A couple weeks ago, the news coming out of TV's longest-running medical drama was that original cast member Justin Chambers — who has played Dr. Alex Karev since the show's debut in 2005 and was one of only four original cast members (along with Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson, and James Pickens Jr.) — was not only leaving the show, but had already left, his final episode airing on November 14th. That episode, interestingly, was the show's 350th, and saw Dr. Meredith Grey (Pompeo) keep her medical license after testimony from, among others, Alex Karev.
There has thus far been no explanation for why Chambers left Grey's. We don't know whose decision it was, or why it happened in such a hurried manner. Grey's has bid farewell to cast members mid-season before, most notoriously Patrick Dempsey, when his character, Dr. Derek "McDreamy" Shepherd, died after an auto accident, sending Meredith into an episodes-long spiral, and the show into a time-leap forward to get past the grief of it all. Dempsey's exit seemed to reflect some bad blood behind the scenes, and Derek's noble-but-sudden death was received catastrophically by some fans. If Justin Chambers' hasty exit reflects similar behind-the-scenes strife, it would put him in the company of Dempsey, Isaiah Washington, and Katherine Heigl, all original cast members whose exits came after backstage controversy.
Chambers was absent from the show's fall finale, a cliffhanger that picks up again tonight in a crossover event with Station 19, in which a bunch of cast members from both shows have their lives hanging in the balance after a car crashed through the wall into local haunt Joe's Bar. That Alex Karev would be shuffled off the show quietly, one week before an event episode where his departure could be more definitively (if traumatically) explained certainly raises an eyebrow. Far be it from me to suggest bumping Alex off in an automobile accident the way both Derek and George (T.R. Knight) before him were killed -- if the McDreamy blowback was any indication, fans of Alex's character would erupt. But strange as it may sound, killing Alex off in a two-part cliffhanger car crash would have been a lot less messy than what appears to be happening now, which is that Alex has quietly left to tend to his mentally ill mother, and he won't be coming back.
For one thing, Alex currently holds a major administrative position in the Grey's narrative. At the beginning of this season, Alex, along with a handful of other Grey Sloan doctors including Richard (Pickens) and Owen (Kevin McKidd), accepted jobs at rival hospital PacNorth. This was an extension of last season's health-insurance-fraud storyline, but it has also served as a way for the show to loosen up the logjam of veteran doctors at Grey Sloan. The PacNorth portion of the narrative is less populated by familiar characters and thus was being anchored by Alex as he worked to build his team. That storyline is now apparently moot, or will need to get picked up by Richard or Owen, both of whom, for various narrative and character-based reasons, are less than ideal for such a storyline.
The much more crucial storyline Alex was a part of was his marriage to Jo (Camilla Luddington), which was only recently cemented on Halloween and had arrived at a place of true stability, especially after Jo went through the crucible of a mental health crisis. And hey, in real life, bad things happen without them making tidy narrative sense. But having Alex abruptly leave Jo hanging in Seattle, never to return, is frankly absurd given the current state of their story. At best it's a deeply unsatisfying end for a fan-favorite character. At worst, it will leave Jo stranded and grasping for a storyline anchor just as that character finally had a chance to get fans on her side for once.
One of the great strengths of Grey's Anatomy has been its ability to cycle out old characters, bring in new ones, and keep the show running strong. With Chambers gone, only three original cast members remain. But that successful cycling hasn't included hushed, unexplained exits like the one we apparently experienced with Alex. The exits of Patrick Dempsey, Isaiah Washington, T.R. Knight, Katherine Heigl, and Sandra Oh all led to some of the show's best moments. If we've already seen the end of Alex Karev and Justin Chambers, we won't be able to say the same about his departure.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.