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Grey's Anatomy - How To Save A Life - Review

I’m in a state of shock...but not, as you might expect, because Derek is dead. I am astounded at the crap way that Shondaland has exited one of it’s most pivotal Grey’s Anatomy characters.

With very little build up to what transpired to be one of the most momentous episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, not in the current season but in the entire eleven year history one might be forgiven for thinking that not being a season finale, 11.21, How To Save A Life would turn out to be just a horrible Meredith dream. Divorced from the usual ensemble episode format the viewer was taken on Derek’s final heroic journey alone, away from the hospital, his wife and separated from the entire cast in a piece of television which was not only tragic in outcome but unfortunately tragic in execution.

It’s difficult to write a truly dispassionate review. This is SpoilerTV, a fansite for fans and by fans. I’ve loved Grey’s since it first aired and despite some moments of drifting in and out (largely associated with a George/Izzie relationship when I lost the will to watch) I have moved through the years and cast changes with optimism and excitement. So when one of the main original characters is suddenly ripped out from under me it’s impossible to evaluate the episode objectively. But I’m going to try. I’ve no axe to grind. This season the show has been so well written and directed that Patrick Dempsey’s absence has been a periphery concern only. There’s life in this show yet.

Derek Shepherd is dead. When an actor leaves a show for reasons other than creative, whether out of contract or not, the writers have little choice but to write the exit through a character led storyline. The story cannot be organic or plot driven. The best the writers can do is to be true to both the departing and the connected characters. In this case those latter would be Meredith and Amelia. The exit needs to fit within the dynamics of those relationships and with the prevailing storylines. It feels like Patrick Dempsey’s exit was unexpected and possibly unplanned (if indeed it was his decision and not the producers). We can speculate and gossip about rumours and reasons but in the end all that is irrelevant. The writers had to deliver it.

Was killing him off the way to go?
Yes. Absolutely.

Meredith and Derek’s relationship was and will always be a structural dynamic of the show, a foundation pillar for the key protagonist. Separating them permanently through divorce would only work for Meredith if both characters remain on the show thus the writers would be able to explore that new element of their liaison. However I’ve always believed that Meredith and Derek were end game; destined to be together forever. Not in a “I ship MerDer” way but reading interview after interview of Shonda explaining this couple. For an actor to leave within that context the character must come to a tragic yet deeply romantic end. Unpalatable as it may be, being true to this relationship means ending on a high. Even if that high is cut by death. A parallel story can be found in Mark’s death. While arguably the writers did not have to kill off George or Lexie, they had no option but to kill off Mark. Having worked so hard at evolving this character to be a stand up guy, loyal to Callie, giving him the family he so craved the last thing they would do is have him abandon them by moving away from Seattle. Alive he would have to remain in Sofia’s life, dead he can continue to be the great man he was. And so it is with Derek. No one wants it but it was a good decision. And the fall out of this tragic separation will continue to be that structural dynamic, for Meredith but also now for Amelia.

The episode unraveled in the writing and execution. To put it bluntly episode 11.21 was frustrating, awkward and labored viewing. It was unoriginal – he died saving lives, remember George and the bus; he died trying to reach his phone in his car, remember Callie; he died by being switched off, remember Mark?

The first third was bearable. Watching Derek go to work saving the lives of the crash victims reminded us of what the show is all about – human relationships and medical drama. His dreamy eyes and far away softly spoken aura melted us to a pool of nervous excitement (hmmm did I really just write that?). The anonymous supporting cast became irrelevant as we were lost in ferry boats and first kisses and “it’s a beautiful day to save lives”. But I missed the familiar supporting cast.

From the moment his car was hit by the truck, in particular the medical panic over Derek’s injuries, the episode was farcical inexplicable nonsense. Was it designed to be deeply ironic – Derek dying of an injury we know he would’ve been able to treat blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back? At this point I was angry at the television screen. Not because Derek was clearly dying but because I did not want to watch a bunch of shallow and entirely forgettable characters at this most important moment. I wanted to watch the cast. Or was it supposed to make us angry, as if we weren’t angry enough that Derek was dying? Perhaps the point was for these characters to fade into the distance so our focus was entirely on Derek? But there was no dialogue, no interaction with OUR characters, those that are important to us. Where was the rest of the cast? His story is narrated to us in monologue – narration being a very lazy form of story telling.

As if all of that wasn’t enough to have us punching our sofa cushions Meredith shows up in the final third of the episode and again only has dialogue with those aforementioned irrelevant characters. And why should we care that one doctor feels guilty about what’s happened? Meredith bitterly coaching a junior doctor was out of place and frustrating television, a poor use of vital screen time. And it was a waste of a storyline. Imagine how powerful it could’ve been if that story was redirected for Jo or Stephanie. Recovering from the guilt of being responsible for Derek’s death would’ve provided a wonderfully rich story arc to a junior GSM doctor, in much more significant way than Shane’s story was with Heather.

Shonda Rhimes decided to pen this episode herself. This was the wrong decision. So far this season has been written exceptionally well, especially for a show in it’s eleventh season. The writing set up and rotation was working well. Shonda’s decision to step into the writer’s seat for this episode after such a long absence, no matter how romantically or strategically intentioned was ill-advised. Stacey McKee who is far more experienced in Grey’s world to write unusual or special episodes (as I discuss here) should’ve written this episode.

There was good stuff though. Despite being on her own in a strange place, without the rest of the cast, the writing of Meredith was completely on point. She was clinical, as we would expect her to be. The flashbacks were poignant and well placed. Her heartbreak was pushed down as far as it could go, very in character. Derek was the McDreamy we love, he was heroic, he was romantic. Yes he was all the things that we love about Derek, in abundance. And in the final scene, with the signature music of a Grey’s tragedy we watched one of television’s most famous couples get their forever ending, no matter how painful to the audience.

How To Save A Life, 11.21 was heartbreaking, tragic and scary. Scary because it signals a very uncertain and different future not only for Meredith’s life but also for the show’s life. However it was also an arrogant, unoriginal, self-indulgent episode which contrasted so sharply with the loving and well crafted departure of Mark, or by Lexie’s tragic ‘meant to be’. The smell of off screen shenanigans weighed heavily on the episode. The presence of so many inconsequential and uninteresting characters was continually in danger of swamping the dreaminess of Derek and the monologue narration style dulled what was supposed to be very high drama. I ended the episode feeling suspicious at the obvious lack of interaction between Derek and the other series regulars.

Derek Shepherd has passed on. I shall miss him, especially his hair.

About the Author - Brouhaha
Maxine (aka Brouhaha) is a fan of Grey’s Anatomy and writes episode reviews and occasional articles. Her other TV favourites include Foyle's War, Criminal Minds, TBBT and more recently Broadchurch. 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. Got a question - go to Tumblr ask!
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