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17 seasons in, Grey’s Anatomy reimagined itself for the pandemic. But only a little bit.

The show’s take on 2020 was extremely weird — and surprisingly moving.

Meredith Grey in full PPE takes a short break.
Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) looks for some downtime in Grey’s Anatomy’s season 17 premiere.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Watching the 17th season of Grey’s Anatomy over a couple of weeks, around a month after my Covid-19 vaccination became fully effective, was a strangely retraumatizing experience.

When the season debuted in November 2020, many Americans were still in quarantine, and Covid-19 cases in the US were about to spike again. But I watched 16 episodes of it in May and June 2021, as cases were on a steep decline and vaccinations were on the rise. Life was returning to a semblance of normal, where we all tried to figure out the etiquette of who should still wear face masks and when. It played as an extremely recent period piece for me, and watching it was weird and discomfiting.

Across the 2020–21 TV season, most major broadcast-network series set in the present day at least paid lip service to the idea there was a pandemic going on, but dramas especially seemed completely flummoxed by how to blend Covid-19 with their storytelling. (Comedies, especially Superstore and The Conners, had a better go of incorporating references to the pandemic into their typical fare.)

In theory, Grey’s should have been just as confounded. Though it’s a medical drama, its heavy rotation of soap elements and storylines about people having sex with each other would seem to cut against the moment. It’s easy enough to imagine that viewers might have struggled to invest in sexy complications when the real world seemed like it was falling apart. Acknowledging Covid-19 may have served to make a show many people think of as comfort food into a real bummer instead.

Judging from how many Grey’s fans said, “This was the saddest season ever!” every time I tweeted about getting caught up in time for the season 17 finale (which airs Thursday), a lot of people did experience the season as a real bummer. But I kinda liked it? Question mark?

Grey’s Anatomy season 17 is about both the grim realities of Covid-19 and hanging out on a mystical beach in the afterlife

Doctors at Grey-Sloan Memorial look in at Meredith as she wakes up.
The doctors of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital eventually grew inured to the Covid-19 crisis, though it continued to exhaust them.

The two-hour premiere of season 17 — listed as two separate episodes on Hulu — drops us into a Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital (the series renamed its central setting from Seattle Grace Mercy West in season nine, in case you haven’t watched since the show’s heyday in the mid-2000s) where everybody is overworked and everything is falling apart. The premiere is exhausting in a way that makes you viscerally feel the numb horror of watching the casualty count climb higher and higher and higher and higher.

Every character is masked and wearing multiple layers of PPE. Meredith Grey’s voiceover sounds more worn down than ever before. Dr. Richard Webber, previously pseudo-retired but active in the hospital in a primarily administrative capacity, returns to help coordinate its Covid-19 response and grimly announces that more and more places in Grey Sloan (including, eventually, the cafeteria) will be used to house Covid patients. It’s rough!

But what’s even more bonkers is that the premiere then attempts to wrap up a number of extant storylines from season 16, which was cut short by a few episodes in spring 2020 as the pandemic forced production shutdowns across Hollywood. This choice means one doctor’s insistence that a couple who brought their daughter to the hospital for medical care are actually human traffickers — and the daughter is actually a girl they kidnapped — remains a vital plot point, even though everybody is suddenly wearing face masks and discussing a skyrocketing death rate. I know the onset of the pandemic didn’t immediately cancel everyone’s personal problems, but this specific storyline, with its soapy twists and turns, stands out amid the grim realism of everything else.

What’s even more bonkers than that is when, at the end of that two-hour premiere, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) — the show’s lead since it debuted in 2005 — collapses, sick with Covid-19. Shortly thereafter, she lapses out of consciousness, and the next time we see her, she’s on a mystical beach possibly in the afterlife. Could Meredith Grey, who has survived so many traumatic incidents that she nearly died and visited the afterlife once before in the show’s third season, actually succumb to Covid-19? Probably not, but the show certainly wants to tease the idea.

Meredith proceeds to hang out on the beach for nearly the entire season. There, she chats with several of the show’s notable cast members who have died over the years, particularly Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), her boyfriend-turned-husband for much of the show’s run. Again: She does this for most of the season, visiting the mystical dream beach for the first time in episode three and waking up in episode 13.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s kind of lovely to see Meredith interact with characters who’ve long since left the show, including George (T.R. Knight), who started as an intern at the same time but died in the season six premiere. Knight’s final episode was actually the season five finale — still one of the show’s all-time best — which aired in 2009. I remember George as a vital part of Grey’s Anatomy because he was a vital part of its first seven seasons (after which I fell off watching), but he hasn’t been on the show in 12 years! And there he is on a mystical beach!

It’s easy to snark about the beach stuff, because a lot of it is supremely silly. Derek spends much of his time telling Meredith that “the sand’s not real,” a metaphor that’s never quite as meaningful as the show wants it to be. The portrayal of the beach as a kind of heavenly antechamber, where the dead hang out and check up on their living loved ones, sure makes it seem like everybody who died across the course of Grey’s is just waiting for Meredith to die so they can move on. (Some of them mention their kids, but we all know they’re sticking around for Mer.) And that’s before the show puts still-living characters — who are standing by Meredith’s bedside in the hospital and monologuing at her — on the beach so she can smile beatifically at them as they say their piece.

I’m a sucker for any storyline that takes on the weight of a long-running show, revealing just how much everybody within that show has grown and changed over the years. So I found a lot of the beach stuff, hokey though it was, pretty moving, especially as a contrast to the grimmer realities of the hospital. (Grey’s Anatomy has been on the air a long time!) The beach storyline pays off beautifully, even if you haven’t watched the show regularly for a decade (as I haven’t), and it keeps Grey’s relatable to viewers who may have returned to the show after a long absence, curious to see how it would handle the pandemic.

These two storylines kinda contradict each other. One is about the inevitable dying of the light; the other is about rage, raging against it.

Meredith and Derek part ways with a fond farewell on the mystical beach.
Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) says goodbye to Derek (Patrick Dempsey), leaving him in the afterlife while she returns to the world of the living.

As season 17 goes on, Meredith’s presence on the beach starts to feel a little more ludicrous. As Covid-19 ceases to be a novel crisis for the characters and slowly becomes part of their day-to-day lives, Meredith is still off to the side somewhere, quietly almost dying. Considering the literal only plot card the beach storyline has to play is, “Will Meredith die or wake up?” it’s a wonder Grey’s managed to squeeze so much drama from it. But eventually, even I — a known fan of dumb mystical bullshit on my favorite TV shows — was begging her to just wake up already.

What helped Grey’s make Meredith’s literal limbo more believable is that season 17 takes place in a compressed time frame. The season opens in March 2020, when Covid-19 first found a significant foothold in the US in Seattle (“conveniently” where Grey’s Anatomy is set), and by episode 12 has made it only as far as the historic Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, which began in late May and early June 2020.

The season’s penultimate episode speeds through six weeks of time, and judging from some Christmas decorations in the promotional trailer for the finale, it might involve a time jump to the 2020 holiday season. Still, earlier seasons of Grey’s have mostly unfolded concurrently with the calendar of our reality. This one reacted to an unprecedented and eventful year by slowing down and stretching out time.

The move worked in the series’ favor in some ways (like making Meredith’s storyline feel vaguely plausible), and undercut its emotional and dramatic payoff in others. The Black Lives Matter protests, for instance, mostly come and go in a single hour, with unfortunate overtones of a “very special episode”; a less-compressed season less beholden to the events of our reality might have been better able to create an entire storyline about racial injustice.

Yet the compressed timeframe also highlighted how the season’s two main storylines contradicted each other, at least a little bit. As Covid-19 became an exhausting reality for the characters, who tried to conserve ventilators and had to deal with their own mandatory quarantines after positive tests, death became part of the background noise of the show even more than usual on a hospital drama. Meanwhile, Meredith’s drawn-out case — one that involves her miraculously breathing on her own after the doctors make the difficult decision to take her off her ventilator — suggests death is inevitable, unless you’re the protagonist of a popular television show.

The protagonists of popular television shows usually are death-proof, at least until their series finales. (Jack Bauer, what’s up?) Shows rarely make a major effort to point that out as painstakingly as Grey’s accidentally does here, however. It is certainly poignant to imagine that every single Covid-19 patient suffering from the disease and potentially dying alone is actually being comforted in limbo by loved ones who died before them. But I had to make about 15 conceptual leaps to get to that idea from what Grey’s presented, especially because most of Meredith’s pals work at the hospital and can pop by her bedside to emotionally reminisce whenever they like.

(Also: I know Sandra Oh, who left Grey’s at the end of season 10, has said she’ll never come back to the show, but the whole enterprise would have been better with a one-episode tale where Cristina Zooms in to tell Meredith how much she loves her, only to appear on the beach alongside her. I’m just saying.)

Still, in the middle of all its thematic confusion, season 17 of Grey’s is often intensely moving. I cried multiple times, especially as Meredith’s efforts to survive became more central to the story. Even the season’s least-successful episodes were admirably experimental, like the one set in a different character’s dream (where Meredith grimly intones, “Time of death: September 11, 2001,” about the character’s long-dead true love, in case Grey’s hadn’t already referenced enough traumatic national events to keep you occupied).

Grey’s Anatomy’s 17th season may have been the show’s “saddest,” but it still had plenty of bed-hopping and weary banter between doctors disagreeing over patients. That life can go on at Grey Sloan Memorial means it can go on anywhere. When Meredith Grey wakes up again (because her daughter cries over her at her bedside — omg, you guys), it seems less like she has defeated death and more like she has accepted the fact that she lives in a TV show. Sometimes, the point of comfort-food TV isn’t that it ignores our reality; sometimes, the point is just that it’s there every week, for better or worse.

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