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Grey's Anatomy's COVID Season Was TV at Its Most Psychologically Punishing

The show's choice to go all-in on the pandemic was both ballsy and unyielding.
  • May we never have to see Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) on that infernal beach again. (Photo: ABC)
    May we never have to see Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) on that infernal beach again. (Photo: ABC)

    I'm a Grey's Anatomy lifer. I take pride in being a Grey's Anatomy lifer. Every time my attention has started to wane, something has always brought me back into the fold by season's end. But the show's 17th season, which comes to a close tonight, is as close as I've ever come to dropping the show. I actually did stop watching at one point this season. Not because it was bad, but because I found it to be so unyielding and psychologically punishing, at a time when the very last thing I was equipped to watch was something unyielding, psychologically and punishing. Oh, I'll be back next season. Catching up on the show for the purposes of writing this article has confirmed that my love for Grey's is strong. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy to see this COVID-heavy, characters-in-peril, trauma-soaked season end.

    To be perfectly clear: Grey's Anatomy had little choice heading into this season. COVID-19 was the reality we were all living with, and as the #1 and longest-running medical drama in all of television, it would have been downright cowardly for Grey's to pretend like none of this was happening. No, Grey's Anatomy has never been a ripped-from-the-headlines show, but watching the goings on at Grey-Sloan Memorial in a world where the entire reality of the universe was different would have been too jarring. And there was no way to just do an isolated COVID storyline. The pandemic changed the face of medical care in this country, and no kind of half-measure storyline would have passed muster. So showrunner Krista Vernoff made the decision to go all-in and plunge the hospital staff headlong into this public health nightmare. I think it was the right choice. But oh my goodness, did it make the show hard to watch.

    Grey's Anatomy didn't have to make its other most consequential decision: to put main character Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) in a near-death state for more than half the season. But that's exactly what happened. It's a ballsy move to put your most crucial character in the path of greatest danger; it shows you're not messing around with your COVID storyline, and they'd given Meredith just a touch of the 'rona abd had her recover quickly, it might have seemed cheap and unearned. Still, I don't know that to properly earn a COVID storyline they had to do … this. Meredith's health swerved and swayed for the entire middle of the season, keeping the entire cast of characters in the same kind of traumatic state of panic over the fate of their friend as we in the audience were about the fate of our Mere. Every episode was an emotional obstacle course, with trauma hiding around every corner.

    And Meredith wasn't the only character in peril. This was a season that put Tom Koracick (Greg Germann) at death's door, killed off Andrew DeLuca (Giacomo Giannotti) in a violent murder — on Station 19, no less! — and had Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) grieve the death of her mother, who succumbed to COVID in a nursing home. There wasn't a character on the show who didn't endure deep, relatable trauma, and while, again, this is the world we've all been living in, it didn't make me any more eager to return to the show every week.

    Even the comfort that viewers can usually take from a lead character in peril — that the show will probably not kill them off — wasn't there for us this year, thanks to persistent rumors that either Pompeo or the show itself might call it quits at the end of the season. This was bolstered by the fact that Meredith's near-death reverie on a beach (that infernal beach; may we never have to see another scene of Meredith Grey on a beach) lasted for much of the season and welcomed back a veritable farewell parade of former stars, from Patrick Dempsey to TR Knight to Chyler Leigh and Eric Dane. The return of the souls of the Grey's Anatomy departed sure seemed like the kind of stunt you'd pull in the final season of a show.

    Happily those fears proved to be unfounded. Both Ellen Pompeo and Grey's Anatomy will be back next year for Season 18, and Meredith is finally (and one assumes permanently) out of her coma. As much as possible given the bleakest of bleak seasons, Grey's is wrapping up the year on a high note. The exit storyline for longtime cast member Jesse Williams as Jackson Avery was the good kind of emotional (including a satisfying finale scene between old colleagues Jackson and Meredith). And so long as there isn't another hospital fire or serial killer situation in the season finale, there's every reason to be optimistic that Season 18 will bring some much needed light to the lives of our poor traumatized surgeons. Like so many of our battoned-down masked-up lives this past year, this season of Grey's Anatomy was necessary, grim, and (hopefully) soon behind us.

    Grey's Anatomy airs its Season 17 finale tonight 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.

    TOPICS: Grey's Anatomy, Chandra Wilson, Ellen Pompeo, Giacomo Gianniotti, Greg Germann, Jesse Williams, Krista Vernoff