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Grey's Anatomy - Stacy McKee, Calzona, and Mistakes - Feature Review *10.09 spoiler*



Nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. As viewers of global television shows, especially those reaching ten years of tenure, we have seen our fair share of mistakes both on the screen and behind the cameras. If you’re not old enough to remember Bobby Ewing emerging from the shower you’ll most likely have heard about it. Patrick Duffy’s return to Dallas in 1986 wiped out an entire season’s worth of storyline. How’s that for an epic mistake rectified – by the actor and by the show creators? It takes a lot for a producer to quite obviously make good on an error. It’s a very public expression of fallibility. It’s possibly more difficult for a show runner to fess up to errors than it is a politician. After all, is there a more passionate bunch of people worldwide than the shows ‘shippers?

One of the strongest themes running through Grey's Anatomy episode 10.09 told us plainly that everyone makes mistakes, whether they are surgical gods, loyal dads or even your loving spouse. But after all the hype of ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’ the most telling part of the episode was the determined effort of the show’s producers to rectify their own mistake. The irony was not lost on me that in dissecting poor Callie’s descent into courtroom hell for her own mistakes the viewers were treated to a recovery effort by the Grey’s writers to rectify theirs. Not all the show’s writers would be trusted with such a job. Recovering a storyline takes talent and creativity and in this case the writer called forward to take on this monumental task was the seasoned Grey’s writer Stacy McKee.

Max has written a fantastic episode review earlier in the week (you should read it if you haven’t already) so I’ve gone back into the archives of Grey’s to discover why McKee was given 10.09 to write, and discuss whether she came close to sorting out this very dramatic and polarizing Callie and Arizona storyline.

Did the writers make a mistake that needed correcting in the first place?
To answer this we need to go back to Season Eight. Callie and Arizona were ostensibly very happy, the ‘Mark’ drama had been put to bed at the end of season seven and season eight was to be the rekindling of their passion as they make a married life for themselves. Then came Nick, 8.23, and his failed attempt to cheat death. It was a brief glimpse into Arizona’s past but we are shown that he was her ‘Mark’, her best friend from childhood, in a similar way as Mark was to Derek perhaps. This very short storyline, which, presumably had an off screen ending of death sparked the foreshadowing we saw in 10.01.
Arizona: “Don't ever leave.”
Callie: “What?”
A: “Don’t. Ever. Leave. Promise me that right now.”
C: “I'm not going anywhere I promise”
A: “After my brother I thought - I can't do this ever again. I won't do this again. And now, here I am”
C: “Okay, whatever you can't do I will. I'm here and that's how this works. Okay?”
This scene lays the groundwork for broken promises, certainly on Callie’s side but more pointedly it’s the last time, until end of 10.08, we actually heard Arizona tell us (or rather Callie) how she really feels, besides anger, which is her mask, or fear of Callie leaving which is repeated during season nine. Resolution for her grief and their reconciliation was implied in their return to sexual intimacy and those viewers who have experienced the depths of grief in losing a limb or a best friend or even losing yourself saw the superficial filter on the storyline. Others felt Arizona’s cheating came entirely out of the blue, uncharacteristic and the character has been castigated and demonized over the summer and all the way through season 10 so far.

The writing error is NOT that so much of Arizona’s storyline has been off screen (it has but that’s normal in Grey’s unfortunately), or that she cheated. Nothing in Arizona’s backstory tells us that cheating is out of character. We have no relationship back-story so no benchmark. The real problem is that too much of Arizona’s story has relied on viewers reading between the lines of her character leading to a perception of Callie as the flawless victim. This, in the world of Grey’s Anatomy is an imbalance between two central characters and the mistake is that it has been left uncorrected for too long, like a continuity error. In almost every storyline with every couple when there is conflict the writers constantly seek to restore balance – a great example is the retcon cheating storyline for Owen. Cristina aborting the baby with Owen’s permission pushed the balance of sympathy right over to Owen, disproportionately so. The writers had to restore the balance, hence the cheating. Now they are both flawed. This balancing occurs constantly with Meredith and Derek and all the couples. Left uncorrected we get gaping holes.

 Arizona is seen as out of character or cold or a bitch to Callie. Actually Grey’s writers never write their characters like this and Arizona is no exception. All of them, even Burke, are portrayed as good, yet flawed people. And those flaws are always explained sympathetically.  In the case of Arizona it’s like she’s in a circular error on an Excel spreadsheet – or the dog chasing it’s own tail. What the writers have intended to tell us is that Arizona is as sensitive and exposed as the next person, perhaps with respect to her lost leg, desperately vulnerable, but Arizona’s character DOES NOT DO vulnerable. It forces her shutters up and her mask goes on and she doesn’t talk about it. So the writers have shown Arizona not talking about it, which is entirely within character as a defence, but it hasn’t translated well enough on screen. If a character is not talking then we rely on behavior clues which in themselves are masks for real feelings.

If I was a betting person I’d put money that the reason for the delay in telling Arizona’s story is because at some stage early season Shonda Rhimes realized that this character has lost a lot of public sympathy because of her character’s ‘silence’. More so than any other cheating storyline – and there have been a lot (as I explain here).  As a response she upped the episode budget and told McKee to fix it.

The principle of retcon (retroactive continuity) was invented for the purpose of ‘making good’ mistakes. Okay, it wasn’t invented just for that but as a device it allows writers to refresh old shows, add characters and new story arcs, change history to move existing stories forward, bring characters/actors back from the dead or make amends for continuity errors. In retcon past stories are changed to help the viewers make sense of current stories. Given the length of time that Grey’s has been on air we haven’t seen too much retcon and this is a credit to strong writing and character development. It has also helped that there is a core group of writers (and actors) who have been on the show regularly from the start or at least early production days, which has led to character and story consistency. One such writer is Stacy McKee, brought into the Grey’s family at the start of Season Two, she has been writing between 2-4 episodes every season ever since.

Why did Shonda choose Stacy? Three reasons: a proven track record of writing difficult episodes, she’s the specialist at ‘specials’ and she’s the writer who knows both Callie and Arizona the best. It was a no brainer.

What’s her history?
Writing her third episode Stacy McKee introduced us to Callie with Sara Ramirez’ charismatic entrance onto the show during 2.19. The Callie we were presented with then is still the same passionate electric one we see now:
“Hurts less if you don’t see it coming”
Come episode 3.06 Stacy has put Callie and George back together again with words I can hear loudly even in season ten:
“I was rude to you before, I’m sorry. I understand what you were trying to say...you’re the pig, you’re committed. Only, we broke up, and I’ve been wanting to hear this from you for so long and you wait until now to say this to me, after we’ve broken up. I‘m out of my element here, I break bones for a living, I live in the basement, most days I wear last night’s eyeliner to work I don’t give a crap what other people think of me because I’m a happily independent successful woman and I like it that way. But when you say stuff like this it’s just...it makes things to hard, so please don’t chase me anymore. Unless you’re ready to catch me.” (notice how much we learn about Callie in just this one speech).
Through the angst of suspecting George’s cheating in 3.20 it is by season four, specifically 4.06 where we know that McKee has this character nailed.
Callie, to the girl trying to win the wedding dress:
“Don’t you get it? You shouldn’t have to fight this hard for a wedding. You fight for a marriage and sometimes even that is a lost cause, sometimes you have to let go so just let go already alright, just frickin’ let go.”
And to George:
“I’m letting go. I have to. Let go”

Stacy’s first real ‘special’ sees the return of Addison (former cheater) and not only is she tasked with re-introducing this much-loved character but Addison’s secondary job in this episode is to unpick Callie. Throughout this entire episode Addison is the fixer – perceptive and compassionate she deals with
Bailey:
“You seem sad”
Meredith:
“I walk on the beach now, I buy aromatherapy candles, I’m very zen but I wanna kick your arse so badly right now. It is killing me. ....I’m talking about Derek. Derek Christopher Shepherd. Are you letting him get away? Because I swear to God Meredith if you let him ride off into the sunset with that doe eyed little thing...”
And then she opens Callie’s eyes:
“Callie....are you speaking the...vagina monologues now?”

On to season five and McKee is given the episode just after Hahn leaves Callie in the car park which arguably is a natural follow on for her after 4.06. Callie goes through a transition to understanding herself better.

By now Rhimes trusts McKee with the biggest storylines and there are very few bigger (for MerDer) than the Elevator Love Letter of 519 (adorable proposal cuteness), an episode which although opens with Callie and Arizona dancing it’s where she gives closure to Callie and George.

So by now we know that McKee knows Callie, having written pivotal moments in that character’s history. The show introduced Jessica Capshaw as a series regular at the start of season 6 and McKee is given the task of opening out the character of Arizona. During episode 6.08, Invest in Love, another special, she tells the story from the voice of Arizona and it is this episode under the wing of McKee that her character really takes form. By now McKee knows this couple.

At this stage it’s worth bringing up 6.13 - Mark’s daughter has entered his life and Lexie’s done a runner. A short piece of dialogue between Mark and Callie gives a clue to us for season 10 that perhaps Callie is capable of forgiveness in cheating:
M: “She dumped me and jumped into bed with Karev, she doesn’t get to make good points.”
C: “Mark don’t you think you’ve being a bit...”
M: “What? Mad offended disgusted?”
C: “Hypocritical, sexist, immature”
M: “She dumped me. Not the other way around. She dumped me, and for wanting to step up and be responsible with my own daughter.....”

Over to season 7 and all three episodes written by McKee are ‘specials’, and out of the normal Grey’s format. The first, 7.06 is the documentary episode. While this particular story did nothing for me it allowed us to see a very objective view of Callie and Arizona’s not entirely open relationship and new nuances to both characters. Past the superbly written Meredith special, Golden Hour, McKee is then tasked with her biggest test – White Wedding. This was an almost impossible task of bringing together two of the most important weddings in the history of Grey’s, introduce two sets of in-laws (well almost), create the monster that is Callie’s mom, allow Derek to fall in love with an adorable Zola, navigate and lead an enormous cast across a multitude of new sets and significant multi-arc content. Too much was expected of this episode but as huge as it was it showed us some pivotal plot points, including an exceptional speech from Bailey summing up the fight that Callie had for a wedding (remember 4.06 “you shouldn’t have to fight for a wedding”). So by the end of season 7 McKee has already written Callie fighting for her marriage with George and her wedding with Arizona. And of course, speaking of Arizona, McKee shines another light on her life by telling us about her relationship with her brother.
Passing over the forgettable stereotype of 8.04 (What is it about Men) we should not pass over 8.10 where McKee can be found mopping up after Callie’s (or really Jackson’s) mistake in surgery -
Owen to Callie: “I believe it was your mistake who put everyone in this position in the first place. You’re really not one to point fingers right now.”
So McKee has written both of Callie’s ‘failures.

By season 9 McKee has become not only the ‘go to’ writer but also the Shonda substitute. While Rhimes is busying herself over on the Scandal set McKee is given episodes that Shonda might normally assign herself, beginning with the start of season 9, writing the very best character exit (Mark), with Callie and Derek central to this (and Jackson) which was executed so much more sensitively than George or Izzie, or even Lexie and managing to turn Calzona upside down with one single scene right at the end. She completely finishes them off with some haunting dialogue in 9.24 as McKee ends the season having ripped apart this troubled couple. 

It’s taken ten episodes this season for Shonda to pull out the McKee trump card and for good reason. McKee built much of the foundation for Callie and Arizona, she knows those two characters more than any other writer, including Shonda, she understands Callie’s heart and fight, she feels Arizona’s barriers, she knows how these two characters interlock, she can more than handle difficult storylines, large supporting casts and unfamiliar locations and she’s a phenomenal writer. And that’s before I’ve even started on the fact she is one of the best writers of Alex...

4.13: Bailey: "Karev, right now you're feeling all your feelings right out in the open. Do me a favour and stuff them back in"
5.19 where he has to deposit in a cup and 6.13 Arizona to Karev "you don't get to berate terrified parents"

and April, truly bringing out the exceptional talent that is Sarah Drew...
7.20: she gets through to Stark, 9.08 with the interns and it’s Stacy McKee that brought April back into the show both times.

and Teddy. 8.10 is heartbreaking and Kim Raver is fantastic.

Perhaps the fact that McKee did not write any further Calzona story between 9.01 and 9.24 is indicative of the trouble ahead so faced with a gaping hole in the storyline for Arizona and Callie, Shonda did the best thing she could do and gave the gauntlet to McKee.

And what about the actual episode?
Episode 10.09 was an excellent episode. Without a doubt the best of the season so far, it was a complicated story beautifully written, well directed and edited. It progressed stories (yes, plural – it quietly progressed Cristina’s story), was full of drama, incorporated subtly and appropriately the entire cast, especially the principles, and was a joy to watch. The icing on the cake was the very superb Sara Ramirez showing that she deserves star billing on this show and probably by now, a show of her own. All of this was a direct result of excellent story telling by McKee.

Yes. All of this.

I can’t ignore the ENORMOUS elephant in the room though. Or gorilla or whatever large animal works in your version of the metaphor. COLOSSAL. So big in fact that the episode pulsates as much from the drama and superstar performances as it does from the palpable audience manipulation. Because while the ‘miscarriage’ story itself was well told within the context of the episode, it’s such a huge leap of faith for the viewer to take this story, process it and eventually by the end of 42 minutes, appreciate the full enormity of what Arizona lost. Nothing justifies cheating but we know, to quote the words of Bailey, affairs don’t happen in a vacuum. And the vacuum that sucked the remaining air out of their marriage was the loss of a baby.

If you look hard enough there was enough story to show us the real trauma behind Arizona’s actions already in season 9. Retcon flashbacks could’ve elaborated much more realistically on the sheer terror of being in the woods, unable to move for five days, in excruciating pain, sitting in your own faeces, drinking urine, maggots eating your leg and animals eating your colleague; or how much the pain of phantom limb and the desperate need for independence left Arizona too exhausted to do anything; or finally being able to grieve for the loss of Nick, not being with him when he died; or not being able to pick up Sofia or play with her in the park, week after week, month after month. All of these could have taken us on a journey much closer to the reality we saw in season nine. These were strong enough to provide character sympathy, but perhaps the writers saw that the hole was bigger, the fan reaction so much stronger that only the most personal loss, that of an unborn child, to a woman who had already lost a leg, would do.

Addison and Richard never had to go through that much in order to ‘explain’ their behaviour to fans. In my opinion this elephant wasn’t needed and it now appears a rather cheap way of building sympathy for Arizona.

What about Callie?
McKee used the “mistake” device for Callie to recover from the show’s failure to get Arizona’s point of view across sympathetically –  a reminder - that is 32 episodes lacking an expression of feeling. But these points that McKee illustrated so well through this story were needed and were necessary because (going back to the vacuum analogy) the writers in Grey’s Anatomy will not allow for characters to be faultless and in 10.09 we see the deconstruction of Callie personally and professionally. On one day she failed her wife and her patient at the same time. She failed to understand the enormity of loss her wife had suffered and learned that lesson through her patient – as per all the good Grey’s stories. This part of the story worked really well. If you try to interpret the timeline (not easy, in fact I wouldn’t bother if I were you) Callie is falling down during the latter episodes of season nine, culminating in Arizona being attracted to a doctor who presented as exactly the woman that Arizona fell in love with in Callie – a goddess doctor, strong, sexy, in control, as Callie was when she emerged after Hahn (“walk tall Torres, walk tall”). You can interpret that Dr Boswell is either Arizona looking in the mirror or Arizona looking for the Callie she knew in someone else in a moment of madness sadness. Probably both. Knowing Callie’s character so well McKee very easily weaved a powerful story building on eight and a half seasons of clues. Somehow although the intent was to provide some sympathy to Arizona I did come away with sympathy for both of these women whose lives have been slapped with one trauma after another and who clearly still love each other. The very best and most telling line McKee provided will be an echo that will haunt us through the rest of the season:
“She lost her leg last year...and it’s changed us. It’s cost us in ways I can’t even begin to understand.”
Callie still doesn’t understand it. But in those words lies a lot of hope – an admission that she doesn’t know and after a pep talk with her dad, a willingness to try.
With Arizona we felt the pain of miscarriage as the straw that broke the camel’s back but I still feel there is a lot going on in her head that we are not privy to. Somehow I get the feeling she's going to lose even more before she picks herself up. 

Perhaps McKee has saved Calzona, time will tell. It does seem that while other ‘cheating’ characters can be redeemed fairly easily on Grey’s the writers have to fight the hardest to balance out the relationship between Callie and Arizona for the fan majority. For me, I am philosophical - in Grey’s Anatomy balance holds this show together and cheaters are always rebalanced. Like it or not, that is the formula. Stacy McKee wrote a superb episode and showed us that we all make mistakes, and in this case especially Callie. The disappointment came in the sheer size of the retcon device used when it wasn’t needed, Arizona wanting to carry a baby (especially with her history of not wanting them at all), choosing the sperm donor, showing very happy times, miscarrying - all told in about 10 minutes of screen time.

It leaves me thinking that in the end it’s not Callie that was cheated on, but the viewer. Shonda is right to keep Stacy for the biggies. I only hope she learns from her mistake as much as Callie did.

As usual, just my opinion, always open to being shouted down :)

Written by Maxine (Brouhaha) aka @pipmaxine



Brouhaha
Maxine (aka Brouhaha) is a Grey’s Anatomy devotee, from the very beginning and through the dark period of George and Izzie as a couple. Her other TV 'loves' include the British series Foyle's War, Criminal Minds and TBBT. In real life she's a new mum, self-employed and can often be found arguing about politics or current affairs, attempting to write fiction and buying hair products. Maxine reviews Grey's Anatomy. Got a question - go to Tumblr ask!
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