Tonight's Grey's Anatomy promises to release us from the cliff we've been hanging off for months as the show finally explains what happened to Alex Karev. Last seen on the show back in November, it was announced in January that original cast member Justin Chambers had left the series. The problem was that, storyline-wise, the show was in NO position to write him out. He was at the center of two separate storylines (his relationship with Jo; his being the chief of surgery at PacNorth) where his exit made no sense and left the show at some debilitating loose ends.
Over the last two months, the show has taken a very "don't worry about it" approach to his absence. Jo (Camilla Luddington) mentioned that Alex was called away on some family business, and although it worried her, she was willing to let him tell her about it on his own schedule. Meanwhile, any PacNorth business that's needed input got a brief "Alex emailed/phoned and said…" brush-past. In the annals of TV shows having to work their storylines around behind-the-scenes cast issues, it was neither as glaringly silly as Three's Company phoning Chrissy every episode, nor was it as eyebrow-raisingly dishy as Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi needing CGI to be in a scene together on The Good Wife. Still, the question has continued to hang in the air: how is Grey's Anatomy going to end Alex's storyline?
The answer began with the end of last week's episode, where Jo returned home once again to her empty apartment looking especially despondent. When her pal Linc stopped by to share his own romantic struggles, Jo confided in him: "He left me." Linc's incredulity was met by Jo's certainty. "I think he woke up one day and felt the need to escape his life and me. I called his mom. He wasn't there. He'd never been there. He left me. And I can't breathe."
Now anybody who's seen a TV show before knows the first explanation is never right. Or at least never as simple. So with Grey's promising that the conclusion of Alex's story will air this week, here's some quick speculation as to how this all might play out.
Look, there are three ways this episode can go: no Justin Chambers, old footage of Justin Chambers being repurposed, and Justin Chambers having filmed some of Alex's exit before he left. The first option is unsatisfying, the second option could seem grotesque, and the third option requires that Chambers' exit from the show wasn't as sudden as it appears to have been. An amicable, if hurried, split from the show (for whatever reason — we still don't know why Chambers and the show parted ways) might have found time for him to film one or two scenes with Luddington and/or Ellen Pompeo on his way out the door.
This seems unlikely for a few reasons, not least of which is the fact that it's what Jo already assumes. It would make Alex look awful, especially given how meticulously Jo's depression arc was handled, with her coming out the other side a more complete and mature character. Say what you will about this rushed exit, but Grey's Anatomy has always gone out of its way to make Alex look good in the end. At the same time, perhaps whatever occasioned Chambers' exit was tainted with enough bad blood to have the show kick Alex in the ass on his way out the door.
Jo sure seems to be placing a lot of faith in Alex's mom's say-so, especially since pretty much all we know about Ma Karev is that she's been troubled by mental illness all her life. It's curious that Jo wouldn't be even the tiniest bit skeptical. (Of course, Jo's depression is clearly weighing on her at the moment as well.) There's a solid-to-good chance that this week's episode reveals that Alex is indeed still taking care of his mom.
In the 2005 film The Upside of Anger, Joan Allen plays a wife whose husband one day up and leaves her. Allen deals with this by indulging in, alternately, rage and wine and Kevin Costner, but ultimately the twist at the end (um, spoiler alert) is that her husband didn't leave her; he went for a walk in the woods behind their house, fell into a ditch, and died. It's not a cheerful thought, and seems unlikely (all those PacNorth directives had to have come from someone), but maybe Jo hasn't heard from Alex all this time for reasons that are more dire.
Stick with me on this: It's another long shot (and probably more cruel to Jo than the show would be willing to go), but maybe Alex did lie about going to take care of his mother because instead he was contacted by Izzie (Katherine Heigl), his ex-wife and, for many old-school viewers of the show, his one true love.
Imagine if Izzie called Alex out of the blue with a crisis (her health or otherwise); you'd absolutely expect Alex to come running, even if he had to lie to Jo about it. If Alex leaving Jo feels pretty much unacceptable, Alex leaving Jo for Izzie … well, that might take some of the sting out of it, especially for longtime fans. You can't fight fate, and if Grey's Anatomy tells us that the old-school pairing of Alex Karev and Izzie Stevens are fate, well, maybe that's the best chance this story has for a happy ending.
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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.