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Grey's Anatomy - Only Mama Knows - Review

Outstanding. It’s been a very long time since an episode came along which truly lived and breathed the very core of Grey’s Anatomy. Only Mama Knows took us on a journey all through the last ten seasons. Not only is the ‘daughter’ story working well but it was presented to us in 11.04 faithfully and beautifully written, directed, edited and acted. Every single scene, even the very few unrelated to the central story arc, shouted to be absorbed to the point where leaving the room, even with the beauty of the pause button, was not an option. If you needed any reason to keep watching then 11.04 proves that there is fire in the old boiler.

When was the last time Shondaland treated us to such a pleasure?

Yes, this is gushing. It’s an episode worth gushing over in a season that so far is delivering more than any in recent memory. We were scared to let Yang go, scared that this meant the end of the show as we know it, and watching this week I should’ve missed Yang but I didn’t. The episode and the story telling was so strong and the other characters so well written and intensely embedded and woven in, that Cristina was just a fleeting thought or question. What would Cristina say to Meredith, or what is Cristina saying to Meredith over skype?...and then I moved quickly on.

We earned this story and this episode. The arrival of a long lost sibling is certainly not an original plot. It’s a device over-used by soaps and often told in ret-con or with compromised continuity. It could even be said that it’s a cheap device for Grey’s to use in order to keep the show going following possible cast departures post season twelve. It takes the strongest creative team to pull it off so faithfully that the audience not only believes it but roots for it in a show as mature as Grey’s. Viewers have waited a long time for Grey’s to buck up and we are rewarded with this beauty; a story told with crescendo, in present day, weaving in new and old flashbacks.

This was an enormously difficult journey for the creators to take us on in one episode. In stark contrast to recent ‘band aid’ ret-con stories (and I point forcefully at Arizona’s miscarriage) the risk involved in delivering such a potent plot meant leaning heavily on a solid foundation which explains the need for Maggie’s ‘special’ in episode two. That episode in itself was a huge risk. The journey made even more difficult because the writers had a complex back-story to be faithful to spanning the entire 10 seasons of the show; a back-story that has already been dissected and portrayed in flashback several times with different actors. Imagine a piece of thread running through all ten seasons and in 11.04 the writers are pulling it so hard that you can feel the tug right back to season one, episode one.

Throughout the episode there are many ghosts haunting Meredith. At the start her memories were cloudy, she could remember just a whisper of life as a five year old. Slowly and painfully the dark truths unveil themselves, helped by her mother’s journals and by flashback through the eyes of a child. Running parallel to this Meredith is coming face to face once again with the woman Ellis Grey was – cold, ambitious, selfish. Seemingly holding on only with her fingertips, Derek strides in and reinforces her insecurities. This latter stream of consciousness was interspersed with flashbacks from previous Ellis/ adult Meredith scenes. Coming in from another angle Richard was dealing with his own recollection of events and facing up to how his actions shaped the unhappy ending. Flashback weaved in and out of his narrative too. It could’ve been very disjointed, but the slick, shrewd editing kept it flowing. The new flashbacks were realistic; the flashbacks from past episodes slotted in perfectly. There was always a risk that the story would be forced to fit with what had been screened previously but this was never evident. The constant flickering back and forth was intense, dramatic and a very clever way to show us the story.

And the journals! What a stroke of genius it was to introduce those to us many seasons ago. We have had and continue to get full value out of those diaries. Meredith reads her own kind of journal at the beginning of almost every episode so it is poetic (and I assume intentional) that her journey into accepting her mother’s past and her new sister comes via her mother’s chapters. Only Mama Knew.

Derek is forced to plough his own furrow and just when he was showing himself to be the biggest jerk of all this season he comes through in favour of sisters. He has a bunch of them. He loves sisters, he knows Meredith doesn’t so much. Despite his martyring self-sacrifice he sits firmly in Meredith’s corner.

Ellen Pompeo delivers a first class performance. Despite her longevity in the role or maybe because of it she put her all, her truth, into showing us just how much this new development means to Meredith and just how conflicted she is emotionally. She has also proved that Meredith does not need Cristina Yang to carry the biggest stories in this grand old show.

The younger Ellis and the younger Richard could well be their younger actor selves, they were that good, the facial expressions, the voice register, all so close. So caught up in the moment I failed to realize at first that someone else previously played the younger Ellis, but it didn’t matter. These were honest performances from all the flashback actors.

Circling around the core of the action there were a few other moments worth noting...

Amelia seems quite established now as ‘friend of Maggie’. We were given hints of things to come however if Maggie’s suspicious look toward Amelia is worth noting. It seems that Amelia may lead Maggie to understanding Richard more – what drove him to drink. And don’t you just love Amelia as Derek’s boss. She looks about twelve in her scrub cap but it sure is nice seeing someone boss him around.

This really was a retrospective episode in other ways. Bailey reminded Richard of just how good he is. It was so delightful to see Bailey back on top and rather beautiful to see her both relieved that Richard “did not have sex with that girl” and highly sensitive to his pain. Bailey on the board, ‘the transfusion of new blood’ is another wonderful thing to come out of this season so far.

There were two other subplots rumbling along the main action. Alex received a reintroduction to GSM as an attending with Arizona then handing over her peds floor. In her own attempt to be retrospective Arizona reminds Alex that while she didn’t vote for him on the board she does value his skills. The second point in this mini arc is when Arizona gives away how serious things are at home: “and if I’m gonna keep my marriage from falling apart”. It’s notable because rather than talking about who does or doesn’t want a baby she makes the point about her marriage. It was a functional point setting us up for....*spoiler*.

If you are fairly new to Grey’s, maybe you joined post season five, then perhaps the power of this story is reduced for you. If you’ve been with it from the beginning then this episode really was for you, for us. Reaching into the depths of Grey’s Only Mama Knows reminded us of and enhanced Meredith’s and Richard’s story as well as explaining Maggie’s. Mark Driscoll, Nicole Rubio and Susan Vaill stood up and were counted in this episode. I feel sorry for the director, writer and editor of 11.05 for what they now have to live up to.

Over to you.

P.S. Is it wrong of me to want Maggie to go simply because Wilson wants to go with her.
P.P.S. I don’t want Maggie to go.

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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