Of all the tragedies on Grey’s Anatomy, this was the greatest by far

Meredith Grey once held a live bomb inside a man’s chest. She was pushed off a dock by a trauma patient and almost drowned. Another time she was involved in a plane crash that nearly killed her, her husband and her best friend, and actually killed her (formerly estranged) sister. Meredith Grey has experienced an exhaustive list of tragedies in her lifetime but according to audiences, possibly the greatest tragedy of all is when Meredith Grey left the hospital of her own free will.

Ellen Pompeo, who has played the titular Meredith Grey in Grey’s Anatomy since 2005, just exited the show in its 19th season (it airs on Disney+). Meredith’s leaving does not mark the end of Grey’s Anatomy, for reasons that probably make sense, I suppose. Her last episode aired a couple of weeks ago, and after the many traumas Meredith has endured, her exit from Grey-Sloane, formerly Seattle Grace Hospital, was relatively … trauma-free. Well, her house did burn down, but considering no one died, she got off pretty lightly.

Ellen Pompeo, who plays Dr Meredith Grey in Grey’s Anatomy, has left the show as a series regular in its 19th season.Credit:ABC/Mike Rosenthal

Dr Grey decides to move her family to Boston so she can find a cure for Alzheimer’s (Boston is the only place you can do that, sorry Seattle!) and so her eldest daughter Zola can attend a school for genius children. Her last scene in the hospital has the distinct feeling of when you leave a workplace that you’ve stayed at way too long and the only colleagues left to see you off are people who have been there two or three weeks who don’t even know your last name. For a show characterised by calamity, it was oddly anticlimactic.

But maybe that was the point. Meredith’s life has been so full of agonies that leaving for normal reasons like jobs and proximities to schools is kind of refreshing. Hasn’t she been through enough? There’s no need for her exit to involve a helicopter accident in a volcano, or a Seattle-destroying cyclone or a crazed bear running through the hospital and ripping people’s heads off. Letting the character walk out of the hospital with all her vital signs was a swerve that was kind of surprising in the Grey’s Anatomy universe.

Of course, there was still drama. Her boyfriend Dr Nick (Scott Speedman) failed to catch her before she got on the plane and then called her to finally tell her he loved her. (Meredith is like “Huh? What?” in response and pretends she can’t hear him, so it’s nice to know that even if she’s a grown-up now, she’s still a bit messy.) The door is open for the character to return to the show – perhaps in the same way that Kate Walsh’s Dr Addison would pop back to Seattle occasionally after she was spun off into Private Practice – and she’ll reportedly appear in the season 19 finale in May. In the episode, Meredith even says: “I’m only going to Boston and, you know, I’ll probably be here next week.” We believe you!

The original cast of Grey’s Anatomy (from left to right): James Pickens, Chandra Wilson, Justin Chambers, Katherine Heigl, T.R. Knight, Sandra Oh, Isaiah Washington, Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey.Credit:ABC/Frank Ockenfels

On that. There’s long been a rumour that the manner in which a character leaves Grey’s Anatomy is a good reflection of how co-creator and writer Shonda Rhimes and the rest of the crew on the show feels about the actor leaving. If you’re well-liked, you get killed off in a tragic and heroic way (being hit by a bus while saving someone, getting shot while saving someone, saving some people in a car crash and then getting into a car crash yourself) and if you’re hated, you simply get sent to another city to continue your medical career. I’m not sure how accurate this rumour is – Sandra Oh seemed beloved and her character was sent to Switzerland, my personal greatest tragedy of the show – but the notion of rewarding an actor by setting them free of any obligation to return (albeit only in dream sequences involving a bunch of ghosts on a beach – yes, really) is very funny.

If you think that Grey’s Anatomy is silly, that’s your prerogative. It is silly, and the character of Meredith Grey is occasionally very silly too (like the time she went to jail for helping a patient commit insurance fraud). But she was also an exceedingly interesting character, too. Of course there were the numerous preposterous tragedies that befell her, like the death of her parents, including her stepmother who died of hiccups, of all things, and the death of her husband.

The early years of the show were dominated by her tumultuous relationship with Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), or McDreamy, which often involved Meredith crying and drinking tequila straight from the bottle. These misfortunes made her a “dark and twisty” character who consistently made terrible decisions, but who you couldn’t help but root for. She was complicated, sharp and chilly. Her friendship with Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang, her “person”, was the real romance of the show. “Don’t let what he wants eclipse what you need,” Cristina yells at Meredith when she’s once again sucked into McDreamy’s orbit. “He’s very dreamy, but he’s not the sun. You are!”

Despite the melodrama of the show, the character was a complex portrait of an ambitious woman and so it’s fitting, perhaps, that in the end she’s motivated by a big career goal and not a relationship. Though if she was to pursue her great love, Cristina Yang, in Switzerland, that’s a spin off I’d be watching.

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