How 'Grey's Anatomy' Said Farewell to Justin Chambers

[This story contains spoilers from the March 5 episode of Grey's Anatomy.]

Alex Karev has officially left the building.

After 16 years and just as many seasons on ABC's Grey's Anatomy, the fate of the character played by fan-favorite Justin Chambers was revealed during Thursday's episode. Billed as a farewell to Alex, the original series regular's last episode aired back in November. No new footage of Chambers was included in the episode though he did provide voiceover for the flashback-heavy hour. At the end of the day, Alex is alive and living in Kansas with his former wife, Izzie Stevens. Alex wound up calling his former flame — played by former original star Katherine Heigl — in a bid to help save Meredith's career. The newly rekindled couple are now living on a farm in Kansas with their twin kids. As part of the voiceover, Alex revealed in a letter to Meredith that Izzie called him five years ago to use embryos they froze years ago when they were married and she was undergoing chemo as part of her cancer treatment. 

Chambers sent shockwaves through the Grey's fan community in January when he announced that he would be exiting the Shondaland drama that he has called home for nearly two decades. Unlike other original stars who made the decision to leave, Chambers had a subdued — and unpublicized — departure in terms of the last scenes he appeared in. The Nov. 14 installment saw Alex step in to help save Meredith's (Ellen Pompeo) career. Since then, the character has been mentioned but hadn't appeared onscreen since.

"It is nearly impossible to say goodbye to Alex Karev. That is as true for me and for all of the writers at Grey's Anatomy as it is for the fans," said showrunner Krista Vernoff Thursday night in a statement. "We have loved writing Alex. And we have loved watching Justin Chambers’ nuanced portrayal of him. For 16 seasons, 16 years, we have grown up alongside Alex Karev. We have been frustrated by his limitations and we have been inspired by his growth and we have come to love him deeply and to think of him as one of our very best friends. We will miss him terribly. And we will always be grateful for his impact, on our show, on our hearts, on our fans, on the world."

As for Alex's current wife, Jo (Camilla Luddington), she also got a letter in which he explained that he went to reunite with Izzie and can't come home because they have children. He noted that Jo would understand why he needed to stay in Kansas better than anyone, given their parental issues. He also said that he left her his ownership shares in Grey Sloan and signed divorce papers. He reiterates that he loves Jo and is also in love with Izzie, with the twins as the tipping point to why he can't return to Seattle.

"There's no good time to say goodbye to a show and character that’s defined so much of my life for the past 15 years," Chambers said in a January statement. "For some time now, however, I have hoped to diversify my acting roles and career choices. And, as I turn 50 and am blessed with my remarkable, supportive wife and five wonderful children, now is that time. "As I move on from Grey’s Anatomy, I want to thank the ABC family, Shonda Rhimes, original castmembers Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens, and the rest of the amazing cast and crew, both past and present, and, of course, the fans for an extraordinary ride." 

Other farewells included Bailey (Chandra Wilson), who also received a letter in which Alex thanked her for making him a great surgeon — and shocked her by revealing that he's a father of two with Izzie. (Bailey's reaction, for what it's worth, was effectively how many longtime Grey's viewers responded to learning of Alex and Izzie's reunion.) Richard (James Pickens Jr.) also received a letter and, after initially being angry, understood the decision because he, too, missed out on seeing his daughter (Maggie, played by Kelly McCreary) grow up and was at one point in love with two women (Ellis Grey and his first wife, Adele).

All in all, Alex sent letters to his wife and all three of the characters who have been with Grey's since the pilot. The episode ended with a montage of scenes recapping Alex and Izzie's romance. 

Chambers has been a pivotal part of Grey's and has become a key confidant for star Pompeo both onscreen and off during their decade and a half working together. Alex is currently one of the doctors who exited the show's central hospital, Grey Sloan, to become chief of staff at Pacific Northwest as part of a larger storyline that saw a number of top docs fired after an insurance fraud scheme involving Meredith and her attempts to help a family in need. 

Chambers' departure arrives as Grey's is ABC's No. 1 scripted drama, a rare feat for a show in its 16th season. "When we were in season two, I'd say to everybody, 'Do you think we've got two more years? I just wanted to get my kids to college.' And now some of them are done with it!" Chambers told The Hollywood Reporter last February as Grey's Anatomy made television history when it broke ER's record for TV's longest-running primetime medical drama.

Chambers is the latest series regular to depart Grey's, which has weathered the exits of original stars including Sandra Oh (Cristina, season 10), Patrick Dempsey (Derek, season 11), Katherine Heigl (season six), T.R. Knight (season five) and Isaiah Washington (who was notably fired in season three). 

The veteran series has always brought in new faces to help fill the void, with fellow fan favorites like Jesse Williams (Jackson), Luddington, Kevin McKidd (Owen) and the returns of familiar faces, including Kim Raver (Teddy) and Caterina Scorsone (Amelia).