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ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy returns for its 11th season — with no end game in sight, to hear showrunner Shonda Rhimes tell it.
Following the heartbreaking departure of Sandra Oh‘s beloved Cristina Yang, the upcoming season of the veteran medical drama will put its focus on Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) as she explores life without her “person” and the challenges that come with having a husband who believes his career is more important than hers.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Rhimes on Tuesday at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour to discuss how Cristina’s departure helped tee up a season poised to focus on Meredith, how Richard (James Pickens Jr.) and Ellis’ (Kate Burton) love child, Maggie (Kelly McCreary), will be a different story than Lexie (Chyler Leigh) and why surrogacy is not the answer for Callie (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw).
The majority of the Grey’s cast has two-year deals. Do you have an end game in sight? Do you see the show going beyond season 12?
I see the show going as long as I’m interested in telling the story. I discovered that I continued to find new things that excite me. As we were crafting Cristina’s exit, we were feeling an incredible sense of nostalgia and being unable to write that final scene and then coming to that crazy moment of realizing that Cristina was going to say to Meredith, “He is very dreamy, but he is not the sun — you are,” realizing that there is so much more story to tell for Meredith. I got excited again and that moment continues to happen for me as I look at these characters and go, “Oh, there’s growth there, there’s something more that can happen.” What’s great about them is they’re living their life; they’re on the same journey I am, which is nice. Meredith and I are the same person and have been on the same journey for as long as I can remember, which is very nice.
What’s the theme of this season?
I don’t know yet. Right now, if you were in the writers’ room you’d probably tell me the theme was Meredith, because that’s all I keep saying. I’m like, “The show is just about Meredith Grey!” Maybe the theme is Meredith at this point. It’s really a Meredith-centric season. There’s a lot of growth. She’s lost her person. Her sister has showed up. Her husband is chafing to go someplace else. She’s got all these things going on. Maybe that’s the theme, maybe it’s independence. But for me right now, it feels like it’s Meredith. I’m feeling her more acutely because she’s lost her person.
Cristina’s departure must open up a whole new avenue for storytelling.
Yes, which is why I felt like it was the right moment to meet Meredith’s sister, to meet Ellis Grey’s other daughter. There’s Meredith’s sister, which are the other children of Thatcher Grey (Jeff Perry), and then there is Ellis Grey’s other daughter, which is a whole other thing, which is the only child that came out of a relationship with somebody who Ellis was in love is very different from Meredith being born from Thatcher and Ellis.
How will Meredith handle having a new half-sister, Maggie? How will that story be different than Meredith’s experience with Lexie?
It will inform it. We’ve known the Maggie storyline since season four; basically, since the beginning of the show. I knew the Richard-Ellis love child was a storyline since I planned the pilot. I was like, “At some point, we’re going to have the Richard-Ellis love child.” In season four, we started talking about whether we’d do it next season. Every year it was, “Next Season? It’s not right yet.” We did Lexie in season three. When we did Lexie, we talked about it; we thought it had to be the Thatcher children first. Then we got to the moment where maybe it’s now and it was too soon after Lexie. We kept thinking about it and it never felt right. It wasn’t until I walked into the writers’ room literally like a month before we started planning the [season 10] finale and I was like, “I think it’s time for Maggie to show up.” It was just the right moment. All of those moments have been seeded in. The dialogue of all of Ellis’ love child is all planted in the show. It’s not something that we have to backdate and go back and find. We’ve known about it all along.
Will McCreary be a regular this season?
Right now she’s playing a guest star and we’ll see what happens.
Meredith and Derek (Patrick Dempsey) were in two very different places last season: She wanted to stay in Seattle, he wanted to go to Washington. How will they navigate this fundamental difference?
It’s a really valid difference, too. The idea that Derek thinks his career is more important than Meredith’s is both true for him and frustrating for her. It doesn’t make him a bad person because his career is more important than hers right now. The idea that she has set back her career to deal with the kids and let him shine is also very frustrating for her as well. She’s got a chance to step forward and say, “I’m not going to do that anymore.” Whether she’s right or wrong is also an argument to be had. I think it’s a really great conversation that a lot of people are having in this moment in time with their career and their spouses. I think it’s true and what happens next is going to be very interesting. Who gets resentful and who feels cheated is also going to be interesting. Does he go or does he stay? What happens if she goes, too? Are we going to have a show in which Meredith and Derek are in Washington and everybody else is here? We have the sets; we could do it. We’ve talked about it.
How will this impact them?
There’s going to be challenges. I really like the idea of having them confront what I think is a challenge that a lot of women have to deal with: the idea that he thinks his career is more important than hers. Meredith finds herself in a position that a lot of women find themselves in: She has kids, she has a husband and he has a big career and she has ambition and suddenly she’s sort of found herself in the back seat. What does that mean? Now she’s standing up for herself. One of the best moments of writing the finale — because it was really painful to write the end of Cristina Yang — was realizing that Cristina would be the one to say to her, “He is very dreamy, but he is not the sun — you are.” Getting her into that place of realizing that a guy is fantastic and lovely and great, but you do not give up all of your dreams and aspirations just because someone loves you. It was very interesting to get to dive into that this season. There was a lot of blowback from the guys in the writers’ room and that was really fun to fight. It was really interesting to have those arguments. The more we argued, the more I argued, “That is what the story is; the fact that you’re yelling at me and I’m yelling at you is what the story is.”
What about Owen (Kevin McKidd)? Could we see him get a new love interest or is it too soon?
I’m excited about that. I’m playing it by ear. I’ve always really loved the character of Owen since we first met him, that character and what he’s made of. We’re going to take the time to pace it correctly. I’m going to do it instinctively. I’m not going to go, “Oh, it’s time to put him with this character; we’re going to put a girl here and see what happens.” We’re going to play with his loneliness and see how that feels. We’re going to have him make some attempts and see how that feels. It’s like what we did with Alex (Justin Chambers) after Izzie (Katherine Heigl) left. We’re going to give him some opportunities and then dive in when it feels correct. I’m not just going to put him with someone because he needs to be with someone. There’s some validation in honoring the fact that that relationship was a huge relationship and quite beautiful. It’s the same way we did with Cristina when Burke left. We’re not going to throw him with somebody just to have somebody there.
How will Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) fit in now that she’s a regular? Will she help fill the void created by Cristina’s departure for Meredith? Could we see more of the Shepherd family appear? The fourth sister? Will Tyne Daly return?
I like to deploy the siblings of Meredith and Derek whenever I possibly can at interesting times. I love Tyne Daly. It’s a very big proposition for us as a show, because budget-wise, she’s Tyne Daly, and it’s a hard thing to do. We always want her there. My dream episode is to have an episode that is just Derek going home with all of his siblings and his mother. One day we should do that — if we have a billion dollars. I don’t know if we can, but it would be great. Amelia was the only one of the unfinished characters on Private Practice so it was great to bring her over and do this with her.
Could we see flashbacks to Ellis and Richard’s relationship again? Will Sarah Paulson be back?
I did my research over the past 200-plus episodes of Grey’s. Sarah Paulson and Kate Burton both played Ellis in the same time period. When Meredith was on the carousel, that was played by Kate Burton. But when Ellis was in the hospital dealing with the AIDS patient with Richard, that was Sarah Paulson. It was the exact same time period, maybe months apart, somehow played by two different actresses. So I don’t know if it’s going to be Sarah Paulson or Kate Burton, we’ll figure it out.
Callie and Arizona are poised to explore surrogacy. What kind of obstacles will that present for them? Or is that just a Band-Aid at this point?
Yes, it is a Band-Aid. It’s going to be revealed very quickly that it is a Band-Aid. How could it not be? I don’t know if anybody could watch that and go, “Oh yeah, that’s the answer for them.” How could Arizona say, “Yes, I could have a baby but I don’t want to” and not feel like a Band-Aid for whatever is going on with their relationship. I love the idea that for them, it’s going to open up the opportunity for them to finally explore everything that’s wrong and whether or not they should be together at all or whether or not they want to be together at all. Their entire relationship, by the way, has been a series of Band-Aids. It’s heartbreaking and it’s beautiful and it’s either you choose to fix all the Band-Aids that are wrong and be together or you move on. But it’s a choice of commitment and we’re going to watch them explore that stuff.
What can you say about Alex and Jo’s (Camilla Luddington) relationship going forward, especially since he may now be on the board?
Alex and Jo are in an interesting place. She is a really interesting influence on him. I don’t know that I would talk about them in terms of their relationship just yet because that’s not really the focus at the moment. His responsibilities in who he is becoming because Cristina has left him these shares and a seat on the board, what that means for him is complex. Does he want that? Is that what he’s looking for? Did he want the money grab that being Dr. Butthole provided him or does he want to be the guy who has a seat on the board? That is a big deal for him to figure out what he wants.
Grey’s Anatomy returns for its 11th season on Thursday, Sept. 25, in its new time slot at 8 p.m. on ABC.