[This story contains spoilers from the March 11 episode of Grey’s Anatomy, “Helplessly Hoping.”]
Grey’s Anatomy parted ways with a beloved member of its cast during Thursday’s midseason premiere and it did so in a relatively rare fashion for the ABC medical drama: with a character death.
Giacomo Gianniotti’s Dr. Andrew DeLuca was killed off following a heroic battle to stop a sex trafficker in a storyline that stretched back to last season and ultimately capped the actor’s seven-season run on the Shondaland favorite. DeLuca, who was stabbed and ultimately died in surgery, became only the fifth series regular in Grey’s Anatomy history to have their storyline end in a fatality and the first since Patrick Dempsey’s shocking exit nearly six years ago.
In a fitting end to his storyline, DeLuca winds up on Meredith’s (Ellen Pompeo) magical beach and is able to have a farewell with his former love interest before walking into the sunset. DeLuca joins George (T.R. Knight), Derek (Dempsey), Mark (Eric Dane) and Lexie (Chyler Leigh) as series regulars (per Wikipedia) to leave the show in death. Of the 33 total series regulars in 17 seasons of Grey’s, 13 characters have left alive. And it’s of course worth noting that several other characters have been killed off of Grey’s, though those actors have either been guest stars or recurring players.
Below, showrunner Krista Vernoff and star Gianniotti talk with The Hollywood Reporter about how DeLuca’s death factors into a season that has put COVID-19 at the top of the show’s call sheet and what’s next.
Meredith is on a vent and that was the last beat until the show’s return tonight. Why was it important for that to be the image viewers had of this iconic character for three months? She’s still on the vent in the midseason return.
Krista Vernoff: That happened to be the midseason finale. Sometimes stories tell themselves and things happen in very powerful ways. As an image, that works on people’s psyche and helps them understand that this pandemic is ongoing and profound and impacting communities in really painful ways. It’s a powerful image to help people remember why they’re staying home. If this thing can hit Meredith Grey, it can hit anybody.
This season has put COVID-19 at the top of the call sheet, with realistic portrayals of everything from infected doctors, others struggling with the emotional gravity and, in the midseason finale, hospitals reached capacity. When it aired, that episode was sadly prescient. How does the rest of the season play out in terms of how close it has been to what’s happening in the world now?
Vernoff: What’s so interesting about it being prescient is that we were telling the truth in that episode of what was happening in May 2020 in Washington state and it was happening again in Los Angeles in December, when the episode aired. We weren’t prescient; we were telling a story that happened in the early stage of the pandemic. It’s been amazing how when we were breaking the show, we thought we were going home for two weeks and now it’s a year later and we’re looking at this in this way. It’s still staggering to me. We are not jumping forward to some imaginary future where COVID is a thing of the past. We are still set in the past in the back half of the season. That was one of the decisions when we decided that Meredith has COVID and that that would span a fair amount of the season. We didn’t want Meredith in a bed with COVID for 11 months. We are still in like May/June of 2020 creatively. We’re not jumping forward so we don’t have to try and keep up with what’s happening now; we’re looking at what was happening then.
In a season exploring COVID, why was the first major character death of the season unrelated? Was this supposed to be the season finale last year?
Vernoff: There was no plan to kill him at the end of last season. I very much did not want to kill DeLuca last season because he’d been through a mental health crisis and he’d come through it. I wanted to show that a person can go through a mental health crisis and come out the other side and be a functional, contributing member of the hospital staff. This story of DeLuca seeing that sex trafficker again and following her out of the hospital and refusing to let up and it becoming a part of Station 19 and following it and right when you think he’s got her, somebody punches him. You think he’s been punched but you come back and realize he’s been stabbed, and then he’s on the beach with Meredith. My reaction to [the story idea] was, “What?! Fuck! No! Really!? This is what I’m doing?! No!” Many times after I pitched it to the writers and we designed the season around this story, I started to chicken out and second-guess myself. “Can we save him?! Can he live?! He can’t.” We’ve done a lot of near-deaths and saved them since I took over the show. So now people are expecting that. This was the story. It was as shocking to me as it was to you.
Giacomo, what was your reaction when you got the call that Andrew was being killed off?
Giacomo Gianniotti: Krista and Debbie Allen, our exec producer, called me into an office and said they’ve tried it different ways and keep coming back to the trafficking storyline from last season. The storyline was so highly received, and because of that, they knew they had to continue to explore it. They saw an opportunity to tell a beautiful story that highlighted human trafficking and for DeLuca to go down as a hero and make this really noble act to stop this perpetrator but that would unfortunately cost him his life. I’ve been on the show for seven seasons and thought it was a great way to exit. Krista, running Station 19 as well, had the idea to make it a crossover so we could tell it over two episodes and spend time with DeLuca. I’m a storyteller and the best story always wins, and I thought this was the best story.
What was the larger point you wanted to make with DeLuca’s storyline? He dies a hero, which is a bit of the ultimate for a Grey’s death.
Vernoff: I was processing [grief] myself when this story came. As we were going through this shared trauma of COVID together and quarantine and being away from the people we love, I wanted all the other tragedies in the world to just stop. It didn’t seem fair. The Alexandria House, a charity I support in L.A. that shelters battered women and their children — so people who have already been traumatized — the first week of the shutdown, the Alexandria House caught on fire. It was like, “What?! Isn’t COVID enough?” But everything else didn’t stop because of COVID and we were all having to process other things, too, and horrible tragedies that come with life. That’s part of where this story was born. All these people are going to die of COVID but also sometimes other people just die. And it’s fucking awful. Part of DeLuca dying in this way … watching this episode, watching his mom greet him on the beach and feeling that grief, I cried harder watching this episode than I cried since George O’Malley died. I thank Giacomo for playing this character so beautifully and powerfully that through the death of DeLuca I believe there is an opportunity for us all to release our collective grief.
Will DeLuca reappear on that beach again this season?
Vernoff: No. I thought him walking away with his mom was the most powerful closure for that character. But you will see him again, just not on the beach.
Gianniotti: Even though his life has come to an end, there’s many ways to show our characters who have passed. I look forward to tell some other stories in those ways. Maybe there’s flashbacks or other scenarios where we can see DeLuca. That’s about all I can say. But it’s not a drill; he’s definitely died.
What was filming on that beach like given how much those scenes have meant to viewers?
Gianniotti: Ellen and I kept pinching ourselves. To be able to shoot on a beach was amazing. It was nice to be a part of that and have DeLuca have his moment and say his piece with Meredith. There was a lot of unfinished business between them. Maybe if Meredith hadn’t gotten COVID, the first part of this season could have been them picking up the pieces of where they left off in their romance. But circumstances didn’t allow for that. It was nice that DeLuca got to at least thank her for everything she’d given him.
How do you think Meredith will respond to DeLuca’s death?
Gianniotti: It’s tough to say because you think of the dream and what happened at the end of the episode and wonder if Meredith would correlate that with the metaphor: If he’s joining his mother that must mean he’s leaving me and passing on. Maybe that would translate to her waking up? Who knows? Or it will be a massive surprise when she wakes up. There is a very obvious, glaring comparison with reality in that so many health care professionals have lost their own due to COVID. It’s a direct representation and reflection of that. It’s helping people in the industry feel seen as well. It hits different and it’s going to send a shock wave through all the characters at the hospital — and maybe Meredith the most.
Knowing Meredith is battling COVID, it feels like there’s one of two outcomes there. How does the COVID story that you’re telling impact the different finales that you’re crafting, considering the show’s uncertain future?
Vernoff: More will be revealed as you watch the show. (Laughs.)
Without spoiling anything, how would you describe who else will visit Meredith on that magical beach?
Vernoff: There are some really fun surprises coming up. It’s one of the things that I have enjoyed as rays of light in the darkness of the storytelling necessitated by COVID. That beach is a ray of light and the surprises of who you see there are rays of light. And I don’t want to take that away.
Can you confirm there will be others who appear on that beach whom viewers haven’t seen there yet this season?
Giacomo, you got to make your directorial debut on Grey’s this season. After seven seasons, was there anything you wanted to do on the show but never had the chance?
Gianniotti: This felt like a gift. They rolled everything I wanted to do into two episodes; they wrote my dream exit storyline. I got to have an action movie told on Station 19 chasing a perpetrator and not wearing scrubs. That was fun and not something I’d gotten to do on Grey’s for obvious reasons. All the scenes where we got to take our time and be together with Ellen and Meredith on the beach was a good way to tie up the loose ends. As far as the mental health storyline, it was an honor and privilege to tell that story. Ultimately, it’s about representation and for people to see someone who is bipolar can be an attending and command a whole department at a hospital is huge.
Did you keep anything from set?
Gianniotti: I didn’t! Maybe I’ll go steal my stethoscope next time I’m there!
What’s next for you? Any plans on returning to Grey’s as a director?
Gianniotti: Definitely investing a ton of time in directing and hoping to continue to do that here and abroad. I’m seeking a lot of opportunities in Italy and Canada as a director and actor and have a few things coming on the horizon that I’m excited to share.
Interviews edited for length and clarity.