You know what happened. Even if you don’t watch the show, you know. If you don’t know, LEAVE NOW. This is a spoiler laden response to Thursday’s Grey’s Anatomy.
Twitter was overwhelmed with screaming, crying fans. Facebook had Grey’s Anatomy trending. And the fans of Grey’s Anatomy limped through Friday broken, mourning, confused and the biggest one: Angry. Derek is dead.
Let me start things out by saying I’m actually not angry that Derek died. Really, I’m not. Life rarely gets happy endings so yes, it’s nice when it does happen, but the reality is that it often doesn’t. And in a show that has never shied away from death, this is a powerful way to have a beloved character exit the scene.
My issue, as that of many fans, is how it went down. It was messy. It was sloppy. And it was unprofessional. Not the fact that he died because of a series of odd quirky circumstances. Unfortunately, that happens in real life every day. I’m talking about the writing.
As someone who has spent 20+ years writing professionally, I know a little about it. I have worked on several shows that you’ve seen on television and a boat load of films. Most of these were marketing and publicity, but many of them have had writing attached in some way or another. So when I watched this show, I did it through that lens. It was fascinating and maddening all at once.
See, I’ve been in writing meetings where an actor wants to leave a program but there’s a strong, faithful audience that loves that character. Do you re-cast? You used to. That doesn’t happen often anymore. Do you have them leave? Get angry? Get sick? Die? Everything’s an option, but very few will usually fit into your moment. Derek dying wasn’t a bad option from a plot perspective. It was realistic. It’s the way it was handled that was poorly done.
As you’re writing the death of a beloved character, the audience should always be foremost in your mind. You want to treat them with respect and honor. You don’t want a mass exodus away from your show. You need to handle it well. Both the character and the longevity of the show are also high on that priority list. So it’s a serious juggling act. As a creator, you know that there are a million (or more) emotional heartstrings that you can pull when you do this. Usually, you sort through those heartstrings, figure out which ones will complement your story the best, and gently, sprinkle those few throughout. You put them in places which will have impact and help build the story. It’s not good form to beat the viewer over the head with it. Gentle, perceptive foreshadowing is one thing. Putting death and life lessons in every single line? That’s overkill and it is manipulative control of the audience’s emotions. You always have them in the palm of your hand. What you do with them and how you handle it show your respect for them. If you go back and watch that episode again, you will see the number of heavy handed mentions of death and Derek’s relationship to death. They are overwhelming. Too much.
Logistically speaking, Derek’s death could have been handled with a great deal more respect than it was. There were too many illogical details that made no sense and feel as if they were slapped around just to make it the worst death possible. They also felt like they were just thrown into the mix to jerk those emotional heartstrings around into a knot and then pull it tight.
Here are some examples:
Derek was careful to pull off to the side of the road and look both ways excessively throughout the course of the show. Running across the road, pulling people to safety, it was always forefront in his mind (and ours) that he was on a hill, on a curve, and it was dangerous. So logically speaking, why would this same man pull crossways into the road (on a hill, at a curve) and STOP there to look for his cell phone?
There’s another one. The cell phone. Loss of service happens to everyone. And of course his phone went flying when he slammed the brakes to miss the accident. However at no point during his rescue operations did he take a second to go look and actually find it to even see if he could call 911? Let Meredith know what happened? A doctor of his magnitude is aware that emergency rescue help is the only thing that will save these people. All the amazing triage in the world will do no good if an ambulance does not show up. It’s hard for me to conceive that he never once thought about finding that phone and at least trying that avenue of help.
When there’s been an accident of this nature, police, firefighters, and emergency workers always populate the scene. In this case, they are usually around taking pictures (for potential charges, lawsuits, etc) and examining the scene for a while. Even with a witness testimony. Cause people are flawed. Evidence is necessary. Are we to truly believe that Derek hung around until everyone was completely gone? So gone that they weren’t within range to HEAR the dreadful accident moments later? This stretches my belief a little too far. (And he still never went for their phone? A radio? Something to talk to Meredith? There would have been time somewhere in there and knowing he just rescued those people, it’s my guess fire, EMT, or police would have loved to help him in that.)
Then there’s the hospital. From what it looked like and the way it was cut, it seemed like the truck driver from the accident (Derek’s) was taken to Seattle Grace. A well-equipped and massive trauma center. Derek, meanwhile, was taken to a small, boondocks hospital not prepped for emergency or trauma. I don’t know if the person they showed going to Seattle Grace was the truck driver, but that’s the conclusion my mind came to. When they listed off the number of patients they were dealing with from these accidents, no mention was made of the truck driver. Regardless of who that mystery patient was, it IS possible for a hospital to fill up, not have the staff, equipment, or room to manage, and deny patients. Even if not in the real world (because it’s possible that I could get lots of comments from medical professionals here telling me that I’m wrong.) it is in Shonda Rhimes’ world because we’ve seen it hundreds of times on Grey’s. Such and such a hospital is overloaded – they’re sending the overflow to us. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could have been sent somewhere better equipped. This one is small in my mind, but it is still a logical leap that I felt was misplaced.
Once at the hospital, I understood the doctor arguing with the intern (we’ve seen that on Grey’s before) and even Derek’s internal monologue (although I felt that played heavy handed for those emotional heartstrings mentioned earlier). What I didn’t understand was waiting around for an hour and a half for the neurosurgeon. Could that not have been time to give him a CT scan? I mean there was the argument about it and if we’re all sitting around twiddling thumbs over it, doesn’t that give you the precious time you were yelling about earlier? Is there absolutely nothing else happening during that time that would allow you to make further life saving decisions?? Or do you really just sit in a room doing nothing? No other hospital to call to? No other neuro to call? Heck, someone could have driven to the dinner and picked the guy UP in that time.
Also, during that hour and a half that the neurosurgeon made him wait, it’s not implausible for them to track down Derek’s identity. Presumably someone would have looked through the car or even possibly talked to the victims of the other accident. His ID would have been somewhere if it wasn’t on his person. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Derek’s identity could have been discovered and Seattle Grace (as well as Meredith) been notified. This one little fact could have changed everything about this beloved character’s final hours. I, myself, would have found it an ironic twist if Derek had been slated to speak at a national neuro event via satellite and the surgeon was there – waiting because he urgently wanted to learn from the great Derek Shepherd – who never showed up. Ergo ironic circle twist. Either way, imagine if they had discovered who they had on the table. At the very least, they could have shown a little hint of emotion, care, encouragement, toward him. (And seriously – are we totally to believe that only Seattle Grace has pretty staff, residents, and doctors? There was ONE attractive person at that boondock hospital and she was the nice one that actually knew what she was doing. Everyone else was horrible, disrespectful, and in some cases downright mean. This is just another thing that hammers home how terribly this beloved character is being treated in his final hours. It’s an affront and I think Shonda meant for it to be just that.)
During Derek’s final hours, we hear his internal monologue and it’s all medical and it’s all about him. A love story built over eleven seasons was never mentioned. Not once. His kids. His wife. Never mentioned. I’ve heard stories from a lot of people who thought they were dying or people on their deathbed. Their thoughts were family. Their regrets. I think a beautiful send-off would have been Derek’s mind flashing forward to what he always imagined the future to look like. More kids for them. Zola graduating college. Maybe becoming a doctor herself – doctors without borders to the country where she came from. Seeing his son grow up and get married. More children. Grandchildren. He and Meredith (her with no Alzheimer’s because he found a treatment) on their front porch lit by lanterns as they are old and grey. Dying of old age – not trauma. This, to me, would have been beautiful. Instead we got internal monologue of every mistake the doctors were making. This was so the audience would know that Derek was going to die very horribly, and show in stark contrasting detail, how different his death could have been.
Meredith. Shonda didn’t give them even a shred of hope. She removed Derek’s ability to speak. Kept him trapped in his own mind knowing he was going to die. The internal monologue managed to run through every mistake the doctors made but not at all when Meredith was there. Derek didn’t get to acknowledge her – even in his mind – at all. This could have been so powerful, cathartic and beautiful for the audience. It would have allowed them to converse without realizing they were. Oh the beauty of playing with that just a little as a writer. This love story could have been driven home in a penultimate manner. Let Meredith talk and Derek answer in his mind. Settle things between them. At least give these two lovers that. The audience deserved it too.
I believe there were so many illogical steps that it’s hard to see this as anything but a temper tantrum to get rid of an actor in the worst way possible. Ill handled. Disrespectful to the feelings that have been carefully cultivated for years upon years. No love, affection, or emotion was given to this character in his last send off. In my perspective, this is a slap in the face of the character AND the audience that loved him.
You can shockingly kill a character and stun the audience. Henry Blake of MASH comes to mind. That was powerful. Stunning. Emotional. Raw. And well handled. We all loved him and when he died, we knew that he was loved and would be missed. We didn’t get that with Derek.
I’ll be curious to see how this plays out next week. Logically speaking, she is going to have to honor and respect this character upon which a universe was built. And she’s going to need to do it well or she will have lost an audience. I’m pretty much of the frame of mind that she already did lose them by treating this character death in such a manner. But there’s always hope. If she can create a character for the fans to follow other than Derek. Another indicator to me that this was mishandled is that there’s now no strong male lead on the show to step into that void. Had McSteamy lived, he could have pulled it off. But the very careful and tedious character building in this show has led to several hot guys – none of them being built into leads. That place has always remained Patrick Dempsey’s. Now though, there’s nowhere for the fans to funnel that love and affection they had for him. None of the other characters (living ones at least!) has earned that depth of fan devotion.
I’ve had people say that I’m wrong in my assumptions that she did this out of spite or that she fired him. They’ve tried hard to assure me that it was what he wanted and that it was done well. This could be the case. I didn’t work this set and I don’t really know. I’m seeing spin and carefully worded statements from ALL sides in this and I’m taking my thoughts from that. I could be completely wrong. Even if I am wrong, the reality is that if they’re on the same page and they really are doing this from love and respect for each other, then I believe this character death would have been handled differently. Instead, it honestly felt like a messy, angry, tantrum written out like really bad fan fiction. And that isn’t only me. The audience very strongly feels that way too. This may not have just been the death of Derek Shepherd. It may also have been the death of Grey’s Anatomy. At least Patrick Dempsey can be strong in the knowledge that his fanbase is solid and unwavering in their love of him. I’m not sure Shonda Rhimes can say the same.
No matter what, it will be interesting to see how it all continues to play out.