Tonight's episode of Grey's Anatomy marks the show's 16th season finale, though not in the way show producers planned it. "Put on a Happy Face" is the season's 21st episode, and the last one completed before production was halted due to COVID-19. Rather than wait-out an open-ended quarantine, ABC and Grey's producers made the call in late March to just end it here. Seeing as the season had been set to run 25 episodes, we can safely assume that a great deal of the heavy lifting that goes into ending a Grey's season on the kind of note its fans are used to — a legacy that includes a hospital shooter, a crashed passenger jet, fires, floods, deaths, births, and one cut LVAD wire — would have come in those four further episodes. But a rushed finale due to unforeseen circumstances may just be the most appropriate way to end this chaotic season, one that threw up some unexpected roadblocks and required Grey's Anatomy to be as audacious as ever to get past them.
For a little perspective, at the beginning of this season, Alex (Justin Chambers) and Jo (Camilla Luddington) had just been married, Richard (James Pickens Jr.) had just been fired, Alex had just taken the helm at rival hospital Pac North, Amelia was just about to find out she's pregnant, and Meredith was being sent to jail for insurance fraud. This season has covered a lot of ground: Owen (Kevin McKidd) and Teddy (Kim Raver) solidifying their relationship followed by un-solidifying it to the point where now it seems obvious that she's going to end up with Tom Koracick (Greg Germann); DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) breaking up with Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and dancing on the edge of mental illness; Richard and Catherine (Debbie Allen) breaking up; Jackson (Jesse Williams) dumping Maggie (Kelly McCreary) and then using his next relationship to try to coax Grey's viewers over to Station 19. Richard being seduced by Jasmine Guy (former star of Debbie Allen's A Different World!) was this season; Beanie Feldstein pretending to be a doctor was this season; Holly Marie Combs and Alyssa Milano's bizarre Charmed reunion was also this season.
But of course, the true chaos was yet to come. We still don't know exactly why original cast member Justin Chambers left the show last fall without any fanfare, nor seemingly any advance planning for how the show would handle the exit of his character, Alex Karev. Having just married and acquired new job, and with no in-story indication that the character was preparing to leave either of those situations, the show quietly absented Alex for several episodes before delivering their most audacious episode in a long time, as it was revealed (via letters sent by an off-screen Alex) that he had re-connected with Izzie (the character formerly played by Katherine Heigl), discovered that she'd bore his children, and decided to leave his life in Seattle to be with them. It was a big swing, but a necessary one given the circumstances.
Tonight's season finale ought to be another big swing, given the circumstances. Richard Webber — one of only three characters who have been around since day one — is experiencing severe, rapid-onset cognitive decline, and at the moment no one is sure why. With the spectre of Alzheimer's a recurring boogeyman for Meredith, the resolution to this story should have major emotional consequences. Meanwhile, Amelia still hasn't had her baby, Teddy is probably gonna dump Owen for Koracick, and DeLuca's mental health is at a crossroads.
The problem is, that big swing likely never got filmed. Unless showrunner Krista Vernoff was incredibly forward-thinking on the subject of national crises, it's unlikely that episodes were re-written to accommodate a hasty finale. The show had even less time to deal with this than with the Karev decision; likely no time. If the season was gearing up for a high-impact finale, the fifth episode from the end would not be the time for fireworks. The promo (below) suggests high drama: Amelia's water breaking; Richard going under the knife; DeLuca breaking into the OR. But more likely than not, viewers are going to be left hanging on any number of storylines, and with an uncertain future production timeline ahead, who knows when they'll find resolution.
Tonight's Grey's Anatomy season finale airs at 9:00 PM ET on ABC.
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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, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.