RIP, George O’Malley, who died after heroically jumping in front of a bus; Denny Duquette, who died after a heart transplant; Lexie Grey and Mark “McSteamy” Sloan, who both died in a plane crash. This is just the short list of characters showrunner Shonda Rhimes and her staff of writers have killed off over 11 seasons of the medical drama, understandably, for the most part. This show mostly takes place in a hospital — people are going to die. But even on Grey’s, major players typically don’t die without a fight or (at least!) a full-season arc before their deaths. Last night, without reason, we lost Dr. Derek Shepherd.
With little preparation or lead-up, Rhimes (who wrote the episode herself) viciously killed off one half of Grey’s golden couple. Dr. Derek Shepherd, known as “McDreamy,” or the “Der” part of “MerDer” (an adorable ‘shipping name), was hit by a truck, and after Rhimes twisted the knife with a bit of medical sloppiness, he died. Died. Just like that! No drawn-out back-and-forth, no will-he-or-won’t-he (die). It felt sad, sure, but it wasn’t just the fact of his death that disturbed viewers. It was how upsettingly random it felt, even within Grey’s universe, where emotional builds are to be expected. When has Grey’s ever killed anyone so important, so quickly? Fans were pissed: “Shonda just killed him off in that rushed episode, mid-season, completely out of the blue, with no proper build up or reasoning … I feel cheated and betrayed and [sic] as a viewer,” wrote swanshope on Tumblr. The tweets came hard and fast:
“Is Patrick Dempsey Leaving Grey’s Anatomy After Season 11?” Us Weekly asked last week, and went on to report rumors that the actor “clashed” with Rhimes, which was allegedly one of the reasons she sent his character to take a job in D.C. earlier this season. It’s not the first time an actor has left the series after personal drama: T.R. Knight (George O’Malley), Isaiah Washington (Preston Burke), and Katherine Heigl (Izzie Stevens) all departed after similar rumors. But at least Rhimes let them go with a little fanfare: George’s death had him jumping in front of a bus to save a woman’s life. He was an unidentifiable “John Doe” until, in a very dramatic and perfectly sad turn, he was able to trace his nickname, “007,” into Meredith’s hand and identify himself. It was devastating, sure, but a twist worthy of George’s importance to the show.
Izzie left without having to die (although Rhimes did give her a cancer scare), but no one will forget her beloved Denny Duquette, whose devastating demise was built up over one full season and had more emotional resonance than McDreamy’s. God, remember this?
When Lexie Grey dies almost immediately after season eight’s plane crash—it’s not that the crash isn’t sudden, it is; but at least she’s given the chance to say good-bye. To declare her love for Mark Sloane. He dies later, with unseen injuries from the crash, and just enough time to make the entire thing very drawn-out and romantic, telling a fellow doctor: “If you love someone, you tell them. Even if you’re scared that it’s not the right thing. Even if you’re scared that it’ll cause problems. Even if you’re scared that it will burn your life to the ground, you say it, and you say it loud, and you go from there.” He dies from complications we’ll call a broken heart. This is Grey’s Anatomyland we’re talking about here.
“It’s a beautiful day to save lives. Let’s have some fun,” Shepherd said for the last time Thursday night (reminding us of his strange catchphrase), after he saved the lives of four people, and right before he would get in his car and, while reaching for his buzzing cell phone (cell phones are so dangerous!), get T-boned by a truck. His story is dispensed with quickly—he’ll die exactly 15 minutes later (not counting commercials) as a nurse shuts off his life machine and a cover of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” plays. (Nice touch, Grey’s.) We barely got a chance to say good-bye. The man survived divorce, a bullet to the chest, a plane crash, and a strategic move across the country. What finally killed him was a freak accident, which feels a bit more like real life than Grey’s Anatomy ever has.
Shepherd’s death instead felt like actual real life had crept too close to fiction. If behind-the-scenes drama motivated his death, as rumors suggest, does this constitute irresponsible storytelling? Did McDreamy—a beloved character on Grey’s for 11 seasons—deserve to die like this for Dempsey’s bad behavior?
Next week’s episode, the one after his death, will be a two-hour special — full of montages, no doubt, of footage of MerDer over the past 200-plus episodes, which will pay tribute to McDreamy’s legacy on the show. But that won’t unbreak any hearts. RIP, Dr. Derek Shepherd.