'Grey's Anatomy' Boss on Justin Chambers' Exit, Season 16 "Finale"

GREY’S ANATOMY - Put on a Happy Face - APRIL 9 -Publicity-H 2020
Jessica Brooks/ABC

[This story contains spoilers from episode 1621, "Put on a Happy Face."]

ABC's Grey's Anatomy concluded its 16th season Thursday with an episode that wasn't designed to be a finale but, as showrunner Krista Vernoff admits, was lucky to have doubled as one.

The Shondaland medical drama had four episodes left to produce before Vernoff made the call to shut down — the first series to do so amid the new coronavirus crisis — in a move she says was designed with the crew's health in mind. The series was also the first to publicly confirm that those four episodes would never be produced as Vernoff and her team will use their extended hiatus as a way to incorporate those events into the drama's previously announced 17th season.

As for the episode, here's what happened: Richard (Jim Pickens) is cured, but rejects his estranged wife, Catherine (Debbie Allen). Owen (Kevin McKidd) and Teddy (Kim Raver) are … on pause. Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) and Link (Chris Carmack) have their son. DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) saves the day with Richard but has a breakdown. Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) now finds herself in a love triangle (again).

Below, Vernoff talks with The Hollywood Reporter about making the call to shut down, how she's approaching season 17 and, yes, how she and the Grey's writers wrote out Justin Chambers' Alex.

First, how are you doing with the state of the TV industry right now?

I'm worried about everybody in the world, including our industry. I'm really lucky to have continued work. I have a writers room for [ABC pilot] Rebel and I'm doing post on Station 19. I have some semblance of normalcy and I'm hopeful that there will be some return to normalcy in the not-too-distant future.

Grey's was the first show to shut down production. What went into that decision and was what has ensued since what you were expecting at the time?

What went into that decision for me, and why I pushed for that shutdown, is we have been on the air for so long that so many of our crewmembers were in that high-risk category. Many of them are over 60 or even 70. There was a day when someone was saying, "Maybe you should go to set and give a pep talk," and I had a feeling of like, "No, I don't want to go to set." I called the network and said if I don't want to go to that set space, you can't keep asking the crew — who are all high-risk — to go. Like anyone else, did I expect the whole world to shut down? No. This is all so unprecedented in our world. I didn't expect this. I just knew in that moment that what I was reading that was happening in Italy meant we were in danger here and I wanted to protect our crew.

You lost four episodes from this season. What was the cast's response to that? What are you considering doing with the remaining four unproduced episodes? Rolling them to next season? Or waiting to see what happens with the world before you plot out what comes next?

We're waiting to see what happens with the world. I will start a season 17 writers room in May, and, at that point, I imagine our conversation will be about starting our story from where we left off in season 16. But I don't think we can take unproduced scripts that we didn't shoot and shoot them. We're going to have had a break and have new ideas. We've been texting each other ideas already. Some of those things that we had decided, we're changing because we'll have had a break and have come up with better ideas. And some of it is going to have to change because you're taking what was going to be a regular episode and have to turn it into a season premiere and that will require some reimagining.

As a medical drama, and one with a global audience — you air in something like 250 markets across the globe — have you talked about if you're going to incorporate coronavirus into your storyline?

I haven't talked to anyone about anything yet because we're not in the room right now. We're on what would have been our hiatus. But once the writers room gathers in early May, we'll begin to have those conversations. I've been thinking, are we incorporating coronavirus into the storytelling and also does that dictate what kind of stories we can tell? Are we, for example, limiting the number of people in a room? If we're doing a story where 60 people were sitting in a theater, are we no longer doing that story? Those are the things I'm thinking about because I don't think this is going to be totally over when we come back to shoot in July. I don't know.

Have you thought about what it would take for you guys to feel safe enough — given the crew you have — to go back into production?

The Writers Guild is thinking about all of those things. There are conversations about, will testing be more widely available by that point? Are you testing people when they go to work? Are you taking temperatures of people before they go to work? I'm addicted to silver linings and an idealist and fantasy thinker because I am a writer, so I keep thinking maybe some miraculous vaccine or cure or somebody will figure out a medicine we use for this can be effective. I'm trying not to think about it too much because no one knows anything and next week everything could change.

This episode was fortunate to work as a season finale. Can you say anything about what would have happened in those four episodes? Or are those ideas that you're holding on to for now?
I'm going to hold on to them for now because I imagine we'll play out a fair amount of them in season 17. It's not lucky that there's a pandemic and we had to stop our storytelling four episodes short, but it's lucky that where we had to stop wound up as a pretty perfect season finale.

One thing watching this episode that I'm very eager to know: What do Amelia and Link name their son? Grey's does have a way of honoring the past when it comes to baby names …

The name the baby storyline was in episode 22 [which won't be produced]. I suspect it will play in the [season 17] premiere.

Any clues if the name has any special significance? Derek, maybe …

I will tell you that the name is not Derek (laughing). I'll give you that the line in 1622 about Derek was that Link pitched it and Amelia said, "I don't want to cry every time I look at my baby, so no." But the name is meaningful, yes.

Owen tells his mother that he's postponing the wedding but doesn't tell Teddy. He obviously has that pretty awful voicemail in which he hears Teddy sleep with Tom. Why doesn't he break things off?

The cruelest thing that Owen could do in that moment is to call his mother and not Teddy. That didn't come from anything magnanimous. Letting Teddy suffer in that silence and fear … if everything is OK, you call your partner and say we can't do it. I honestly think Owen is in too much pain to talk to Teddy at this point. It's a major storyline for us to play in season 17: are they over? Is there a way for him to come back from this? Owen has cheated himself and been forgiven, so he would be a hypocrite to not allow for possibility that there could be some forgiveness here. Yet what he heard was really damning. That OR scene was my favorite scene of the season. It was really beautiful.

DeLuca, who should be celebrating a big professional victory, realizes he has a problem after diagnosing Richard. What are you looking forward to exploring with his storyline?

Everyone interprets that last scene differently. What I believe happens to DeLuca in that last scene is that he's been manic for so long that his brain chemicals have shifted and he's gone into a depression and that's what you're seeing. It's not that he's making any kind of realization; it's that he can't get up off the floor and he doesn't know why. We're telling a story of a mental health crisis with DeLuca and I think he does have the disease his father has. What's kind of beautiful about where we ended the season is that you see that a person who is struggling with mental health crisis can still be an incredibly productive member of society. He diagnoses Richard and saves the day — and he goes into a hole. Where we go from here … you'll see in season 17.

There's a great scene during Richard's surgery when DeLuca looks up at Meredith and gives her this nod, which feels like he's thinking that maybe now he is on her level professionally — and maybe now she can see him in that way. Meredith, meanwhile, tells Cormac Hayes (Richard Flood) that she wants him to ask her out again. This episode also had a lot of foreshadowing that Hayes and Meredith seem destined to be together. What's the larger idea or theme you're looking to explore with this … triangle of sorts? 

It kind of is a triangle at this point. There are so many pieces to making television: there's the conversation in the writers room, then the script on the page. It's like what you think it will be vs. what's on the page. And then there's what the actors do with it. That story has emerged in a way where I never expected it to be a triangle but feels like it very much is one right now. That's because DeLuca has been so heroic and so dynamic in his mental health storyline that, in a strange way, I expected that storyline would illuminate him as a love interest for Meredith and it ironically feels like it's done the opposite. It's been amazing to watch Giacomo resonate with that storyline. The story ended up better than what I expected it was going to be because now I don't know who I'm rooting for Meredith to be with. There's a part of me that feels like DeLuca, if he gets the right kind of treatment, could be becoming a human being with life experience that helps him rise to Meredith's level, and yet there's this man, who is co-signed by Cristina and we've seen the pain he's survived and how, in so many ways, his life experience mirrors Meredith's. Where this goes now is really anybody's guess. I'm excited to see how it unfolds.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about something else that happened earlier this season: Justin Chambers exited this season. While Alex had a big sendoff, it felt like Chambers left quietly and suddenly. What can you say about happened and the way that all transpired?

I decline comment.

From a planning standpoint, how much notice did you have that Chambers wasn't returning? Chambers' last episode aired in November …

I don't want to talk about it.

Can you talk a bit about how the Grey's team came up with how you concluded Alex's storyline, reuniting him with Izzie (Katherine Heigl)?

I love that episode. I thought it was beautiful, romantic, heartbreaking, painful and the perfect combination of the way so many stories happen in Shondaland, where you're simultaneously crying for joy and crying for grief. It was perfectly imperfect and it was perfectly messy. It allowed for Alex to have grown as a human in a variety of ways and to still be imperfect and to disappoint a woman he has loved greatly. It allows for Jo to have been a person who really healed him and in so many ways that he's now able to go be this wonderful dad to these kids. And it allowed for the characters who are still at Grey Sloan to not have to go through another massive chapter of grief. I thought it was beautiful and I'm really proud of it. It was an amazing thing to get to watch 16 seasons worth of material. To get to go backwards on a character's timeline, 16 seasons, and to have it actually be stuff we shot on the show? That's rare in TV. Usually if you're flashing back, you're using VFX to de-age a character. 

Wrapping things up, I always ask you the same two questions at the end of every season. Will there be any cast departures ahead of season 17? 

There are no notable castmember departures happening between seasons.

And are there any conversations about season 17 being the last one for Grey's?

And in terms of 17 being the end, I never believe it's the end until they tell me it's the end for real.