Spoiler level: HIGH. If you don’t know what happened on last night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy — and don’t want to — then walk away now.

Fans be like…

I could make a long list of things that last night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy did wrong. From ridiculous plot points and redundant dialogue, to bad green screens and cheap fake-outs. There were dozens of violations, offset only by a few brief moments of brilliance from Ellen Pompeo, the endearing mother-daughter duo that Derek rescued, and Patrick Dempsey’s pretty face.

But that list, however long, is all small potatoes. That list is all forgivable.

What isn’t forgivable is the death of Derek Shepherd.

I’m not upset because he was McDreamy and I’m some moony fangirl. I’m upset because the act of killing off Derek broke a sacred, unspoken agreement between storyteller and audience.

A television pilot, like the first chapter of a book, is a promise to the viewer. This is what the story is about. This is what you’re signing up for.

The pilot episode of Grey’s Anatomy promised viewers that Meredith and Derek were the endgame. That they would get their Happily Ever After. That’s what I signed up for. Of course there were going be obstacles in the way. A first wife, a bomb, a cute vet, depression, a shooting, etc. That’s how storytelling works. Writers raise the stakes; we raise our expectations and investment.

Last night, our investment went completely bust.

I know there are reasons for what Grey’s did, even if I’ll never really know what those reasons are. Regardless, I think the better decision would have been to shut the show down. It has had 11 good years. It launched Shonda Rhimes’s career. It highlighted diversity in mainstream television. Rather than being pushed around by whatever off-screen ish came up — and eroding the artistic integrity of the story and main characters along the way — Grey’s should have gone out on its own terms, with a spectacular and fulfilling series finale reminiscent of its glory days.

But no one asked me. So I guess instead it will limp ahead for as long as it can.

In fairness, it’s not impossible for fans to enjoy Grey’s going forward. I’m sure there will be good, smart developments for many of the characters. (I’m particularly interested in Karev, Jackson, April, and Amelia.) But there is no longer any way for Grey’s to deliver on its original premise. It’s a fundamentally different show now.

Would I still have listened to my mom 10 years ago — “You have to watch this new doctor show!” — if I had known that the pilot was, essentially, a lie? I don’t know. Maybe. Okay, probably, because it was really damn good. But would I have continued past Season 3? No way. That was the end of the best years. I wish I’d seen the decline coming, found a good stopping point sometime during Season 4, and just gone off on my merry way.

(Ironically, that’s pretty much what my mom did.)

Will I quit the show now? I’m not sure yet. Part of me says I already put in 10 years; I ought to see this through to the end. But another part of me knows that those 10 years are a sunk cost; I can’t include them in the calculation of what my time is worth moving forward. And when I think about other shows I’ve quit — Scandal, Heroes, Chuck — I have no regrets.

So we’ll see.

I suppose what’s more important is that this has made me think much more critically about my own beginnings and what I’m promising to readers with my opening chapters. I don’t ever want to be guilty of this kind of betrayal.

10 responses to “Broken promises and clinging on for too long (or: What ruined Grey’s Anatomy)”

  1. Shari Avatar

    I was going to write a post about this today, too, but I didn’t get around to it … so that means you get to hear my diatribe instead. ;-)

    I am so upset over this … probably irrationally upset, because obviously it’s just a television show. It’s not like characters haven’t died on it before, and the same is true for other shows I watch, too. But it’s like you said: this one feels like a broken promise. I understand that Shonda likes to write big, splashy, dramatic twists. I understand that if the goal was to get people talking, she sure as heck achieved it. I understand that we’re all supposed to be upset. There was something so inorganic about this, though – not only in the fact that she killed him off, but the way in which she did it. I just don’t for a second buy that a sensible, smart person like Derek would stop to check his phone when his car was straddling the road like that. Plot points are plot points, but it seemed kind of … what’s the word … disrespectful, I guess … to write something that out of character, especially after everyone has invested in him, in them all, for ten years. I know it’s not the same, but when I think of my books, I can’t even imagine doing something like that. Even if she was absolutely determined to kill him off, there were a hundred better ways to do it. I’d rather him have died saving those people, or somehow protecting Meredith and the kids, because then at least it would have followed the story. He’d have been Derek, he’d have died for love, whether his love of his family or of being a doctor.


    Can you tell I have a lot of thoughts about this?!

    1. Kristan Avatar

      I don’t think it’s too irrational. These people, fiction or not, have been in our lives for a decade!

      And yes, I agree with you completely. If he had to go, I wish you could have written him out instead! Because the version of Derek’s death that we got was pretty… pathetic, for lack of a better word. And implausible. And out of character. He deserved better. WE deserved better.

  2. Anthony Lee Collins Avatar

    I think this is a really important point, and all the more so since it’s not obvious.

    Some contracts are clear. If something comes labeled “romance,” well, somebody will end up with somebody. If it’s “horror,” something had better be scary. If it’s marketed for an age group, it will be appropriate for that age.

    But the type of contract you’re talking about is much more subtle. And I think that (I never thought about this aspect before, so thanks for pointing it out) the longer the form, the more binding the contract can be.

    For example, Conan Doyle wrote at least one short story where Sherlock Holmes didn’t solve the mystery. But he never wrote a novel where Holmes was wrong. That would have been very difficult to pull off. But a short story, in a series where Holmes does solve the mystery — that worked.

    And here’s a good example of the subtlety of it: in Lord of the Rings it is a given from the beginning that the ring will be destroyed, but it’s not a given that it will be Frodo who destroys it. That’s the difference with The Hobbit, which was 100% Bilbo’s story, and was even subtitled “There and Back Again.” There was no “and Back Again” guarantee in Lord of the Rings.

    I can think of a lot more examples, but I’m thnking that’s better as a blog post. :-)

    1. Kristan Avatar

      Oohh, good points.

      Yes, I think we can forgive a lapse or change of pace when it’s a smaller piece of a larger picture. In fact, Grey’s has increasingly sidelined the Mer/Der romance over the years, BUT they’ve always come back to it or given glimpses eventually, because IT IS THE CORE.

      And haha, I totally hear you on how this topic could spiral out into additional blog posts. I actually did think about comparing/contrasting Grey’s with other shows and the promises they made (for example Ally McBeal, in which a soul mate character was also killed off), but I figured 500 words on this was enough for now. ;P

      1. Anthony Lee Collins Avatar

        I think in the case of Sherlock Holmes, his single failure was actually a positive. After all, if a hero is infallible, that can reduce the tension.

        I decided that a few more words on the topic might be appropriate. :-)

  3. vpchandler Avatar

    I stopped watching when Christina left the show. Everything was so depressing, none of the comedy relief and happiness that balanced the first seasons.
    I stopped watching Heroes and Chuck too, along with Bones, Rizzoli and Iles, and Castle. Story lines got too contrived and the characters acted in ways that they never would have, if they had stayed true to character.

    1. Kristan Avatar

      Exactly! Complete 100% ditto to both your points.

      1. Grace Avatar

        This was a great read. Beautifully said!

        In case you’re also wanting to take some action, I just signed the petition to get him back.


  4. yogadog Avatar

    Wait, Grey’s Anatomy is still on the air? Didn’t they kill off most of the cast a few years ago?

    1. Kristan Avatar

      Lol. Yep, 11 years so far, with a 12th planned, though I’m not 100% sure they’ll get it after what has happened… But anyway, they’ve kind of killed off characters in 1s and 2s over the years. Every season a different tragedy.