How Ellen Pompeo’s iconic Grey’s Anatomy character changed television

SPOILER ALERT: This essay contains spoilers from “I’ll Follow the Sun,” the February 23 episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

From her first episode as Dr. Meredith Gray on March 27, 2005—when Grey’s Anatomy premiered on ABC and became a one-time pop-culture sensation—through to what’s known as the (kinda, kinda) farewell episode on 02/23/2023, Ellen Pompeo could forge chemistry with everyone. What made Grey’s Anatomy, along with its lexicon-bending writing and the complicated but rowdy storyline of Shonda Rhimes, a phenomenon was watching Meredith simply living her life. She was an unprecedented character on the network: a brilliant woman whose life was marred by tragedy (a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, a completely absent father) but who didn’t let her dark and tortuous past get in the way. Meredith had a great time; she saved many lives; She had a lot of sex.

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And it was their relationships that initially set Grey’s Anatomy apart. There was of course the original main cast surrounding her: Meredith’s love interest Patrick Dempsey (as Derek Shepherd) and her friends Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl), Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) and George O’Malley (TR Knight), who quickly became her family (in the absence of her nuclear ones). There were also Meredith’s mentors at the hospital who would become parent figures, Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) and Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson).

Original cast of

Cristina, of course, summed up Meredith’s gifts best. Saying goodbye to Meredith at the end of Season 10 – and to keep Meredith from moving to Washington DC just because Derek wanted it for his career – Cristina told her, “You are a gifted surgeon with an extraordinary mind. Don’t let what he wants overshadow what you need. He’s very dreamy. But he is not the sun. You Are.”

Seriously, to use Meredith’s favorite word, Cristina was right. Meredith has made such compelling connections (as Pompeo did with her co-stars) that she’s been the gravitational force around which Grey’s Anatomy revolves for 19 seasons. The line-up has changed several times, with all of the original group leaving except for Wilson and Pickens Jr. But Meredith has forged new relationships, new connections, most notably with the show’s sisterly trio, Maggie (Kelly McCreary) and Amelia (Caterina Scorsone).

Pompeo’s alchemical abilities are so powerful that she was able to build a will-them-or-they-not momentum during the show’s second season — in a two-part episode that began after Super Bowl XL in February 2006 — as the head of the Bomb Squad of Seattle (Kyle Chandler) while her hand was lodged in the chest cavity of a man holding an unexploded bazooka grenade. Maybe the relationship could have even gone somewhere after that? But he exploded as soon as he had the bomb at a safe distance.

“Grey’s” is “Grey’s.” Not only has Meredith experienced emotional turmoil, but she’s also been in physical danger a ridiculous amount of times. This bazooka was just the beginning! In chronological order by season: Meredith drowned after treating victims of a ferry accident; she jumped in front of Derek as a vengeful gunman rampaged through the hospital, telling him to kill her instead; she was involved in a plane crash that killed her sister Lexie (Chyler Leigh); when she underwent an emergency C-section during a power outage, she had to speak to a resident to get her ruptured spleen repaired; and she was attacked and nearly beaten to death by another patient. Then, of course, Meredith contracted COVID during Season 17 and spent most of the year imaginary on a beach, where she was visited by long-lost cast members from Grey’s Anatomy’s long dead list: Derek, George, and Lexie below them.

We got through all of these crises together – even the beach season, which was rough! — and Meredith emerged stronger each time, ready to get back to her work and dive into even more ambitious research.

Grey's anatomy

This beach.

And now Meredith is saying goodbye to Seattle — and Perhaps, to the show. She goes to Boston partly because of the mental health of her gifted daughter Zola (Aniela Gumbs) and also to join Jackson (Jesse Williams), who basically challenged Meredith to try to cure Alzheimer’s, aided by the incalculable funding that he has can give her. Given that Alzheimer’s was woven into the show from the start, it would certainly be an end of the circle for Meredith.

However, there has been some confusion on this point: it was announced before Season 19 began that Pompeo would appear in just eight episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, although her voiceover will still start and end everyone. She remains executive producer and could return whenever she wants. Like this exit (Meredith’s And Pompeo’s) was carefully spun as “Meredith’s Farewell to Seattle.” in one advertisement for the episode Meredith, released last week, says, “This is where I learned how to be a doctor,” over vintage footage of “Grey’s” and a cover of “Chasing Cars” (an iconic song in the show’s history) by Tommee Profitt and Fleurie. “This is where I found my family — where I fell in love.” She then jokes to her during a surprise party, “You know I’ll probably be here next week.”

And it’s practically true: Pompeo will appear in the finale, and her status for next season is in the stars.

Aside from being about Meredith’s upcoming departure, “I’ll Follow the Sun” was a pretty standard Grey’s Anatomy episode, with several storylines that unfolded as her flight to Boston approached. But behind the scenes, it brought out the big guns, and the episode was written by showrunner Krista Vernoff and directed by executive producer Debbie Allen. There were some elaborate callbacks for Pompeo, particularly during a scene between Meredith and her boyfriend, Nick Adams (Scott Speedman). Nick was furious that Meredith hadn’t consulted him about the move, and she fired back. “I’m a grown woman with a big life, a big career and three kids,” Meredith said. “And this move is what my daughter needs. i want you in my life If you want to be in my life But when I have to choose, I choose myself, I choose my children, and I choose what’s best for us. And I won’t beg you to love me!” That Meredith delivered that monologue in the treatment room outside of an operating room, the same location as season 2 “Choose me, choose me, love me” Appeal to Derek — Grey’s Anatomy’s most famous speech — was an adorable Easter egg and a crafty bookend to show how far Meredith has come.

After losing a patient in what was a rare opportunity for her, Meredith stood in front of the Gray Sloan Memorial Hospital, named after Lexie and Mark Sloan (Eric Dane), who both died after that plane crash. She had a final conversation with an intern, Simone (Alexis Floyd), whose grandmother also has Alzheimer’s. By the way, that’s when I started crying, and I continued to sit through Bailey’s toast to the retirement party, when she said Meredith had gone from “the bane of her existence” to “one of my greatest prides.” When Bailey was left speechless, Richard stepped in and said, “Dr. Grey, what Dr. What Bailey is trying to say is that this place won’t be the same without you.”

That’s so true. I remember getting screenings for the ABC pilots (VHS tapes!) before the station’s 2004-5 magic season, which featured Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Grey’s Anatomy. They were obviously all great, and “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” premiered in September and became instant hits.

Still, I kept wondering what was going on with the show that had been my favorite of all the pilots that year: Grey’s. I wrote about it in a cover story in October 2020 how much the then-head of the station just didn’t believe in the show, and how its sex-positive content almost spelled its downfall. But once “Grey’s Anatomy” premiered, viewers would speak loud and clear, and the explosion of “Grey’s” would be heard around the world. Literally: It has been licensed in more than 200 territories around the world and translated into more than 60 languages.

Even Pompeo himself has proven to be a force of nature. Every time she speaks publicly, she grabs headlines, and in 2018 — as equal pay as an issue came to the fore in Hollywood — she described how she became one highest paid actress on tv, and got what she deserved. At Pompeo’s Instagram, alongside pictures of her family and dogs, she has championed #BlackLivesMatter, LGBTQ rights and resources for healthcare workers (particularly during the peak of the pandemic). Pompeo’s rare openness to a celebrity, coupled with her unique masshole style, has fused with the Meredith character over the years, and it can be hard to remember where one begins and the other ends.

It’s weird watching a series for so long: your characters become the people in your life. Grey’s Anatomy and Meredith Gray have become points of contact for me: I wanted her to be my doctor, I thought of her when I had my own experience with a parent with Alzheimer’s – she is a real person to me. She feels so much like someone I know that I want to remind her of what she said to Derek after Cristina cheered her on in that season 10 finale. Your life is here, your chosen family is here, you are not want leave!

But of course that wouldn’t work – it’s actually just lagging behind (at least for the time being). Star in a Hulu limited series. And “Grey’s Anatomy” will continue to regenerate without Meredith and Pompeo at its center — it’s survived all of COVID season, being on the beach and existing somewhere between Gray Sloan and the afterlife.

And who knows, maybe Pompeo will decide not to go after all. It is certainly possible! There is an unresolved cliffhanger at the end of “I’ll Follow the Sun” in which Nick calls Meredith on the plane to declare his love for her while she pretended not to be able to hear him. So I wish Pompeo would change her mind, thinking of the wise words of Cristina Yang who once said, “Every time we think we know the future, it changes.”

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