I hear a knock, then a sharp whistle. The whistle will be followed by a noise I have no words for, a sound so harsh and so loud, so mechanical and yet so humanly obnoxious, that it will soak through headphones and foam plugs into my ears, down my throat, through my veins, to lodge in my vibrating bones. Getting an MRI is like being trapped inside a computer that hates you very, very much, but my back hurts all the time, so here I am, surviving the onslaught of unimaginably awful sounds by envisioning the cast of Grey’s Anatomy in the observation room behind me. I picture them waiting for my images to appear on their screens, just like I wait for their images to load on Hulu or Netflix. They stand, chatting, flirting, or fighting, depending on the day, until my insides become visible, and, inevitably, There Is Something Wrong.
Even when there is nothing wrong, there is Something Wrong. Grey’s is an hour-long network TV show, so something always has to be wrong, whether it shows up onscreen or not. To find nothing wrong is also wrong, because it means the doctors are missing something – what? For the first 16 of 17 seasons, each episode of Grey’s Anatomy unfolded as diagnosis, the determination of whether The Thing That is Wrong might be cured, should be cut, or was chronic, and must be endured. Of course, these cure/cut/chronic categories apply not only to medical conditions but also and more importantly to people and their problems: some we treat, some we amputate, and some we simply learn to live with, day in, day out, because we have no choice. Diagnose the problem or the person incorrectly, and they might die, leave, stay, or get worse. An incorrect diagnosis has immediate, obvious costs.
For those who somehow still don’t know: Grey’s Anatomy began in 2005, on protagonist Dr. Meredith Grey’s first day of medical residency at what was then called Seattle Grace Hospital. Meredith returns to Seattle to care for her mother, the legendary surgeon Ellis Grey, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s but forbids Meredith to tell anyone about it. The night before her residency begins, Meredith meets the proverbial boy in a bar – except the boy turns out to be Derek Shepherd, brain surgeon extraordinaire and attending doctor at Seattle Grace (and, thus, her boss) who of course has a sordid backstory of his own. Over the course of almost two decades, Meredith and her fellow residents live together, love each other, fight, marry, get sick, drown, die, kill others, get shot, electrocuted, stabbed, plummet in planes, etc., etc., etc. Most of them also become surgeons; they live to cut.
Of course, in a scripted show, to cut is also to edit, or, in the cases of Derek, a.k.a. McDreamy, a.k.a. Patrick Dempsey (who, according to Instagram, is now wading through Poland Spring water selling watches), and Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh (now head of an English department AND chasing a hot murderer through Europe?!?), to cut your losses, to cut and run, to cut off the show itself and move on to better things. Derek’s death in Season 11 was barely a blip for me; to be honest, I was far more upset by the departure of his first wife, Addison Forbes Montgomery (“he met her in the summer, she …”), the red-headed, long-legged, scarlet-lipsticked East Coast heiress who looked kind of like the Sea Witch as a hot, straight surgeon – and I mean that in the best way – instead of a mean gay fish.
But cutting Cristina in Season 10 killed the show for me, at least for a while. Yes, Derek was Meredith’s love, but Cristina was her Person, and their relationship was Grey’s real revolution: a friendship between brilliant, talented women that began with a pact to provide support after an abortion. Abortion is the ultimate cure/cut/chronic dilemma, simultaneously the simplest and most loaded of medical decisions, for which the personal implications often outweigh the surgical risks – in Shondaland’s Seattle Grace/Mercy West/Grey Sloan Memorial, anyway. But that was never the case for Cristina, who (implausibly) found herself knocked up not once, but twice, yet had no doubt in her mind about what she wanted, or rather didn’t want, either time.
Acidic, hilarious, viciously ambitious Cristina was the first of Meredith’s (and the show’s) strange proliferation of sisters. Next came Lexi, the daughter of Meredith’s biological father, Thatcher Grey, and the “good” mom she never had, followed by Maggie Pierce (lol), the offspring of sex and scalpels, of Ellis Grey and her lover, Seattle Grace’s head of surgery, Richard Webber, precocious and made for medicine. Last and very much least, for me at least, was Amelia, Derek’s little sister, like him a brain surgeon, unlike him a recovering addict. For me, Amelia was immediately the onscreen roadkill of a plotline of braided impossibilities that were a stretch even for Shondaland: the first being that she was an eminent brain surgeon, the second, that this actress could share a screen with the magnificent Geena Davis and her brain tumor.
But then, Grey’s features even more brain tumors than sisters. Why? Because brain tumors are the show’s deus ex machinae, sometimes treatable, always inscrutable, transforming medicine into magical realism. Brain tumors allow characters to return from the dead (Grey’s loves ghosts), have the sex they never got the first time around, and stage stunning, wild denouements, all under the aegis of symptom and science. In medicine, hearts play by the rules, while brains run wild: Ellis Grey’s Alzheimer’s, Richard Webber’s alcoholism, Miranda Bailey’s OCD, Andrew DeLuca’s bipolar disorder. Our hearts may break, but at least we know why; our brains remain a mystery.
But Cristina didn’t work on brains; Cristina worked on hearts. Cristina excelled as a surgeon but simply couldn’t find a man with her mettle; she reduced her partners, Preston Burke and Owen Hunt, to pools of septic masculinity. She essentially stole Burke’s surgical powers (Mama Burke, the brilliant Diahann Carroll, retaliated by taking her eyebrows). She leaves Seattle when Burke tricks her into visiting his state-of-the-art clinic in Switzerland, then seduces her into taking over his job. How? By making a three-dimensional hologram of a human heart hover in the air before her; she marvels and he turns it gently, then hands the hologram to her.
Hunt, who Cristina actually married (twice? I cannot remember and do not care), offered no such gifts, and should have stomped off into the sunset after removing the icicle from her chest. Instead, he stuck around for years, strangling her both literally and figuratively (and burning her ass on an air vent, to boot). Owen’s bitterness after Cristina’s second abortion violated the very premise of the Person on which the show was built. Derek’s death, while tragic, drove this home: on Grey’s Anatomy, men are always only an approximation of the Person – the hologram, not the heart. Before she leaves, Cristina tells Meredith not to let Derek become her chronic condition: “He’s not the sun. You are.”
His death takes care of that, and Meredith does become the sun, so big and bright – blinding, in fact – that she no longer seems human, no longer to scale. She accumulates children, becomes socially active, even almost goes to jail; she’s a concept instead of a character. Which is why I was so thrilled to see, on Oct. 17, 2019 Season 16 episode 4, that the show, like a novel by Sally Rooney (did I just write that? YES I DID), decided to incorporate text messages into its framing. When Meredith published an article about structural inequality in medical care that unintentionally indicted her own hospital, her phone dinged, and suddenly there was Cristina, her entire character distilled into words: “MOVE TO SWITZERLAND BEFORE BAILEY MURDERS YOU IN YOUR SLEEP.”
It didn’t end there. Text Cristina also sent Meredith a potential love interest – an Irish pediatric surgeon (shamrock emojis!), also widowed with mixed-race children, with whom she is clearly meant to end up. Even invisible, Yang’s competence was reassuring; she was running the show (Cristina ex machina!), sending missives from a distant world that still made sense.
I watched the post-Cristina seasons during the pandemic, because I needed the comfort of the show to test the limits of what I could tolerate, just like everything else. I had to push through the seemingly-endless Season 12 sobbing of my least favorite characters, Owen and Amelia, and the abrupt departure of Meredith with her children – on Grey’s, children, like brain tumors, are both inevitable and invisible – after Derek’s death. I needed more episodes, and more, and more, until the show caught up to where I was, where we all are – the pandemic. Which it portrayed.
I admire the show’s decision to face the pandemic head-on. I’m not sure what it should or could have done differently, under such unprecedented conditions. But Season 17 made immediately clear that Grey’s was not going to offer a break from our broken world; it was going to zoom in on it and make us watch the parts that many Americans didn’t see: endless stretches of stretchers, broken phone calls to families, doctors who can’t but must stop crying, in order to not save somebody else. The individual brilliance and heroics of the surgeons were essentially useless against Covid, as everybody’s singular stories (and the show’s surgical solipsism) came to a screeching halt.
I lost both parents during the pandemic – of cancer, not Covid, but both in care facilities, both away from me, both in worlds that barely noted their deaths and just kept counting bodies. So, personally, I did not need to see the marvelous Dr. Miranda Bailey’s mother die, disoriented by dementia, while her father cried via an iPad. And as a resident of one of the reddest zones in New York City, I already knew that the virus, like the police, did its worst damage in communities of color. I also had an aching back and MRI results that revealed nothing, so I had no use for a monologue about the cost of American healthcare. What I did need was to see hot people have sex in a supply closet, like the olden days, but it seemed no one else was in the mood.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. As a middle class straight cis white lady, it is not my place to judge the laws of Shondaland, but fortunately podcaster Khadija Mbowe did it for me. “I am a Grey’s Anatomy stan,” she began, before explaining that “Grey’s Anatomy has gotten quite political, and not in a ‘give you a message through the patient’s story’ kind of way,” but rather a “beat you over the head with it kind of way.” Mbowe picked up on exactly what bothered me about all the monologuing, pointing out, “I don’t need extremely good-looking doctors giving stats out the wazoo or giving speeches on why Black Lives Matter.” Meredith noped out of the whole shebang and spent the season semi-dead on a beach – her case of Covid looked a lot like a brain tumor, just saying – hosting cameos, my favorite of which was Dr. Mark Sloan. (The handsy-manslut-with-the-heart-of-gold character may not survive #MeToo, and good riddance. But if Mark Sloan was one of the last, he was also one of the best.)
Just as its surgeons could not cure Covid, Grey’s Anatomy could not negotiate the move from personal to structural problems. When it comes to structural issues, diagnosis is beside the point; most of us know why we’re sick. The problem is in the very walls of the world around us; our bodies manifest the sickness of the structures they inhabit. Too many of us just lack the power and will to get better – or, more importantly, to help others get better, too. Grey’s wasn’t equipped to do these problems justice – no one specializes in structural surgery, not even Dr. Calliope Iphigenia Torres – but they tried, and I respect the attempt. I even respect how they failed, because that failure is perhaps the realest work Grey’s has ever done.
In a recent interview, Sandra Oh vowed never to play Dr. Cristina Yang again. At the same time, Oh acknowledged her character’s continued existence, and imagined that she’d be spending the pandemic “at the front line … attacking the systematic problems, not just the day in and day out.”
Sandra Oh would know, I guess, but I disagree. I imagine Cristina in a lab coat and heels, her hair high, in Switzerland or some other cool blue place away from the fray – all the frays. Brilliant back then, she’s even wiser now, and the hologram is no longer a heart. She turns the world gently in her hand, musing. Then she smiles, and texts Meredith about how to save it.
Beth Boyle Machlan teaches expository writing and is at work on a book about real estate.