Emmys: How 'Grey's Anatomy' Carefully Crafted Derek Shepherd's Shocking Death

'Mad Men's' editor also reveals the biggest challenge behind the show's final scene featuring Don Draper's ultimate epiphany upon a seaside mountaintop.
Courtesy of ABC
'Grey's Anatomy'

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When editing big TV moments — whether a hugely anticipated series finale such as AMC's Mad Men's or a shocker like the death of Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) on ABC's Grey's Anatomy — editors feel the pressure to deliver with every trimmed line of dialogue or subtle change of a take. And, as the viewers' eyes well up with tears, they're also watching Twitter to gauge reactions.

"I knew it would be a tough one that would be heavily scrutinized," admits editor Joe Mitacek of "How to Save a Life," the Grey's episode that left viewers stunned by the fatal car crash. "We had endless conversations with [showrunner] Shonda [Rhimes], more so than a typical episode."

Before his abrupt accident, Derek pulls over to help the victims of a car wreck, who eventually are taken away in ambulances. "We wanted [viewers] to have that sense of resolution to that part of the story then blindside them," says Mitacek. "We deliberately went to a wide shot so that you see Derek's car pull out, for that sense of 'all clear.' Then he's distracted by his phone, enough so that the truck could have been coming around the bend. We had [camera coverage] options but wanted to be in the car with Derek [when he's hit] to make the moment of impact far more visceral. We feel what [his wife] Meredith feels. It wasn't fair, and there was no chance to say goodbye."

In the May 17 finale of Mad Men, the final scene — destined to be a classic — showed Don Draper (Jon Hamm) beginning a spiritual transformation at an Esalen-like retreat. He's meditating on a hilltop by the Pacific. Then, with a subtle smile on his face, cut to the iconic 1971 Coke commercial "Hilltop."

"The biggest challenge was to get in as much of the location value as possible to a scene that didn't have a lot of time built into it," says editor Tom Wilson. "[The setting] is important to tying in what he did after he left there, getting across what was in Don's head. We wanted to make sure you could get that this was the inspiration for the Coke ad. We see people sitting, and then found [the take] of Don and let Jon Hamm work his magic."

In an earlier scene, a stranger's story in a group session prompts Don's change. "That was a pivotal scene that we spent a lot of time on, deciding how to let it unfold and how invested Don should be. Did we want to see Don transform or just watch him suddenly stand up? How overwrought do we want him to be? Where we ended up was just enough so you were invested with and without our main character."

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