Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ten Years Gone: Grey's Anatomy's "How to Save a Life"

Ten Years Gone: Spoiler Alert: The following blog post contains details about the April 23, 2015 episode of Grey’s Anatomy, “How to Save a Life.”

  ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" - Season Ten 

 I have watched Grey’s Anatomy  (Imdb Link: since its first brief and dazzling season, instantly captivated by a story that began with boy meets girl. The show started with the story of the man we would come to know as Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) waking up on the floor of a the house belonging to slightly brash and emotionally unstable Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompano). Their (love) story was one of the things that hooked me into the series-- that along with the premise of a group of young interns making their way in the medical world. I have watched faithfully for every season that followed, never missing an episode, rolling along with the one-two emotional punches of the series-- and there have been many.  I’ve seen some of my favorite characters die or be written off the show, and I’ll admit that each departure wrenched my heart in two. Showrunner Shonda Rhimes has a writing team well-trained in the knowledge of just how to play its audience like a fiddle: Grey’s has always been the kind of series that you watch with a box of tissues nearby. You know going in that there is the possibility that bad things are going to happen to good people. You know that there’s the possibility that George is going to get hit by a bus on the day he’s leaving to join the army-- you know it because that’s just what Shonda Rhimes does: she messes with your heart. She takes it out of your chest with a jerking, wrenching sensation that makes you want to go crawl in a hole and hide. And let’s face it, that’s kind of something that you-- as a viewer-- likes. You like the pain, you like the suffering.


It’s not like it’s all sadness: there’s a lot of happy moments on Grey’s too-- babies are saved, cancer is cured, new loves discovered. There’s an ample amount of shocking thrills and unexpected twists and turns-- and Grey’s has never avoided “crazy, twisty” storylines with an angle to shock and awe the audience. During season six,  “Sanctuary”: a gunman walks into the hospital and runs on rampage, mowing down doctors and resulting in viewers feeling like they would never be the same: (see a summary here:
But the April 23, 2015 episode, “How to Save a Life” may have destroyed any magic Grey’s Anatomy has managed to hold onto in its eleven seasons since spring of 2005: that night, Derek Shepherd was killed-- tragically and without much finesse-- on the series that started with that very same man on the floor of a house of the woman that would become his wife and mother of his children. And his death kind of broke the internet.

A few of the comments that I found from perusing Facebook and Twitter in the hours following the airing of season.

Erin, a fellow Facebook friend, posts on her wall: “Well, ten years of my TV watching life and I believe I am now fully done with Grey's Anatomy. I hate it when a series goes out on a note I hate, it's such a let down.” She is not alone in the sentiment. Countless fans on social media are echoing her dismay and anger: after watching the growth of a series-- and more importantly, the growth of characters for ten years, they feel cheated-- and that has fans feeling bitter.

Michelle writes on a Facebook comment thread: “Derek deserved much better than that. It was almost like he said "I want to leave this show" and Shonda said "oh yeah? Well here Ya go". Crappy.”

On the official Grey’s Anatomy Facebook page, fans posted comments discussing their own disappointment over the death of Derek Shepherd and displeasure with show-runner and episode author Shonda Rhimes.  A few of their comments follow, each depicting the anger rising as each moment and hour passed following the finale. In the first fifteen minutes, there were over 10 thousand individual comments on the four concurrent Facebook posts dealing with the episode, most expressing viewer outrage:

 “Seriously?! We wasted how many years watching this show to have you kill off Derek Shepard by having him--a miracle life saving neurosurgeon--be taken to a hospital with a bunch of undereducated medical professionals where the ONLY neurosurgeon takes an hour and a half to show up because he's out eating dinner?! THATS how you chose to end a decade of his love story with Meredith? Really? Way to give a proper ending to your viewers. You officially suck.”

 “I am not one to post on social media pages but here goes --- It's not about him leaving the show. Nor is it about killing him off (which this show is so fond of doing). But the manner in which you presented his death was absolutely insulting to someone who has been watching this show since the very culminating to the point that I will not be watching the next episode to somehow preserve the memories I have of this show and the joy it has given me over the years. Portraying him as a hero does not justify the triviality of his death - I can't even look at the photos posted on this page in the last hour...we as fans who have been following since 2005 deserve a hell of a lot more. Christina's exit was dignified and absolutely beautiful but this was just disgraceful. I'm sure the tribute next week will apply some meager attempt to make up for this but it will be inconsequential in the grand scheme of remembering this as my favorite show. Every Thursday evening, I looked forward to watching Grey's. Despite all of the grief it seems to inflict - the story lines truly emanate real life experiences (although obviously exaggerated as a primetime television drama). I've grown to love these character[s], and while many may say it is just a tv show - it has become an integrated part of my life as I grew up with it. Yes, in some ways, the episode "brilliantly" demonstrated Meredith's strength, resilience, and poise (this at the very least you got right) but Derek is everyone's knight in shining armor and I am astounded by his 10 minute death in the presence of imbeciles. Anyways, thank you for an amazing 10 years; I can safely say that my journey with Grey's Anatomy ends here.”

 “Officially hate this show. I have watched every episode from the beginning and this season has been awful. First Christina leaves and now this. Just cancel the show already.”

A few hours before the episode aired, the leaked reveal of Derek’s impending death spread throughout social media thanks to a picture of an Entertainment Weekly article on Instagram by a subscriber receiving her copy a day early. Entertainment Weekly posted an apology, but the damage had been done: the news spread like wildfire. Subsequent stories, written  by Lynette Rice, launched at the same time, detailing the star’s post-mortem following his demise. Rice writes  “His character’s death wasn’t exactly a surprise: the past two episodes of the ABC drama have foreshadowed the possibility of a Derek departure, prompting legions of fans to warn ABC and creator Shonda Rhimes that they’re playing with fire by even teasing such a mammoth development."


 “How to Save a Life,” begins the last morning of Derek Shepherd’s life, happy, in love with his wife and family and embarking on a trip to Washington that will be his last. After a season that was Dempsey-light (additional rumors of his departure (not death) from the series had run rampant on the internet for months, with speculation that the series regular would not be returning after the end of the season, despite signing a contract through the end of the 2016 season), the past few had been heavy with Meredith and Derek coming to the understanding that while he’d been tempted to transgress in Washington, the one thing that he most wanted was to live his life with wife and with his family.

 On his way to catch his plane, he witnesses a car accident where he helps to stabilize the accident victims and his patients--- a little girl who’d become his sidekick and her mother with a dislocated leg, a teenage boy with a head injury,  and a girl with a stomach laceration that the ‘hero-mode” Shepherd tells her is “just a tiny cut on her tummy.” He’s killing it at the doctor in the woods thing, and endearing the audience to McDreamy all the more-- out in the middle of nowhere, no cars around, no cell service to speak of, he’s saving lives and being generally amazing, dropping his catch-phrase that it’s “A beautiful day to save lives.” One of my favorite moments of the episode is when the little girl says “what was that?” and he answers, self-consciously, “it’s just something I say.” (The official Facebook page would use this to create a type of in-memoriam graphic shown below as a post thread to generate fan response).

The race car the teenagers were riding in catches fire and explodes, creating a kind of smoke-signal to emergency personnel that show up soon after the backwoods doctoring session. A paramedic tells the good doctor to go home and have a drink, after all, he deserves it after being pretty much a superhero. And then Derek gets in his car drives it into the middle of the street that has been silent and car-free for hours, suddenly distracted by his buzzing cell phone that had absolutely no service hours before.  Maybe there was a booster on the firetruck?

And then, a semi-truck comes around the corner and smashes into the side of his vehicle. In most narratives, that would probably be the end of things. Nope, not for Derek Shepherd. Instead we are treated to a half hour of his narrating his own injuries and eventual death as he’s killed by being in a rural hospital with no trauma services that didn’t do a CT scan before they took him into surgery.

 In a review for USA today, Robert Bianco writes of the moments following Derek’s accident, and the “well-chosen narrative device: [of] letting us hear an unable-to-speak Derek's thoughts as he realized he was not getting the treatment he needed: "I'm going to die because there people aren't properly trained." I would argue that the device wasn’t altogether effective-- the voiceover felt slightly clunky and forced, and downright awkward at times. Either way, it’s a depressing way to end up, as Meredith says, “alive, but not alive” and on life support.

The scenes that follow are tragic and some of the hardest I’ve ever watched on television. In the moments that lead up to Derek’s death-- with his wife taking her husband and lover of off life support, their two children just outside the room with a stranger, a social worker, I felt myself starting to bawl. I gave into the moment. It was a nasty, heartbreaking kind of cry. The kind that you makes you go through a box of tissues, the kind where you think maybe you’ll eat that possibly Listeria-ridden Blue Bell ice cream in your freezer anyway, because Derek Shepherd is dead.

In an exclusive  Entertainment Weekly article posted on, Dempsey talks about the end of his character,” I think it will be very shocking, the way it happens. It’s really going to be powerful. But life is like that. I think any time an original cast member has left, there’s always a void that will never be filled. Shepherd is a beloved character. People don’t want to lose him. He’s been in their lives for over 10 years. But it goes on, and it will evolve.” And responding to the death of Shepherd and the departure of Dempsey, Shonda Rimes gave this exclusive statement to “‘Derek Shepherd is and will always be an incredibly important character—for Meredith, for me and for the fans. I absolutely never imagined saying goodbye to our ‘McDreamy.’ Patrick Dempsey’s performance shaped Derek in a way that I know we both hope became a meaningful example—happy, sad, romantic, painful and always true—of what young women should demand from modern love. His loss will be felt by all. Now, Meredith and the entire Grey’s Anatomy family are about to enter uncharted territory as we head into this new chapter of her life. The possibilities for what may come are endless. As Ellis Grey would say: the carousel never stops turning.’"

The problem is, the audience-- at least those that engage on social media, don’t seem to think that they can watch a show that kills off such a pivotal character playing a role that shaped the direction of the series. The current season has averaged a 2.3 rating and a little over eight million viewers. Despite the promise of a two hour “special” episode next week, it looks like the show will see a decline in viewership based on the current fan backlash-- and really, who would be surprised? That very vehicle of narrative delight, of enjoying the series for the emotional rollercoaster, of our hearts in our chest and the tissue box nearby that had been so successful for eleven seasons, may have died along with Derek Shepherd on this very night.

  Works Cited 

Bianco, Robert. "Review: 'Grey's Anatomy's' Accidental Death. USA Today. Gannett.  23 Apr.2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.


“Grey’s Anatomy: Season Eleven Ratings.” TV Series 17 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 Apr.2015.


Oldenberg, Ann. “‘ Grey’s Anatomy Kills off Major Character’.” USA 23 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.


Rice, Lynette. “Grey’s Anatomy” Star Patrick Dempsey on Tonight’s Shocking Twist-- Exclusive.  23 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.


---. “Shonda Rhimes Gives Statement on Killing off Grey’s Anatomy Star.” 23 Aprr 2015. Web.  23 Apr. 2015.

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