'Grey's Anatomy's' Shonda Rhimes Explains Her Decision to Kill McDreamy

Kerry Washington Viola Davis Ellen Pompeo Split - H 2015
ABC/Craig Sjodin/Bob D'Amico

ABC capped off its first of two days at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour with a TGIT-themed panel featuring stars Ellen Pompeo (Grey's Anatomy), Kerry Washington (Scandal) and Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder), who were joined by exec producers Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers and Pete Nowalk to discuss a wide range of topics including why the prolific showrunner opted to kill off leading man Patrick Dempsey on the long-running medical drama.

"The decision to have the character die the way that he did was not a difficult one in the sense of — what were the options? Either Derek was going to walk out on Meredith and leave her high and dry and what was that going to mean?" Rhimes said. "That was going to suggest that their love was not true — that the thing we said for 11 years was a lie and McDreamy wasn't McDreamy and that was untenable. Meredith and Derek's love had to remain Meredith and Derek's love. As painful as it was for me as a storyteller because I never thought that would happen, the only way to preserve that is Derek had to die for that love to remain honest. I couldn't have it that he turned out to be a bad guy who walked out on his wife and kid ... for me, the only way was to make Derek and Meredith's magic remain true and forever frozen in time."

Dempsey, who had a year remaining on his contract, shockingly was written out of Grey's Anatomy during the 21st episode of season 11. The character was involved in what would be a fatal car crash and later died at a hospital other than Grey Sloan Memorial partially because of an unqualified staff. The hour, titled "How to Save a Life" in a nod to the show's unofficial theme song, was the first episode written by showrunner Rhimes since the season eight finale in which series regulars Chyler Leigh (Lexie) and Kim Raver (Teddy) were written out.
Rhimes noted that there were a lot of discussions about how the actor's character would be killed off and called the actor part of the Shondaland family. "Those choices are never easy for any of us," she said of the process.

Added Pompeo of losing her leading man after 11 seasons: "As difficult as those decisions are, it's really her best writing. Those are the best scenes to play ... As difficult as it is, we had something really juicy."

Asked specifically how Derek's death will change Meredith now that she isn't partially "defined by a man," Rhimes noted that "Meredith Grey has never been defined by her relationship with a man."

As for the future of the ABC medical drama, which returns in the fall for season 12, Rhimes and Pompeo both agreed with ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee's remarks earlier in the day that Grey's could go on "for many, many years to come."

As for Scandal, Washington and Rhimes were asked how fixer Olivia Pope would handle Donald Trump.

"Do you think she'd tell him to do something about the hair?" Rhimes said to Washington. Interjected Pompeo: "You can send him over to Meredith and I can cut his vocal cords out."

As for what to expect from Grey's, Rhimes said season 12 would feature "a lighter tone." "We ended last season talking about the sun is going to rise again … we have this world in which Meredith is single and she is living this life she hadn't thought she'd be living again," she said. "She's living in a house with her sisters and she's surrounded by … women dating and having a whole life and she's not interested in any of that. You start to wonder if there's a second life here or if those years are behind you and you're on a different track. I'm excited about the medical growth she's experiencing as a leader, who she's becoming as a person and where she's going. The theme is rebirth, which I'm exited about for all the characters but really for Meredith. That evolution for the character is really beautiful."

As for Scandal, Rhimes noted the season would pick up almost immediately in the aftermath of Mellie being kicked out of the White House and explore what happens after everyone's world had been blown apart.

Murder season two, Nowalk said, would explore the backstories of everyone on the show, including how they met and the "dark and twisted things" that happened in the past "that made the characters who they are today."