[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Grey's Anatomy's 300th episode, titled "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story."]
When Krista Vernoff returned to Grey's Anatomy after a six-year absence, she brought the Shonda Rhimes-produced drama's original spirit and tone with her. In its 14th season, Grey's Anatomy has managed to not only reinvent itself — which it has done after every major character death or exit (and there are a lot of them) — but, in a way, also remind viewers new and old of what made the ABC medical soap so successful in the first place.
Thursday's landmark 300th episode — penned by Vernoff, now the co-showrunner — was the perfect example. The hour was a nod to the show's gone-but-never-forgotten original stars, including Izzie (Katherine Heigl), George (T.R. Knight) and Cristina (Sandra Oh), and saw its central character, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), take home the Harper Avery award — the show's fictional prize that her late mother Ellis (Kate Burton, who had a cameo) won twice.
To hear Vernoff tell it, she originally wanted to bring back one of the show's original series regulars — though she remains tight-lipped on just whom — and bring back the feel of the show's early days and create the feeling that a clip show would produce without actually using clips.
Below, Vernoff talks with The Hollywood Reporter about season 14's nostalgic feel, her approach to the landmark episode and how next week's midseason finale will feel like a big event.
Was bringing the sense of nostalgia back to the show always among your priorities when you agreed to return? It feels like there has been at least one callback in every episode, culminating in the 300th's big dose of nostalgia.
Yes, the 300th episode was designed as nostalgia. But in terms of the other episodes since I've been back, it wasn't a part of my design. It's simply a part of my experience. I was here for seven seasons then I was gone for six and a half seasons. So my reference points, even though I've watched the seasons that aired while I was gone, I didn't live them. They weren't in my blood. So when I approach a script and think about the history of the character, the first place I go is to the years that I wrote. That's the nature of the beast.
What inspired the idea to do this homage to the past? You tweeted about seeing Eryn Rea in Seattle but did it start there?
I saw the Heigl lookalike, Eryn Rea, when we were up in Seattle, and she was our stand-in [for Meredith]. Every time I walked past the camera, I gasped because I felt like I had traveled back in time. She looked so much like first-season Izzie to me. We just kept talking about it. And then we were back in the writers' room talking about what we were going to do for the 300th episode. The inspiration for this episode was not like a lightning bold; it was more like a hail storm. We were talking about: Can we get one of the originals, that's obviously where you start. Well, no you can't, you try and you can't and there are a million reasons why you can't. So you move on. Then it becomes a conversation of how do we get the feeling of a visit from the originals without a visit from the originals. What I remember is that Jalysa Conway, who is one of our staff writers, said, "What if we did something with the Shondaland rollercoaster?" I said, "What if we had doppelgangers?" Jalysa pitched a roller coaster flying off the tracks and we call it the "Ghost Rider." We weren't able to clear "ghost rider" but cleared the Mirage and from that moment forward, it was a bullet. I knew exactly what I was writing and it became really clear when you've got three doppelgangers as patients that that's going to trigger a storm of memories in your series regulars and that that would be a way to pay tribute to all 14 years of the show.
Which originals did you try to get?
I am not going to tell you that! (Laughing)
Did you have to pitch Shonda Rhimes on the 300th story?
I pitched her a take that included one of the originals and then it became clear we weren't going to have the originals and I pitched her this and she loved it.
Katherine Heigl has said that she'd like to return to Grey's. Was that ever considered?
I love Katherine Heigl and I loved writing for her in the early years of the show and I can't comment beyond that.
Were there any conversations about using archival footage?
I said to Shonda, we have used a lot of archival footage on the show over the years. There were whole seasons that leaned heavily on archival footage; I remember weeping through episodes that had a lot of flashbacks to Ellis and characters that we loved as I caught up on the show as a fan. One of the things I said to Shonda was that I wanted to find a way with the 300th episode to do a clip show without doing a clip show. I want to see if we can have the same impact of using archival footage without actually using it. She gave me her blessing to do that.
This whole season has felt very nostalgic, obviously reaching a pinnacle with the 300th episode. Has that been intentional or organic? Has the writing process evolved since you've returned?
The way I came in was I had lunch with Shonda she said she wanted me to come back. When I made the decision to come back, I reached out to all series regulars and had long lunches with each of them. We talked about where they are with their characters and I asked them what stories they wanted to tell. I grew up as an actor; I was trained as an actor and my degree is in acting and I understand that actors are invested in their own characters in a very personal and specific way. At season 14, they have earned a right to be part of that conversation. I binge-watched the 100 or so episodes that I had missed and had lunch with all the series regulars. Then I came into the writers' room and basically just talked for two days because so many stories had come up in my conversations with the actors. And in my watching of the show, there were so many threads that, as a fan, I wanted to see. I wanted to pay those storylines off and [wondered] why wasn't that story told and asked why [writers] aborted certain pieces. I asked the returning writers to explain what stories hadn't been told and why. Then I set out to tell the ones that I was excited to tell and used pieces from my conversations with all the actors and we moved really fast. We had 10 episodes off the board within six weeks. We were very clear in what we were doing. There was never a conversation about nostalgia or the early years. When I say that that's in my bones, I mean that when I sit down to write or rewrite a script, if I'm referencing a character history, the stuff that often comes up is the stuff that I was writing in the past. That's why people are seeing this season with a sense of nostalgia for the early years.
What are some of the other story threads from the past that you're excited to tell?
One that's coming up is Jo's (Camilla Luddington) domestic violence storyline. That needle had been threaded and it was handed to me on a platter. Ellen talked about how important it was that she has been such a powerful influence on so many young women going into medicine. She was interested in paying off Meredith's evolution as sort of a medical superhero and that you've already seen this year and will continue to see [this season]. Giacomo Gianniotti and I sat down and he said he speaks Italian and he felt like there was a lot that he could bring that hadn't yet been explored and Italian was one example of it. His character has already popped directly as a result of the things he told me over our lunch. Jessica Capshaw and I talked about [Arizona and Callie's daughter] Sofia and the fact that just because Arizona isn't the biological mother doesn't mean she's not an equal parent. That's a storyline we're playing that's so important. These actors pitched medical stories and told me about doctors and nurses who approached them and pitched them things. They not only talked about their own characters but they also talked about ideas for the show in the years they've been working on it. So many of those are being used that it's hard to isolate just one.
That must also change the vibe on the show's set, too.
I'm having so much fun and I think it's not at all just me. There's been this matriarchy put into place that includes Sarah White, our line producer, and Debbie Allen, our producing director, and me returning, and Ellen is becoming a producer. It's really a collaborative, joyful experience. I'm so proud of it.
Next week is the midseason finale and this show has featured some doozies in the past. How have those influenced the cyber-attack episode?
Exec producer Bill Harper pitched me that episode as midseason finale and my first reaction was, "Don't we do a giant event of some sort?" And this is a giant event. The consequences are dire. It is an edge-of-your-seat action movie of a Grey's Anatomy episode.
What do you think of the 300th episode and 14th season? Sound off in the comments, below. Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.