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There’s a major reason Patrick Dempsey came back to Grey’s Anatomy: It was part of a massive storyline in which the ABC medical drama’s iconic lead, Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey, has COVID-19.
In Thursday’s hour, the second episode of the Shondaland drama’s 17th season (titled “My Happy Ending”), Meredith was hospitalized with COVID-19 as she and her fellow doctors debated treatment plans, including antiviral therapy solutions. Coming in and out of consciousness and afraid if she closed her eyes she might die, Meredith had repeated visions of reuniting with her late husband, Dempsey’s Derek Shepherd, on a dreamy beach. The character, clad in a mask the entire episode, also set her present on admission as she has a DNR medical directive. A promo for the next episode, airing Dec. 3, revealed that Meredith was alive but unresponsive — and that another person from her past would return.
Dempsey, who will continue to recur this season, stunned Grey’s viewers with his surprise return in last week’s season 17 premiere after Derek was killed off in the season 11 finale. The dream sequence indicated his appearance is in service of helping Meredith fight for her life. It’s worth noting that the storyline in season 17 began in April as the series reflects the early days of the pandemic.
The decision to see Meredith battle COVID-19 should be considered a big deal given that Grey’s Anatomy is ABC’s highest-rated drama and one of the most viewed on all of broadcast television. The series has a global audience and is licensed in more than 250 territories around the world. That helps deliver a powerful and global message about how deadly COVID-19 is at a time when positivity rates across the globe are reaching all-time highs. Los Angeles, where Grey’s Anatomy is filmed, set a new high for positive cases as Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a limited stay-at-home order. (Filming will continue, as entertainment productions are exempt from the new orders.)
“Last week we felt Meredith Grey’s pain as a doctor treating an early surge of COVID patients. This week we begin to experience what it is for her to be a COVID patient herself,” showrunner Krista Vernoff told The Hollywood Reporter in a statement Thursday night. “Over 1,700 health care workers in the U.S. have died of COVID to date. Many thousands more have been infected. Health care workers are on the front lines of this crisis, living through a war for which they were not trained. We saw an opportunity to dramatize and illuminate their plight through the incredibly well loved and well-known character of Meredith Grey. Doctors and nurses are fighting for us and falling for us. The least we can do is wear a mask, socially distance and stay home whenever possible. Meredith has a real fight ahead of her. And … she has that beach. Darkness and light. It’s a powerful season. Stay tuned.”
Grey’s was one of the first scripted television shows to shut down in March when the novel coronavirus changed the world. Its 16th season was among the shows that were cut short. Pompeo, when the series returned production in September, dedicated season 17 to health care workers. A month later, Vernoff formally dedicated the season to health care workers as a trailer promoting the new season featured real-life heroes battling the pandemic. “This season, our work is dedicated to the health care workers who put their lives on the line every day to try to save ours,” said Vernoff, who is also overseeing pandemic-related storylines on spinoff Station 19. “Wear a mask, save someone else’s life.”
Dempsey’s return arrived as the actor has been vocal about the need to wear a mask. The actor in July had an Instagram post go viral in July when he posted a mask-clad selfie captioned with an iconic line from his beloved “McDreamy”: “It’s a beautiful day to save lives.”
Vernoff, for her part, previously told The Hollywood Reporter’s TV’s Top 5 podcast that she initially balked at the idea of writing the pandemic into Grey’s, but ultimately writers on the veteran drama convinced her otherwise. “It was really about fatigue,” Vernoff said of her initial thought of not incorporating the pandemic into Grey’s. “To be the biggest medical show and ignore the biggest medical story of the century felt irresponsible to the medical community,” she said. “It just felt like we had to tell this story. The conversation became: How do we tell this painful and brutal story that has hit our medical community so intensely and permanently changed medicine? And create some escapism? And create romance, comedy and joy and fun? That’s the challenge this season.”
Thursday’s episode, which featured all medical staff being tested for COVID-19, also saw another surgeon, Tom Koracick (Greg Germann) also test positive. Another doctor, Maggie (Kelly McCreary) broke down as she recounted losing more than 50 patients — many of whom were Black women — and recounted the suffering of seeing people die without their loved ones nearby.
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