When the death of a character means preserving integrity

These days, character deaths are common. For some shows, (The Walking Dead, Supernatural) it’s their bread and butter. Others (The Good Wife, Parenthood) rarely kill characters off, but when they do, man does it pack a punch. Character deaths are always hard, but no show has had more controversial deaths than Grey’s Anatomy.

I’ll admit, it was difficult for me to continue watching Grey’s Anatomy after Lexi and Mark died. I probably stopped looking forward to the episodes as much and I know it took me awhile to rediscover my love for this show. But the reason I’ve been able to keep coming back is because we are consistently reminded that this is Grey’s Anatomy. Not Younger Grey’s Anatomy, not Sloan’s Anatomy (though that’d be a show I’d watch). It’s Grey’s Anatomy. The show has been about Meredith from the beginning and it will continue to be about her until the bitter end.

And what a bitter end we’re embarking on. Presumably there will be at least one more season, but the show as a whole seems to be winding down. Some have even posited that last week’s two-hour episode, “She’s Leaving Home” could have easily served as a series finale. Alas, this is not what Shonda Rhimes has planned, and honestly, I’m glad.

So let’s talk about that death. It is widely believed that killing Derek Shepherd was the worst thing Shonda Rhimes could have done. But I beg to differ.

The worst thing Shonda Rhimes could have done was to not kill Derek Shepherd. Yep, you heard me right. Shonda was faced with an impossible situation; the loss of her second major character. For 11 years she’s been building up this epic love story between Meredith and Derek and they’re finally happy, but that doesn’t matter because Patrick Dempsey is leaving. For whatever reason, he’s gone and Shonda must find a way to write this into the show. She was faced with three (perhaps four) options.

1) End the show.

2) Re-cast Derek.

3) Derek leaves his wife and children.

4) Derek dies.

Many fans may look at that list and think that #1 is looking awfully good right now. However, a rushed ending is not good for anyone. Not to mention the principle of the thing. If Shonda were to end the show early because of Patrick Dempsey, she would be betraying her vision. For a man. For a man who has been rumored to be a toxic presence on set. He would win and she would have let him.

Looking at #2, this would be next to impossible, and fairly ridiculous. Moving on….

This leaves two options. Either Derek leaves his wife and children or he dies. Either way, his face is gone. His presence is gone. He is gone. Shonda Rhimes merely chose to uphold the integrity, the spirit, of this beloved character. If Derek had left his wife and kids, we would have lost all respect for him. Perhaps he could have come back in the final moments of the series, but it would have felt hollow. Instead, Shonda gave us closure. She used a crappy situation to tell a beautiful and rare story. Loss is a part of everyone’s life, but too often it is cheapened or glossed over in television. She took this opportunity to show the world that Meredith doesn’t need McDreamy to be a shiny, happy person. That through the dark twisty times, she can still find her way back to being shiny and happy. Derek played an important role in her transformation over the last 11 years, and now it’s time for her to do it on her own. Because she has no choice.

And for those fans who were watching only for Meredith and Derek…no character and no television show should ever be defined solely by a pairing. Hopefully this new direction will give these fans a chance to see how truly special this show is beyond Meredith and Derek (that is, if they haven’t already stopped watching). I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what happens next.

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