'Grey's Anatomy' Boss on Those Surprise Returns (and Who Didn't Make the Cut)

Showrunner Krista Vernoff talks with THR about the Day of the Dead episode, the same-sex storyline she's looking to explore and what's next for the ABC drama's two emerging love triangles.
ABC

[This story contains spoilers from Grey's Anatomy episode 1506, "Flowers Grow Out of My Grave."]

ABC's Grey's Anatomy celebrated the Day of the Dead in grand fashion Thursday when Ellen Pompeo's Meredith was visited by visions of those she has loved and lost. Some of the Shondaland medical drama's most beloved characters returned — including Patrick Dempsey's Derek, T.R. Knight's George and Chyler Leigh's Lexi, among others — in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sequence set to a Spanish-language cover of Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars."

To hear showrunner Krista Vernoff tell it, the sequence was one of the first storylines earmarked for season 15, as Grey's had the rare chance to explore a holiday that it had yet to feature during its 300-episode-plus run. The scene also played into a new storyline involving Meredith's father, Thatcher (Jeff Perry), as she learns that her estranged father is dying.

Vernoff helped launch Grey's and was on its writing staff for its first seven seasons. She was hand-picked by creator Shonda Rhimes to serve as co-showrunner and returned to the series in season 14 with a larger goal of exploring storylines the series had left unresolved. Among them was what happened to Thatcher following the death of his daughter (and Meredith's half-sister) Lexi.

Below, Vernoff speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about the visions of the past in Thursday's episode, that steamy same-sex kiss and how she wants to tell a different type of coming out story as well as what's next for Meredith's love life (a love triangle!) and the complications ahead for Owen, Amelia and Teddy.

This episode featured a scene in which Meredith sees visions of the people she has loved and lost: Derek (Patrick Dempsey), Mark (Eric Dane), Lexi (Chyler Leigh), George (T.R. Knight) and Ellis (Kate Burton) — and her dog, Doc. What was the concept behind the episode?

When we got our air date, which was before we had our season planned, the writer of tonight's episode, Kiley Donovan, asked to do a Day of the Dead episode because we're actually airing on the same day. I loved the idea because after 15 seasons, it's exciting to be airing on a holiday we've never done an episode about — and because it's the holiday of the community that is being attacked in our country right now by our government and misrepresented. The holiday is delightful. I had just seen Coco with my daughter — whose name is Coco — and the idea that our loved ones who died can come visit us on this one day of the year was moving. I suggested Meredith's dead people come back and visit her in this episode. This was one of our first ideas at the beginning of the season. Kiley wrote this beautiful episode and I spent weeks in post with the visual effects team actualizing that sequence.

Did you have to reach out to those actors about using their images or did you use archival footage?

No. When an actor leaves the show there is paperwork put into place that allows us to use clips. We have some iconic footage that the fans will immediately recognize: That shot of Derek, the fans who have watched the show multiple times know what episode that is from. There are iconic moments and shots that we pulled from moments that actually never aired on the show — like Mark with Derek — and then there's newly shot stuff with Ellis and Doc the dog.

What were you hoping to illustrate with these returning fan favorites?

The design of that scene is some people believe in life after death; some people believe that our loved ones can visit us; and some people don't believe any of that and can look at this sequence and believe that it exists in Meredith's imagination or in Meredith's memory. It's a little bit of something for everyone.

Was there anyone else you wanted to do and you didn't find the right way to do it?

No, we got everyone in that we felt needed to be in that sequence. We actually had an earlier version of the sequence which included Denny (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Dylan the bomb squad guy, played by Kyle Chandler, who blew up when Meredith had her hand in the body.

What happened?

When I watched that version, it just felt like a stunt because I didn't believe in the emotional reality that Denny and Dylan were visiting Meredith on the Day of the Dead. I figured they'd be visiting their own families. Denny is visiting Izzie (Katherine Heigl), if anybody. It felt like a clip show as opposed to, here are Meredith's beloved people and dog that she's lost coming for a visit.

Is this a storytelling device you'd employ again or was it specific to the Day of the Dead-themed episode?

This was a Day of the Dead, one-time-only thing. The holiday is about the dead visiting the living and the living inviting the dead to come for a visit. So, it felt like the perfect opportunity to see the people Meredith has lost.

That whole scene is set to a Spanish-language version of a Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars," which is an iconic song for Grey's. Who's the artist on that and how can we get it?

We were trying to figure out what song would play over that sequence and Kiley suggested playing an iconic Grey's song and having it be covered in Spanish. That was her idea. As soon as she said it, I said, "Oh my God, it has to be 'Chasing Cars!'" I mean how many times has that song played? It's always our go-to. It felt like the most beautiful way to pay tribute to the history of the show while keeping alive the culture that we were celebrating with this episode. We commissioned that song. It's by Moon & Sun, featuring Israel De Corcho.

Looking ahead, how will Meredith struggle with the decision about whether or not to go see her dying father, Thatcher? Jeff Perry is slated to reprise that role this season.

Jeff will be in an episode after the midseason break, and viewers will cry a lot when he does appear! [Laughs.] And Ellen with him is incredible. It's a really deeply moving story.

The Thatcher storyline is going to last a few episodes. What kind of story are you hoping to tell?

Thatcher was a dangling thread in the series; he disappeared and I think it's because Jeff was cast on Scandal and it felt confusing to have him alive in both of those shows as different characters so they stopped recurring him on Grey's Anatomy. There are some stories that we owe [viewers] that we may never get to tell because those actors are busy and have moved on. But this is a story I felt like we owed that we could tell because Jeff was willing and available. He had to be persuaded a little bit to revisit Thatcher but I wanted to know what had happened to Thatcher after Lexi died. I was looking to complete that story.

Let's look at Meredith's love life. There's a new love triangle emerging between Link (Chris Carmack) and DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti). How are you looking to evolve that storyline?

Grey's has always had delightful love triangles and we've got several at work this season. But yes, I think you have isolated a delightful, emerging triangle but I'm not going to say how it evolves! [Laughing.] There is a depth to DeLuca that had yet to be mined. We are learning more about and evolving his character and you'll learn more about him in episode eight. And Link has felt like a lightweight to Meredith until we learned what I hope was a surprising and intriguing piece of information about his backstory — that he had childhood cancer. Suddenly that character and his lightness has a depth to it. Because when people evolve from that kind of pain in childhood they often will choose a stress-free life in response to that. The joy on Meredith's face as she looked between them at the elevator and then opts to take the stairs is one of my favorite moments of the season. Meredith's own lightness is emerging. She is dealing with the fact that her father is dying but still finding the joy in life. She has learned that life, death, joy and pain all coexist. And she doesn't have to go to the depths in the wake of that information and is still able to delight in the interest of these two really different men.

Will her string of blind dates continue?

Yes! The design of the blind dates and Cece the matchmaker [played by Caroline Clay] is because a lot of people who watch this show are lovelorn. For Meredith, love has traditionally fallen in her lap and she has been pursued. I wanted to say that even Meredith Grey has to put herself out there and be willing to do so in order to find love again. Even Meredith Grey has to participate in the finding of her new love life. I think it's a nice thing for people who are struggling to say, "Put yourself out there. Go and look and kiss some frogs and sit across from people who you think might be the right person and suffer the disappointments — because ultimately it's worth it in the end."

Speaking of putting yourself out there, Nico (Alex Landi) rejects Levi (Jake Borelli) after a very steamy kiss when he learns that it was the latter's first same-sex kiss. Why would Nico reject him after he was the one pursuing Levi?

That's Levi's question. They are not over by any stretch of the imagination. That was frustrating for me and it was frustrating for Levi. But I love where the story goes and you'll see more of them in the midseason finale after we're away from them for a week because the episode I directed is more of a centric-episode so the whole cast isn't in it. But Levi and Nico continue to play out; their storyline is not over.

What kind of larger story are you hoping to tell about the coming out experience?

What inspired the storyline initially was a conversation in the writer's room about what we were going to do with Jake because he is an incredible actor and we felt like we needed to evolve Levi. Levi has fallen down physically in as many wildly funny ways as he can fall down and we need to him begin to rise as a surgeon or we need him to fail. One or the other, he has to evolve. He can't continue to play this character and not evolve him in some way. As we were talking about it, I was thinking about a friend in college who was a clumsy, tripping over his own feet kind of guy for most of our freshmen year and then came out. When he came out both to himself and to everyone else, he emerged as a confident, sexy, really evolved and appealing guy almost immediately because he had claimed and was living in his truth. That was a story I was really interested in seeing. Coming out on television is often depicted as a shame spiral and my experience of it in life with friends has been the opposite; it's an emerging of a person's truth and deeper humanity. This character of Levi that Jake has created felt like the perfect place to tell that story.  

Teddy (Kim Raver) continues her inability to tell Owen that she's pregnant with his child. Knowing that Raver is not going anywhere, how much longer can she hold off on revealing that?

[Laughing] Not much longer! It's frustrating by design. I really feel Teddy's pain and conflict and understand why every time she tries to tell him, she is unable to. But the longer she waits, the worse it's going to be. It's going to be harder and more complicated for Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) and Owen (Kevin McKidd), and that's the design.

You're making your directorial debut in next week's episode. What was that like and what can viewers expect?

I had an amazing experience of directing because I had the incredible support of our producing director, Debbie Allen. I can't say enough about what it is when women support other women. Debbie thought I was ready to, as she puts it, get my butt in the chair. I would come to set often with a lot of notes for the other directors and she wanted me to be brave and put myself out there. But it didn't happen until my assistant, Emily, challenged me to do it. I approached it with something resembling terror because it is really difficult to be respected in one field and to have spent 20 years earning that respect and then to trying your hand at something brand new. I was really frightened, and I did it anyway. That's bravery, right? When you're really frightened and you do it anyway? I'm grateful that I did because I am proud of the work that I did, the performances that I got and proud of the episode. It was written by Elisabeth Finch, which will tell you immediately that it's gold. It features Richard (Jim Pickens), Catherine (Allen), Maggie (Kelly McCreary), Jackson (Jesse Williams), Meredith and Tom Koracick (Greg Germann) and the performances are exquisite. I don’t know how to describe the experience except that it was terrifying, powerful, magical and exciting and I'm really proud of it.

Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays on ABC.