated, and it’s emotionally tolling. It’s also a feat of television: 13 seasons of a narrative serial in which few original main characters remain. It gave us one of the most iconic televisual romances in the history of the medium: Meredith and Derek.

This episode felt like a breaking point of emotional manipulation — it feels like the “Grey’s” showrunners are sensing that their time is up. Any one of the events that transpired within these last two episodes could have been a several-episode or entire-season arc. With this finale, we’ve lost yet another main character, and it likely won’t take very long for the rest of the doctors to move on to the next catastrophe — and with each new disaster, the show drifts farther apart from its audience. The heartbeat of the show is wavering, strong enough for a fourteenth season, but after that, it will likely flatline.

If we’ve learned anything over these years, it’s that what “Grey’s” giveth, “Grey’s” taketh away.

Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].

MAY 21, 2017

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