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Grey's Anatomy - Mama Tried - Review

Making up for lost reviews…perhaps this is more of an unedited essay.

If you know your bible stories, then the outcome of this trial would’ve been clear to you or at least signaled to you the very moment Meredith began the story of the Judgement of Solomon. Whoever surrendered the child would be the winner in the courtroom. And whoever of you watched the sneak peak would’ve put two and two together and come up with a great big unexpected four. Arizona. It’s not like Grey’s to give the game away so quickly. I was instantly reminded of the Season 11 episode, Bend and Break, where at the very first line of the episode their fate was sealed as Arizona described the Triad of Death.

Grey’s Anatomy turned nasty as the emotional trauma and raised stakes of a custody trial tested our commitment to favourite characters and ships. “Mama Tried” written by Tia Napolitano, directed by Kevin McKidd, took Grey’s to shiny yet dark new territory as Callie and Arizona fought a scathing and bitter battle for sole custody of Sofia. It was not pleasant to watch, though it strangely stood up there as one of the best episodes of the season. It’s important to stress though that it’s only one of the best by virtue of its dramatic output and directing. The story and writing were difficult to swallow, unpalatable even. I was uncomfortable and though the writing intended the viewer to be uncomfortable when seen together with the previous two or three episodes one had to wonder how on earth it came to a sole custody battle so quickly. I was with Callie at the end thinking - “how the hell did this happen”.

Well we know how it happened. It’s season finale time and contract renewal time and Shonda needs to shake up her baby for maximum hiatus angst. The problem with how this played out is, as per the usual ‘rushing to the finish line’ drama, we have another wildly accelerated story told for high dramatic effect at the cost of a much loved character. Yes, at the cost.

Put your hand up if you are a Callie fan…
Now keep it up if a little part of you feels betrayed at how Callie has been portrayed over the last three episodes…

Mine is up. Is yours?
I wonder if Shonda’s is.

I have struggled over the last few weeks to understand how and why the writers have taken Callie in this direction. It has come to the point where one of my favourite characters is unwatchable. This is not because of Penny. In my view Penny is very likable, indeed more so than either Jo or Stephanie. This is mainly driven by the fact that though she was inserted into the show as a device for Meredith, and now Callie, the writers have built a solid story around her. She came in as a deeply flawed individual and through strong writing and an empathetic performance by Samantha Sloyan she stands on her own. It’s not a coincidence. Most of the characters who enter the show, flawed or in controversy become some of the strongest or most likeable…Addison, Mark, Owen (strong, though not likeable for me), Jackson, April, Amelia, Maggie, Nathan. Contrast these with the new interns who enter almost to make up the numbers rather than to bring life to existing stories. How many interns have come and gone or stayed with little depth - Shane, Steph, Jo. Penny knows her place in the triad of three women and in Sofia’s life. She does not want to interfere in something that is not, at the moment her business. She has tried to get to know Sofia and unlike Arizona’s lawyer I actually thought she knew the child very well. No, Penny is not the problem. The burning question over Sara Ramirez’ contract renewal is also not the problem. We are quite used to the “will they won’t they sign” end of season drama.

The problem is, irrespective of whether Ramirez signs or not, someone put jungle juice in the writers room and her potential character departure has turned them into a herd of melodramatic soap writers. Spread over the season, with a long slow build up of romance for Callie, showing both mothers doting on their daughter and raising their daughter, this custody story could have really torn my heart out. But I don’t feel that Callie has an all consuming love for Penny, the kind that Meredith and Derek shared or Owen and Cristina or even Callie and Arizona. The writers keep telling me but I don’t feel it. I have trouble believing that this love would actually be the love of her life. I felt more when Callie and Mark dallied around each other before Arizona than I do with Callie and Penny. Therefore because I don’t believe it and feel it I struggle with all of the follow up story and even more so with the decisions that Callie is making.

That’s not to say that all of this custody shenanigans have been out of character. Actually the writing of Callie has, at times, been very well in character. Her impulsiveness, her passion and longing to love, the focus on sex…it’s all well documented and played. Irrespective of how it played out she was happy to follow her previous love, Arizona, on a whim to Africa and she jumped straight in to a marriage with George. Callie loves fast and hard and despite the writers telling us a few times that Callie has held back from declaring her love for Penny she has now admitted that she fell pretty damn fast and pretty damn hard.

But then it appears to all fall down. For all the moments the writers are faithful to Callie’s personality it feels like they have betrayed her at the same time. They are asking me to distort the image of who I believe Callie is to fit the soap suds narrative.

Callie is a mother who shares that parental responsibility equally with Arizona, for a child who has lost her father. When, in the last few seasons, has there ever been a single moment we have doubted Callie’s belief that Arizona has full and equal parental rights. Surely this has been a signature point of the greater story. Grey’s is an exceptionally liberal show. It would never imply Arizona was less than an equal mother. Yet in the last few weeks it has been implied that Callie believes her own rights are primary, culminating in the trial, in “Mama Tried”, through her lawyer. Callie believes the decision to move Sofia thousands of miles away is hers to make alone. Callie allows her lawyer to imply Arizona is less than equal. Really? If that wasn’t enough where was Sofia in this decision? Not once did Callie even attempt to understand the impact this might have on her child. I realize this was the point of Arizona’s storyline. Arizona is the mother looking at this from the child’s perspective but this is not the Callie that I’ve watched over the last ten seasons. Fail.

Callie is a board member and co-owner of the hospital. She is a well respected (TED talk giving), head of orthopedic surgery. She’s built cartilage. She’s built legs out of titanium. She’s created robotic limbs that move with the mind. She’s removed two legs and turned one into a ‘super’ leg. I must believe she’s going to give this up to the lottery of finding a random ortho job over the other side? I believe Callie to be impulsive with love, not with her career or her commitment to her craft or patients. Nor do I believe that her impulsiveness to love would have her surrendering her career so easily without significant soul searching. She just decides on a whim to up sticks and get the hell out of dodge for, as Bailey so quaintly puts it, a piece of tail? It’s perfectly reasonable for a successful surgeon and parent to decide to step back from the frontline and want more time for herself or her kid, to put her partner ahead of her. We hear echos of Meredith and Derek in that. This cannot be done, however, without us believing that this particular character has made the journey to that decision.

Then we have the trial and here things turn very weird. Though we should’ve seen it coming when Richard and Arizona were counting women earlier on in the season. It turns out Callie has a truly nasty side. I understand that parents will do anything for their children and that custody hearings bring out the very worst in people. But I simply don’t believe that Callie would disrespect Arizona in that way. I get that she panicked. She needed to do everything she could to secure custody but with the arrogance she had prior to the trial of deciding herself where Sofia should live she lost my sympathy and honestly my faith in the show eroded.

I don’t get it and no, I don’t want the writers to have to explain this away to me in the following episodes. I don’t want to hear the excuses or to hear her beg and grovel for forgiveness from Arizona. I don’t want this because I don’t believe that Callie would behave like a bitch to Arizona in the first place. Nothing in the past nine seasons gives me any indication that this is how low Callie will go. Okay, she once told someone Arizona had died when she hadn’t but that was impulsive spur of the moment thing. Nothing in her relationship with Arizona suggests that either would play the bitch card. It’s cheap, lazy writing.

This writing makes the cheating story seem inconsequential – and it certainly wasn’t an inconsequential event.

By the end of “Mama Tried” Callie comes across as short sighted, self centered and spiteful.

In the last few weeks viewer sympathy has been directed towards Arizona, whose attempts to garner support for the custody hearing have fallen on deaf ears. Alex quite rightly played the “I will not choose a side” card and April, who let’s face it has shown little in the way of friendship towards Arizona of late (at times deservedly so), was fired as a patient. If I was cynical I might imagine that the way Arizona and Callie have been portrayed in this custody struggle is a further attempt to rebalance Arizona’s cheating – if there remains residual negative reaction with a significant proportion of viewers (though I’m not sure that’s the case). If Ramirez signs for a further season or two, then there is a lot of time to rebuild the relationship between Arizona and Callie. If she doesn’t sign then portraying Arizona as the good guy, by encouraging viewers to ‘like’ if not ‘love’ Arizona again will allow the writers to explore further Arizona as a major character in her own right, to come out from behind Callie’s very large shadow.

Arizona’s speech during the courtroom provided the pivotal turning point in the case. Firstly she dismissed outright any hint of a possibility that she wasn’t an equal parent to Sofia. She gave short shrift to the idea that being an adoptive mother was any less than being the birth mother (thus confirming for the viewer that Arizona did indeed get the paperwork she needed). While I salute this position in the strongest (and personal) way I can’t help but feel that Callie’s character has been abused in order to make this point. Too many times this season social justice issues have been covered with too little gravitas and grace. Not all of them, granted. Teenage sexuality was handled exceptionally well at the very start of the season. However this was followed by: the gender pay gap, crowbarred in inappropriately and haphazardly; white privilege, a tremendously important social issue, again crowbarred into an episode as a sideline and not as the main story; gun control where Jo was guilted into surrendering her gun, something which made her feel safe. You will know that I’m no Jo fan nor am I a gun fan but the writers missed a very powerful moment when Jo was explaining why she had a gun. To surrender it at that moment was a capitulation in character writing. In “Mama Tried” the lawyer started to imply that Arizona was not an equal parent. As illustrated perfectly at the very start of the episode lawyers are paid for by the client to do as the client wants. Thus Callie’s lawyer had Callie’s authority to play that line. It was a cheap shot to demonstrate a serious point.

Rightly or wrongly Arizona chose to leave proceedings to operate on an unborn child at the end of an incredible speech during which she reminded us of the choice she made all those years ago. She also reminded Callie. The emergency 911 call back to the O.R. was too much for her and she stepped down. In doing so she surrendered her own child, in the full knowledge that whatever the outcome of the court case Sofia would be safe, healthy and loved by her parents. If you weren’t already there then this was when King Solomon gave the child to the ‘true’ mother. Though, as we know to be true, both are the true mothers and there are no winners in this particular situation.

Was it too much? Too mawkish? Probably. Though we don’t know why the judge ruled in Arizona’s favour it was probably more to do with ensuring a stable home life for Sofia, preserving ‘the village’, the community of people who take care of her than the notion that Arizona is the more appropriate mother. Callie was stupid to allow the lawyer to play dirty but the decision was all about the child – something Callie appears to have forgotten.

And what of the witnesses? Bailey was introduced as the ‘expert witness’ as their boss. No one should under estimate Miranda Bailey and her disruption of the lawyer’s argument was a priceless piece of television. More of this Bailey. Please.
“I would never put a woman’s success in the con column”

Meredith and Owen decided to speak up for Callie rather than stay neutral like Alex. Neither of them have been particular friends of Arizona so their natural alliance to Callie made sense. Owen’s testimony was a little strange. His answer to the question regarding Callie’s motivation for building robotic limbs for wounded military personnel failed to recognize that Callie’s then wife had lost her leg. Callie was portrayed as a dedicated hero, Arizona a work obsessed slut, while the viewer was given a ringside view as Arizona produced the heroics in the O.R. on the day. I hope the writing gamble pays off. Later, at Meredith’s, when Sofia has left and Callie breaks down, Penny is rejected. I’m no fan of this method but I’m eagerly looking forward to the following madness of it all.

In other news Stephanie is starting to regret dumping the best thing that’s happened to her in her entire life on the show…I’m hoping this isn’t a Denny or a Henry. But there’s a theme here.

Despite some obvious flaws in the story which were weeks in the making, the episode itself was intense and addictive, well directed and photographed. It was a rubber neck episode. I could not avert my eyes.

PS: Callie identifies herself as Mama, Sofia identifies Arizona as mommy....Mama Tried. Well played Grey's.

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, Bones, TBBT, Broadchurch, Catastrophe and despite her better judgement Madam Secretary. In real life she's a 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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