Grey’s Anatomy “How To Save A Life” Review (Season 11 Episode 21)


Disclaimer for my fellow fans of Grey’s Anatomy: This review will at many times read like a rant – because that’s mostly what it is.

When Grey’s Anatomy reached it’s tenth season, many fans were worried about the show’s future because the contracts for several of the show’s longstanding actors were coming to an end. In January 2014, ABC announced that it closed a two-year deal with Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey, which gave fans of the show hope for at least two more years with the Shepherds. The network eventually sealed the deal with Justin Chambers (Karev), Chandra Wilson (Bailey), James Pickens, Jr. (Webber) and Sara Ramirez (Callie). As fans of Grey’s Anatomy already know, Sandra Oh opted not to renew her contract and we all collectively held our breath as we waited to see how the writers would handle Cristina’s exit from the show. Instead of a bloody, traumatic departure, Cristina is off to greener pastures in Zurich. Her exit was as close as one can get to a happy ending in Shondaland.

Just because actors renew their contracts, it does not guarantee that the characters they portray will stick around for the duration of their new agreements. That brings me to last night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy, “How to Save a Life,” in which we said goodbye to one of the original cast members, Patrick Dempsey.

As I watched last night’s episode, I kept imagining the conversation in the writers’ room after it’s been decided that Derek will be killed.

Writer 1: “Guys, what if we kill Derek in a car crash right after he saves four people who were in a separate car crash?”

Writer 2: “OMG! That is going to be devastating for the fans. Can you imagine the outburst on Twitter? This is going to be brilliant!”

The group decides to run with the idea and as they map out the episode, they are motivated by visions of fans who they anticipate will watch the episode and shed more tears than they have at all of Nicholas Sparks’s films combined. I imagine that this was the desired effect:

Unfortunately, for this viewer, as the episode closed I looked more like this:

To be clear, it’s sad to lose an original cast member from a show after 11 seasons, but that is not the source of my disappointment. My disappointment is in the melodramatic, over the top, ridiculous manner in which the writers decided to kill Derek Shepherd. Derek Shepherd survived being shot and a freaking plane crash and this is how you send him off into the great Grey’s Anatomy graveyard to be reunited with McSteamy? Really?

It’s not just the concept of the fatal crash after the near-fatal crash that I hated. It’s also the context in which this happened. Patrick Dempsey has barely been part of this season. Most of that time was spent in some sort of angst-ridden conflict with Amelia or Meredith. We went through the whole fakeout with Derek and the kiss from the woman who kinda looked like a female Terrence Howard, only to have one episode of drama-free bliss before his death.

Although fans should have felt a sense of relief with the reconciliation of the Shepherds and Derek’s new lease on life, with Amelia telling Meredith she did not know the pain of losing a man she loved – it was hard to ignore the very conspicuous foreshadowing looming over the last few episodes – not exactly my favorite approach to writing. Both the character and the fans deserve better.

As I prepared to write this review, I thought about the other shows that I watch that share this same affinity for killing off characters. That led me to an internal debate over Shonda Rhimes and George R.R. Martin. I ultimately decided that Rhimes had officially earned the title at being the worst at character deaths. Indeed, Martin will kill your favorite characters in breathtaking, soul-crushing ways, but the deaths at least make a bit more sense because you can see how the death fit into the character’s overall storyline trajectory. In Shondaland, the decisions tend to feel a bit more ill-conceived and random. Deaths are far too often driven by external factors that are wholly unrelated to storylines, i.e., a departing actor, and then justified in hindsight as being storyline driven. If not done to allow an actor to exit, deaths are used to give a character a storyline – this has been done far too often on Grey’s Anatomy.

As I’ve also mentioned in previous reviews, when it comes to creating pain and drama for long-suffering characters like Meredith Grey . . .

Over the course of 11 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, Meredith has dealt with her mother’s Alzheimer’s, enduring a strained relationship with her father, being blamed by her father for the death of his second wife, drowning, discovering two secret sisters, losing one of her secret sisters, losing a best friend after he got hit by a bus, watching her husband get shot, suffering a miscarriage, surviving a plane crash, giving birth during a power outage, nearly losing her most stable parental figure (Richard) and getting into a huge rift with her best friend shortly before the best friend leaves Seattle for Zurich. I’m sure there’s more that I’m leaving out, but you get the point. I’m sure next week’s two-hour episode in which the Grey Sloan doctors say goodbye to their friend and colleague will be a total tearjerker; however, I am no longer entertained by Meredith’s suffering! Enough! As a viewer of both Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, I’m not really looking forward to watching Amelia suffering another loss either.

When a show has killed so many characters, sometimes not resorting to death as a source of conflict and drama can be a much more compelling choice. Cristina’s departure was so satisfying and well-handled and in a perfect world, Sandra Oh would return to the show this season so that Cristina can be there for her person. Perhaps the writers felt that having Derek written off the show without dying so soon after Cristina would have felt too repetitive. I disagree and wish the writers would have challenged themselves to think of more creative storylines for Dempsey’s final season. You know what’s more annoying than a contrived car crash on top of car crash plot? Involving the actress that portrayed Sydney from NBC’s Parenthood in Derek’s final moments. Clearly I’ve done something horrible recently to have deserved that very unfortunate mash up on my screen.

Thoughts From The Grey Sloan Memorial Surgical Observation Deck

– As evidenced by this very long, gif reaction filled rant, I was not a huge fan of this episode or this story arc in general. However, the episode was not without its good bits. Patrick Dempsey did very well with the material given to him. In particular, he did a great job at capturing the frustration and hopelessness that one should rightfully feel as he listens to his doctors make decisions that he knows will cost him his life. I completely connected with his frustration.

– Ellen Pompeo was also terrific. She was great at capturing the sadness of a grieving widow, the worry of a newly single mother and the anger of an experienced surgeon who knows her husband was not cared for properly.

– I make a lot of fun of the Grey Sloan doctors for their unprofessional antics in the workplace. However, a neurosurgeon taking 90 minutes to respond to an urgent page when he’s on call because he was having a meal is easily the worst thing I think I’ve seen a doctor do on this show. It will be interesting to see if that information is revealed next week. As an attorney, I hope Meredith sues the crap out of that hospital. Watching the character who has been wronged comforting the character who screwed up is another television trope I could do without altogether. Not being properly trained in trauma care is no excuse for what happened – they just made a series of bad calls. Further, lack of trauma expertise has nothing to do with a neurosurgeon taking 90 minutes to return from dinner. Where the hell was he dining? Was he in Canada and got caught up in customs?

– Stephanie and Jo have also been a source of frustration in the past when the jockeyed for surgeries. I still find them annoying, but nothing was as frustrating to watch as how the doctors gained a sense of urgency in helping Derek after they learned he was a surgeon. Disgusting.

– Meredith letting go of Derek and the use of the flashbacks were the strongest parts of the episode. I have not been a huge fan of the use of flashbacks this season, but last night’s episode helped me better understand why the show runners have used them so much this season. The images of Meredith and Derek over the years at the end, set to Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol was ironic in the cruelest of ways, but a beautiful, fitting song choice for the moment. Although I struggled to emotionally connect with the writers’ very obvious attempts at melodrama and tension with the back-to-back car crashes, hearing Meredith tell Derek that “It’s okay. You can go. We’re going to be fine” was heartbreaking.

Until Next Week!

I feel much better after unloading that rant. What say you? Are you devastated? Outraged? What is your dream departure for Dempsey? Hopefully you were not one of the poor EW subscribers who learned about Dempsey’s departure before the episode aired. Sound off below!

Gifs from Fyeahdragrace; Mr. Hankey Tumblr