Binging through all 16 Grey's Season 17 episodes in recent weeks before Thursday's season finale "played as an extremely recent period piece for me, and watching it was weird and discomfiting," says Emily VanDerWerff. From the perspective of life returning to normal, Grey's COVID-themed season looks starkly different from when it premiered last November. "Earlier seasons of Grey’s have mostly unfolded concurrently with the calendar of our reality. This one reacted to an unprecedented and eventful year by slowing down and stretching out time," says VanDerWerff. "The move worked in the series’ favor in some ways (like making Meredith’s storyline feel vaguely plausible), and undercut its emotional and dramatic payoff in others. The Black Lives Matter protests, for instance, mostly come and go in a single hour, with unfortunate overtones of a 'very special episode'; a less-compressed season less beholden to the events of our reality might have been better able to create an entire storyline about racial injustice. Yet the compressed timeframe also highlighted how the season’s two main storylines contradicted each other, at least a little bit. As Covid-19 became an exhausting reality for the characters, who tried to conserve ventilators and had to deal with their own mandatory quarantines after positive tests, death became part of the background noise of the show even more than usual on a hospital drama. Meanwhile, Meredith’s drawn-out case — one that involves her miraculously breathing on her own after the doctors make the difficult decision to take her off her ventilator — suggests death is inevitable, unless you’re the protagonist of a popular television show." VanDerWerff adds: "Still, in the middle of all its thematic confusion, Season 17 of Grey’s is often intensely moving. I cried multiple times, especially as Meredith’s efforts to survive became more central to the story. Even the season’s least-successful episodes were admirably experimental, like the one set in a different character’s dream (where Meredith grimly intones, 'Time of death: September 11, 2001,' about the character’s long-dead true love, in case Grey’s hadn’t already referenced enough traumatic national events to keep you occupied). Grey’s Anatomy’s 17th season may have been the show’s 'saddest,' but it still had plenty of bed-hopping and weary banter between doctors disagreeing over patients. That life can go on at Grey Sloan Memorial means it can go on anywhere. When Meredith Grey wakes up again (because her daughter cries over her at her bedside — omg, you guys), it seems less like she has defeated death and more like she has accepted the fact that she lives in a TV show. Sometimes, the point of comfort-food TV isn’t that it ignores our reality; sometimes, the point is just that it’s there every week, for better or worse."