Grey's Anatomy: Why the loss of Patrick Dempsey is great for the show
So here's something I never thought I'd say: Killing off McDreamy may mean that Season 12 of Grey's Anatomy will provide a significant return on my decade-plus investment in the show.
Like most fans, the idea of Derek Shepherd ceasing to exist did not sit well with me. I had some serious initial misgivings about the whole thing.
But now that I've had some distance from the tragic event, and having seen what Grey's has done with its storytelling since Derek went to the big ferryboat in the sky, I've done a complete 180. I now wholeheartedly believe that it's going to completely reinvigorate the show, and for the first time in a while, Grey's looks set to return to being a must-watch for me, rather than a loyalty watch.
For those of you bristling at all the blasphemous things I've just said, let me explain. A big part of my initial resistance to Derek's death, beyond the obvious, is that it makes it pretty damn hard to go back and watch the previous 11 seasons and see the show the same way, knowing he eventually dies. Every single part of his story — particularly, his relationship with Meredith — now comes with a dark cloud hanging over it. It seems like a waste of years of storytelling. But that was Grey's before, and this new Derek-less show is Grey's 2.0. Viewing them as two completely separate entities has really helped me move on from the shock of the event and see the value in what Grey's can be, moving forward.
In fact, we've already seen some promising signs. Blitzing past that first year of grief was a more badass storytelling decision than anything I've ever seen on Scandal. In the first two episodes post-Derek's departure, Shonda Rhimes did something that enabled the show to breathe without Derek — she didn't dwell on the immediate aftermath of his death. Instead, she pushed it far enough into the future that we didn't have to see characters deal with initial grief — which has become a bit of an overdone trope on TV — but still close enough to the event that the scars still exist. A year has passed and much has changed, but instead of having to watch the change happen through a series of predictable plotlines, we instead get to enjoy the discovery of what has changed.
Of all the characters that will now get refocused attention as a result of Derek's death, Meredith's story line will obviously be the most different to what it has been in the past. While Meredith has always been the nucleus of the show (and she's the only character whose name is in the show's title), so much of the past 11 seasons have been told through the lens of her relationship, or lack of, with this one particular man (whose name is not in the show's title). Meredith Grey has always been the most central character, but the show's most prominent story line has never been about her as an individual; rather, its most prominent focus has always been her romantic entanglement with Derek. And watching her lose him after everything else Meredith has lost in her life was the most sour cherry on the world's worst-ever sundae.
But Derek's death was a necessary evil in the service of nuanced female-driven storytelling. It has always been my opinion that male characters are at their most compelling in relationships, because relationships reveal so much about who they are and their capacity to evolve. Conversely, I've always felt that female characters are at their most compelling when they're not in relationships, because who women are as individuals is so much more interesting than the compromises we often have to watch them make when they're in relationships. When a fictional female is in a relationship or the pursuit of one, practically everything she does is about someone else. I'm not saying there aren't some great examples where male and female characters have thwarted my theory, but Meredith Grey is not one of them.
For 11 seasons, her character arc has been framed by Derek, and in so many ways, that has been a positive thing. But of late, Derek hasn't empowered or supported her in the ways she has needed and she has learned (while he was away in D.C.) that she can cope without him and, in some respects, she is a better version of herself when he isn't in the picture. Of course, that's not to say that losing him wasn't tragic or that such a profound loss won't continue to affect her. But while the death of her husband and the father of her children is the absolute worst for Meredith Grey as a character, it's the most positive thing for me as a viewer and my desire to see the focus shift to Meredith as an individual.
One of the best things about Grey's throughout the seasons has been getting to watch Meredith grow up. I am by no means saying that we can chalk up being widowed to being part of growing up, but Meredith is in a far different position now than where she was when the show first started; she has three children and she has a well-established career. How she navigates those things without a partner or the pursuit of one is something I am really excited to see.