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'Grey's Anatomy's' Shonda Rhimes on the Deadly Finale: 'We're Literally Saying Goodbye to People'

The showrunner tells THR what viewers can expect from the "shocking," "different" and "crazy" May 17 season finale.

Grey's Anatomy The Girl with No Name Dempsey Pompeo 2 - H 2012
ABC/RANDY HOLMES
"Grey's Anatomy's" Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey

Death is coming to Grey's Anatomy's Seattle Grace.

With only a handful of episodes remaining in the show's eighth season, Grey's creator Shonda Rhimes has set up a season finale that manages to service the tricky predicament facing ABC's top-rated drama.

With the future of core cast members including Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey, Sandra Oh and Justin Chambers up in the air amid contract negotiations, the prolific showrunner has crafted a finale that is different from its previous seven efforts with the doctors, now residents, potentially departing the hospital for greener pastures. In addition, the May 17 season finale will spell the demise for a main character when a mysterious big event will put the docs in peril

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Rhimes to discuss the impact the challenging episode will have, address the future for the show's core couples -- Meredith has her sights set on Boston, while Cristina has the pick of the lot -- and how everything could play out in the expected ninth season. (While Grey's hasn't been renewed yet, it is considered a sure thing to earn a renewal in the coming weeks.)

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We've heard there's a big death in the finale. Could it be a character that affects the heart and soul of Seattle Grace? How big of a death is it?
It's a pretty big death. We're not talking [about] some guest star [who] is going to come in and die kind of thing; it's a big death and it's fairly shocking. It was hard, it was hard to write, it was hard to listen to at the table read. It is a difficult thing to do and not done lightly. When one of your main characters dies, it always affects the heart and soul of the hospital.

Compared to some of the previous finales that we've seen -- i.e. the hospital shooting -- where does this year's rank?
I don't know how to compare it. The shooting episode was done for a number of reasons; ultimately the point of it was to leave our entire group of people fresh, like naked babies in a weird way, in terms of being in an operating room and starting over. The intention of this episode is we're literally saying goodbye to people -- and possibly more than one person. In a weird way for me -- and I don't know if it will be this way for viewers -- it was much more painful than the shooting episode because there's something final about this, whereas the shooting episode felt like a journey that we were going through and then you came out the other side when it was over. You don't come out of the other side of this. Where we leave the end of the season is a little bit crazy. I kept saying to people, "This feels exactly like what should be happening, but it feels a little bit crazy." But it does feel like where we should be in that moment.

You mentioned saying goodbye to more than one person -- could we potentially see more than one death?
As we leave our season, we will have already seen a death, and there will be some lives in jeopardy.

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How did you approach writing the finale with so much uncertainty about the future of the core cast?
I've been thinking about it since the beginning of the season: what we were going to do not necessarily knowing what was going on with the originals. Every other season I've had, I've started literally by pitching the finale to the writers so that we all know exactly where we are going as we head down the season's road. This year, we couldn't do that. It was difficult; it was a big process. This is a very different episode than we've ever done on our show and it's not necessarily different for what exactly happens, although that is different. It's different for the way things unfold and they we leave things with our characters. 

How will the remaining episodes walk the line between writing characters out while still leaving the door open for their return should contract talks work out?
We have a very clear plan for what is going to happen next season. I already know how next season is going to lay out. Part of that plan doesn't necessarily mean that just because the doctor decides not return to Seattle Grace, it does not necessarily mean the doctor is not going to be on the show anymore.

Could we potentially see the show take place from two cities?
I'm not even going to speculate.

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Given your writing process, have you already thought about next season's finale?
No, not yet, not even close. I don't even want to begin thinking about that until we start talking about next season and we won't start talking about next season until June.

Is there a connection between the title of this episode, "Flight," and the penultimate hour in Season 2, "Deterioration of the Fight or Flight Response"?
I did think of "Deterioration of the Fight or Flight Response" when I titled this episode "Flight." This title is attached to the title before it, which is "Migrations." It's also about our little babies taking their wings and flying. There's a lot of meaning behind the title. There's many, many meanings behind the title.

Care to address speculation that the title references a plane crash?
I don't.

Meredith's first choice is Boston's program. How can we expect to see Derek deal with that?
Things take a fairly surprising turn in that Derek gets excited about Boston. It's near his family; Harvard is going to offer him the world. He begins to see that it is a very real possibility for the two of them.

After years of building toward their dream life in the McMansion, Meredith and Derek are mulling leaving Seattle just as viewers are getting to see it completed. What does that do for the show?
That's kind of the point. Seeing the house at this point in time is really the moment in which they are trying to decide whether they're going to stay or go. You get to see the one room, the great room of the house, it's quite lovely, and it was really nice that they allowed us to build it considering we don't know what's going to happen to it next season. It was important to show that and to show them at this moment in time, when in a weird way, they have everything. 

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How will Owen and Cristina struggle with her potential departure?
We've been very clear that everybody wants Cristina Yang. It's always been my intention that we portray that character as being extraordinarily gifted as a surgeon, and this is her moment where she's being offered the world from a number of different places. We're going to see her make a decision and see her try to decide what to do. For me, the thing that was most emotional was the prospect of Meredith and Cristina being split up. Yes, I think Cristina and Owen being split up would be a very difficult thing. But the idea that Meredith and Cristina were going to be split up -- that the twisted sisters were no longer going to be in the same place -- that's a prospect that they're all facing as they are looking at all of these different jobs in all these different places.

Could we potentially see Cristina and Owen agree to move on from the events of this year -- his cheating, her abortion -- and stay together by the end of the season?
We are not heading them toward, "Everything is going to be happy," or, "Everything is going to be horrible." It's not the point of the story that we are telling. By the end of the season, you will understand that that becomes -- I don't want to say the least of their concerns -- but I think you get a different understanding for what's important when you're put in a difficult situation. That is something that is going to happen for our characters, something that we can see potentially that builds into next season.

After an emotional season last year, Callie and Arizona have been somewhat quiet. Can we expect anything for them in the finale?
In the final two episodes, we will see some very interesting stuff happening with those two characters. In the episode right before the finale, Callie and Arizona are dealing with Arizona's friend who Callie is operating on, and that's a really beautiful emotional story about that relationship and the way that Callie takes care of Arizona through that. There's a level of emotion there between the two of them that's really beautiful. A lot of stuff happens in the finale for each of them.

Can we expect to see Mark make a definitive decision between Lexie and Julia before the season is over?
Lexie is the one who stepped away and broke up with Mark and has been harboring these secret feelings for him. As we've watched the season grow and he's become more involved with Julia, we've seen Lexie lose it a bit. She's realized her feelings for him, and I think we are going to see that come to a head in a way that's beautiful and possibly bittersweet and kind of lovely.

What do you think will happen in the finale? Which character do you think is going to be killed off? Hit the comments. Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit