'Grey's Anatomy' Showrunner Unpacks the Season 15 Finale's "Bold Swings"

Krista Vernoff, fresh off a two-season renewal and new job as 'Station 19' showrunner, talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the big cliffhanger.
Jessica Brooks/ABC

[This story contains spoilers from the season 15 finale of Grey's Anatomy.]

ABC's Grey's Anatomy wrapped up its "Season of Love" on Thursday with a finale that teed up a plethora of new storylines to explore in the recently announced 16th (and 17th!) seasons.

Thursday's season 15 finale featured Meredith (finally!) professing her love for Andrew (Giacomo Gianniotti) — and doing so while he was behind bars. DeLuca was arrested (and stands to risk his career) after covering for Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), who committed insurance fraud to help a family who had been terrorized by immigration reform efforts. Meanwhile, Meredith, Richard (James Pickens) and Alex (Justin Chambers) wind up being fired by Bailey (Chandra Wilson) for their roles in the offense.

Elsewhere, Teddy (Kim Raver) goes into labor and finds support in an unlikely ally: Amelia (Caterina Scorsone). After Teddy gives birth (a girl, named after her best friend, Allison, who died on 9/11), Owen (finally!) professes his love to his former Army friend. It sets up a love triangle between Koracick (new series regular Greg Germann), who is back at home building baby furniture for Teddy. (Poor guy, Teddy doesn't bother to tell her boyfriend that she's in labor.) Then there's Amelia, who sees Owen moving on with Teddy and has Link (new regular Chris Carmack) waiting in the wings for something more serious at a time when she decides to work on herself.

As for Jo (Camilla Luddington), she (finally!) tells someone what triggered her depression as she turns the corner and fills in Alex (Justin Chambers) before getting treatment.

The hour ends with a cliffhanger that sees Jackson (Jesse Williams) leave Maggie (Kelly McCreary) alone after going out into the thick fog amid a multiple-car pile-up. Jackson fails to return, leaving Maggie terrified of what may have happened to him.

Below, showrunner Krista Vernoff — who hit pause on her well-earned vacation — talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the season as a whole and why she hopes viewers will be talking about Jackson all summer.

The episode ends with a cliffhanger, Jackson is nowhere to be found after going out into the fog. Why leave the finale so open-ended? Was this a contract decision or a creative one? He's coming back next season as a regular.

It was a creative decision. It was a cliffhanger. I want people to come back [in the fall] and talk all summer and wonder what happens to him. We have not mapped it out. The writers come back June 3, I'm on vacation for two weeks and then we'll hit it. What I love about act six of our finale is we gave ourselves so much to play with for next season on all the storylines.

Will there be a time jump next season?

I have no idea. It's unlikely that there will be much of a time jump because I really want to play through the consequences of what Meredith did. But I honestly might be lying to you because I honestly just don't know yet.

You described this as the Season of Love," and it ended with Meredith professing her love for Andrew. Is there a theme for season 16?

That is a later conversation. We got through this season and then the writers went away. I'm really proud of the work we did this season but I don't have answers for next season.

You mentioned that you're excited to explore the consequences of Meredith's actions. Knowing that the series often takes on larger social issues, have you considered using Meredith's arrest for fraud to explore a bigger political storyline, perhaps around fighting for immigration reform?

We have not. The very nature of what Meredith did here was an argument for reform because she was confronting and talking about a really broken system. The system was so broken and it was just enraging to her. The idea that this family is suffering this much and is now going to suffer more was more than Meredith could bear. So she made what amounts to a really stupid decision from a really noble place.

Meredith's actions felt very old-school Grey's — similar to when Izzie (Katherine Heigl) cut Denny's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) LVAD wire. And there was a reference to that famed scene in the finale as well! Was that intentional?

Yes. One of the things that hasn't happened lately is Meredith Grey hasn't faced consequences for the rules that she breaks. She is a bold rule breaker and we love her for it — and she always gets away with it. We felt we had laid the groundwork to shock the audience when this time, Meredith doesn't get off so easy.

Meredith, Richard and Alex have all been fired, which will have a massive ripple effect on pretty much everyone, both at the hospital and in their respective personal lives …

Indeed! It is consequential AF, as the kids say. We were excited in the writer's room about that. We couldn't stop kind of laughing like, "Holy shit, what have we done?! What are we doing?!" But when you get to 342 episodes — which is where we are — you have the right to take some bold swings, you have to take some bold swings if you want to keep the show fresh and exciting and you don't want people to get ahead of you. You have to be bold. And I feel like we were really bold here and we'll see how it all shakes out.

Jo reaches a turning point and is admitted for therapy. How much will you explore how there's no quick and easy fix for mental health and depression?

I think that Jo is suffering from depression born of trauma … and the idea that her brain is telling her that she should never have existed. She's been in a horrible spiral and spirals are made more horrible when they live inside your head and you're unable to talk to anyone about them. This I know to be true: talking about things is the beginning of healing them. I was really proud of the design of that story. Episode 19 was such an exquisite episode and I hope that the writer and director and editors of that episode all get the Emmy attention they deserve. When I saw that episode, it uprooted all of my plans for Jo. There was no way in my mind that Jo could be happy and playful again this season, having just survived that. … We showed the beginning of the healing process. And the next step of the healing process is getting treatment. She needs treatment and that's what we see. So, while it makes you cry in the finale to see her and Alex say goodbye to each other, I believe that it's a happy cry because Jo is getting the help that she needs.

Let's talk about the Teddy/Koracick/Owen/Amelia/Link of it all. You really put a new spin on the love triangle in this one. Owen professes his love for Teddy, who doesn't call her boyfriend, Koracick, to tell him that she was in labor. What was exciting for you about exploring that, what, quadrangle? What do we even call that?!

A love quintangle! In the end, it was a love quintangle. I was excited to take that story on because it was so complicated. I'm proud that we did that for the whole season without really ever having Amelia and Teddy go after each other, without leaning into those tropes that we have seen so often in love triangles where there are two women and one man. I'm proud that it was Amelia driving Teddy to the hospital in the end and then talking about how they could be friends and maybe they should be friends. I am very excited as a writer by the complexity of Teddy and Owen having that baby and having declared their love and then panning to find Tom alone in the nursery that he is building for Teddy and her baby. That's an exciting thing as a storyteller because it leaves just great material for next season.

Amelia's journey was terrific: she's getting over Owen and winds up meeting this Link, and they're absolutely wonderful together. And I say that as someone who has loved Amelia and Owen together since their start. Instead, Amelia says she's open to something more with Link but decides to explore who she is before committing to anything serious.

I was exceedingly proud of Amelia for her growth and for her maturity and for telling Link the truth, which is that he was a rebound and maybe he's not a rebound anymore because life is complicated and he is terrific but that she dove into him too quickly and she has to figure some things out before she can decide anything permanent. It's like, if everyone could grow up that much the world would be a better place.

The balance of power between Nico and Schmidt shifted — and Schmidt just came out to his mother, having found his confidence. Meanwhile, Nico seems truly miserable. Jake Borelli was upped to series regular but there's no word about Alex Landi. Will he be back next season? What did you enjoy most about their storylines this year?

Alex Landi is going to be recurring for us again next year. I am not sure where it's all going but I thought that coming out scene was just gorgeous. I just loved them.

You're going to be showrunner on both Grey's and midseason spinoff Station 19 next season. I'd imagine that means you're shaking things up there, yes?

I'm not ready to answer what I'm planning to do with it because I just took this on and I've got to study it and get inside of it. It's an exciting world and the idea of merging these two shows in a way where characters from Grey's might appear on Station 19 and vice versa. The design is that Station 19 is three blocks from Grey Sloan. When Stacy McKee [showrunner and creator] decided to go it made the most sense for me to oversee the whole thing and see how cohesive I could make it.

I loved seeing Schmidt in that world, too. Is there a specific character or two you're looking forward to writing for?

I loved it, too. I need a month in a writer's room [to answer that]. I'm going to have writer's rooms that are right next door to each other and I've got great teams and I am really excited to answer that question for you in six weeks! [Laughs.]

How much pressure do you feel running both series?

Maybe it's just exhaustion that's not allowing me to have the anxiety that I should probably be experiencing but I am excited. I had a conversation with Chandra Wilson when I came back to the show [two seasons ago] and we had a conversation about Bailey. The question she posed is, "We've established Bailey as being an ambitious woman. What does she do with all of her ambition now that she's the chief of the hospital?" That's where we started our conversation about Bailey and that's what I feel like applies here. It's like, "She gets two hospitals!" I feel like I came back to Grey's and it has been a joy. And I think it's been a success and now I get two shows! I get two hospitals. It's like my ambition is excited and I'm excited to challenge myself and see what I'm capable of doing with this new challenge.

Grey's was renewed for two more seasons. I hate to ask, but has there been any talk about if season 17 is the end?

I've heard nothing yet. I'm under contract through season 17, that's what I can tell you.