SPOILER ALERT: This story includes details about tonight’s Season 17 premiere of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy.
EXCLUSIVE: ABC’s promo for the Season 17 premiere of Grey’s Anatomy teased a “shocking, jaw-dropping ending.” That was an understatement.
In one of the series’ biggest twists ever, a beloved character, Patrick Dempsey’s Derek Shepherd, whose tragic death in an April 2015 episode left fans heartbroken, came back. Appropriately, the late McDreamy appeared in a dream sequence, joining Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey on a beach seconds after Meredith collapsed in the parking lot of Grey Sloan Memorial.
The sweet Meredith-Derek reunion was the joyous coda to an emotional two-hour season premiere of Grey’s Anatomy’s 17th season, dedicated to frontline healthcare workers, which marked the conclusion of a Station 19 crossover. It was marked by tragedy, as Meredith struggled to cope with the mounting COVID deaths at the hospital; anger, as medical personnel were left to fight the disease without enough PPE; hope, as the teenage girl whom DeLuca had unsuccessfully tried to save from human trafficking was reunited with her family; heartbreak, as Owen refused to reconcile with Teddy despite her pleas for forgiveness; and happiness, as Link and Derek’s sister Amelia took their newborn baby boy home. In fact, just minutes after Link announced their son’s name, Scout Derek Shepherd Lincoln, Derek made his appearance. While not necessarily designed as a clue, “it all came together quite beautifully,” Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff and star Pompeo said.
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In an exclusive interview with Deadline, which had known about the big twist, Dempsey, Vernoff and Pompeo reveal how the idea for McDreamy’s return came about, how long he will stick around, how the scene was filmed, and the great lengths to which the show went in order to keep the cameo a secret so fans can fully enjoy it.
Vernoff and Pompeo also address Meredith’s fate following her medical emergency and in the context of Pompeo’s contract coming up at the end of the season, how the real-life coronavirus pandemic changed Grey’s Anatomy on and off the screen, whether will there be COVID casualties among the staff of Grey Sloan, are there plans for a time jump, and is there hope for Teddy and Owen.
Dempsey, who has a cancer foundation, had his own questions for Vernoff and Pompeo about whether advancements in COVID treatments and the issue of wearing masks are reflected on the show.
DEADLINE: Before we talk about Patrick’s return, let’s address the incident that brought on the cameo, Meredith’s collapse, because we usually associate those kind of visions with somebody on the brink of death. Is Meredith OK? Is this just her being overworked, or is it COVID or something else very serious?
VERNOFF: Well, you have to tune in next week. We started the episode with Meredith dreaming of a beach, and at the end of the episode, she’s dreaming of the beach where Derek happens to be, and that’s what we know so far.
DEADLINE: How did the idea to bring Patrick back come about?
VERNOFF: From a writer’s perspective, it happened because it was my job to find a way — once we determined that we were doing the pandemic — to also bring joy, and escape, and fan candy, and all the things that at Grey’s Anatomy we give people. We give them romance, and we give them humor, and we give them joy, and a lot of that is lacking for the medical community in this pandemic. And so, I was walking on the beach one day, and I was like, what if there’s a Meredith dream motif?
There have been studies about how intense our dream life has been. In the pandemic, people are having really intense dreams because of the lockdown. We’re not getting enough stimulation, and so, it’s happening in our dreams. So, it started as that. It started as, how do we give people some escape. I had this imagining of a beach motif throughout the season, and I called Ellen, and I said, what if we bring back, I don’t know, some dead character that you could dream of on the beach, that would be so fun for the fans.
And she said, let’s get Patrick. Even in my most excitable dream life, that thought hadn’t occurred to me as an option, and there it was.
DEADLINE: Ellen, what made you think of Patrick?
POMPEO: Patrick and I both have homes in Malibu, and we went for a hike one day. I had known that Krista wanted to do a beach thing, and I was at the beach. Patrick and I weren’t hiking on the beach, but we were hiking in Malibu, which, you can see the beach.
And the idea just struck me so I just said to him, would you ever consider coming and being a part of the storytelling this season? I know that Patrick has his foundation in Maine where he helps cancer patients and cancer survivors, and that’s a huge effort of his, and I know that it’s important to him, also, to give people hope, and give people joy, and we wanted to bring something to this moment.
There’s just so much darkness, and we knew that coming together would be a little ray of light. And so, I think we had the same idea, at the core, to want to help people and bring a smile to people’s faces. So, he loved the idea, and we were just so excited, and we had a ball filming it.
DEADLINE: Patrick, were you surprised when Ellen asked? What made you say yes?
DEMPSEY: I had a lot of calls from a lot of local government officials in Maine saying, we really need to get the message out there, to get people to socially distance, to wear a mask. I came across a photo that I was going to post that had Ellen and I, and I think that produced a call where I reached out to Ellen, and this was right around, the conversation was starting for Season 17. And Ellen’s like, let’s get together, I want to go over a couple things, I want to catch up.
We hadn’t spoken or been together for a while. It was a great opportunity to catch up and say, OK, what can we do for all the frontline responders? I’ve been tracking what Grey’s had been doing with giving masks, and making sure that people had the right equipment, and it came from that place — OK, what can we do to make people feel better, to give some comfort in this time of uncertainty, and that’s how it began. And it was really a wonderful experience to go back, to work with [director/EP] Debbie [Allen].
I think the whole atmosphere has changed, certainly working at the beach, and seeing everybody again was really a very healing process, and really rewarding, and a lot of fun. And hopefully, that feeling translates, and the fans enjoy it. I know that they’ve been wanting us to get back together, and I think this will satisfy a lot of people, and surprise a lot of people, hopefully.
DEADLINE: Was it easy to go back into character?
DEMPSEY: It was really enjoyable. It was really exciting, and fun, and it was great to see everybody. Kevin [McKidd, who directs Episode 3] was there as well, so there was a lot of familiar faces, a lot of new faces. The dynamic behind the camera had changed. There’s much more diversity within the crew. There was a nice balance, too, of equality that I was seeing. So, culturally, there was a lot of things that were different, that I thought were very positive and very inspiring, actually.
DEADLINE: Ellen, Patrick, did you filmed the beach scene together?
DEADLINE: How was it looking at each other, on set, in character, after so many years?
DEMPSEY: Well, I have less eyesight than I used to, so (laughter). It was great. It was really fun, very special. it felt really comfortable, incredibly safe. The whole process, I have to say, from getting tested before even showing up to the set, the whole process in which we shot, I felt safe the whole time. You felt the crew was protected. We had the outdoor space, and it was easy.
POMPEO: It felt great. Patrick and I have this chemistry, where I think, even from when we first met, for some reason it just felt like we’ve known each other for a hundred years, and it’s just the same feeling. It’s like riding a bike, we just have a chemistry and a dynamic that’s always served us well, and I think we have a genuine affection for each other.
And it was very healing to come back, and know that we’re doing something good, putting out a positive story, a healing story, going to make people smile, and I think, for me, I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be able to be at this place in the show where we can do this. We constantly get to rewrite, I don’t want to say the ending, but we get to keep the rewrites going, which, I guess, you writers love, right?
They love to start over, to scrap it and rewrite it, and make it better, and that’s what’s fun about this process this far along, is getting the opportunity to work with Patrick again, and just coming up with ideas, how do we keep surprising the fans, and how do we keep the quality of the show up, is what makes it continue to be fun.
DEADLINE: How long is Patrick going to stick around for?
VERNOFF: It’s more than the one scene you saw, Nellie, and it was just joyful. I really want to echo that. Patrick and Ellen and I were all there at the beginning of this; I wasn’t there for the pilot, but I was there for the first seven seasons, and that was 17 years ago. That was, like, a lifetime ago; my kids weren’t alive. It was so wild to walk out on that beach, and just be together again as these different people that we are now. But I can’t overstate how joyful and healing an experience this was.
DEMPSEY: Yeah, for me as well. It was really special. It’s really hard to believe, 17 years, that’s remarkable. I mean, a lot of us didn’t have children at that point, right? So, our kids have grown up, they’re now in school. It’s crazy how much time has passed, but it really was so comforting, and lovely, and inspiring to go back, and to work together, to see everybody. It really was so open, too, that was the thing, really, people were very, I think, vulnerable in a positive way, where we were all grateful to be there and to be together.
DEADLINE: And you are game to do more episodes?
DEMPSEY: Yeah, it was fun, because I really love the message of what the dynamic is in this story. With everything that we’re dealing with right now, and certainly we have been distracted with the election, but we’re going to get back into the reality of COVID and being in a pandemic, and all the lives that have been lost. Where are these souls going? And I think that’s what attracted me to this storyline, I think it can be really helpful and healing to so many people.
POMPEO: I also think that, in a strange way, the behind the scenes of the show is certainly paralleling what we need, with the stories that we put out. What do we love about the show? We love that the show brings people together. We love that the show hopefully opens people’s minds, it opens people’s hearts, and I think that, in the running of the show and the making of the show, if we follow those same principles, if we follow the principles of love first, of acceptance, of open mind, open heart, forgiveness, all of it is, that’s the message of Grey’s.
And for us to be able to mirror that behind the scenes, and truly walk our walk and talk our talk with each other, those who created the show, I think, is a really amazing full-circle sort of story for a TV show that’s gone on this long.
DEADLINE: How hard was it to keep Patrick’s return a secret?
VERNOFF: I have to say that it was an epic feat, the keeping of this secret. I didn’t send cuts to the studio and network that included that last scene. I didn’t have writers’ assistants in the writers’ room for the last couple of months. There were writers who didn’t know we were doing this on that staff. Most of the actors didn’t know we were doing this. The crew didn’t know we were doing this when they showed up on the day.
I put the name “Ellis Grey” in the script that we read at the table, and I had Meredith say “Mom” at the table, so we got there on the day, and no one had been told what was happening. So, also watching the crew react, and [producer] Linda Klein, who’s been there from the beginning, we got Norman back, who was our amazing hair guy from the beginning [Norman T. Leavitt was makeup department head on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy for the first 14 seasons]. I was like a crazy person with this secret. And Ellen and I were texting at all hours of the night, like, who knows, I think this person.
DEADLINE: Will we see Ellis on the show this season?
VERNOFF: I don’t know. I don’t know. You have to tune in and see who comes to the beach. It’ll be a joyful discovery.
DEADLINE: Ellen, your character is dealing with a lot of tragic COVID deaths in the premiere. For you and Krista, will we see some tragedy within the ranks of the Grey Sloan staff too? A lot of medical professionals have lost their lives to COVID in real life.
POMPEO: I think we have a responsibility to really show what these healthcare workers have been going through. It’s so easy for a big part of the population to just be irritated with wearing a mask, and they’re sort of disconnected from what real doctors and nurses and anyone who works in a hospital are actually dealing with.
I don’t want to speak for Krista, but I think for me, certainly, I saw this as an opportunity to tell the story of how hard this is for our healthcare workers; it’s devastating for them. I think Krista will tell you that they’ve sat down with so many doctors and nurses, and they hear the stories, and they’re writing right from these stories that they’re hearing. And this has been devastating, and changed the medical community forever.
So we have to show, that’s our responsibility, to show what a struggle this is for healthcare workers, and continues to be as we see [COVID] numbers spiking again. We have to try to spread some empathy, and show people that this is very real, and it’s really hard, and the next time you want to complain about wearing a mask, think about what these people have to do. They have to wear a mask, they have to wear full PPE, full cappers. They literally have to do 50 things just to be able to perform their job.
VERNOFF: I have to say that I feel like Ellen did an extraordinary job in that premiere, paying respect to healthcare workers with her performance. The thing that she did is exactly what I’ve been talking about so much, which is that these doctors and nurses who come to the writers’ room every year. They are joyful and excited, and they’re always there to tell us these exciting stories. And this year, it felt like, it was the first time they were talking to anybody.
It was the first break they were taking. It was the first time anyone was asking them what they were living through, and to a person, it felt like they were on the verge of breaking. They were different people, and I felt like Ellen so beautifully embodied it throughout this episode, the change, what this pandemic is doing to people who were trained to help and heal, but not trained to walk through war, and not trained to lose dozens of patients, sometimes in a day.
It’s breaking them, and I feel like we’re already showing the strain and the impact, and yes, there will be more of that, and somehow, we’re also bringing joy. We’ve been carefully threading this needle, of paying honor and homage, and telling the truth of this story, while finding ways to also bring joy to the audience, and I’m really excited about Season 17.
DEADLINE: You’re not going to hint whether anyone on the show is in jeopardy, are you?
VERNOFF: Well, for sure, Nellie, for sure people are in jeopardy. Meredith collapses at the end of the premiere. People are in jeopardy, and multiple people are in jeopardy throughout the season, in myriad ways, because that’s the moment we’re living through.
DEADLINE: Ellen, should we read more into Meredith’s collapse in light of you figuring out your future on the show? You have said that you’re not sure what you’re going to do beyond this season.
POMPEO: You can’t read into anything. Really, that’s dangerous territory. I think that, collectively, we, or creatively, it’s the same this year as it always is. Is there a reason to continue? What stories do we have to tell? What characters do we have to bring back that gives us story to tell? I said in another interview last week, we’re always in this incredibly sweet spot with this show, for whatever reason.
We always have incredible circumstances that allow us to continue creatively, whether it’s ideas, or circumstances that happen. Our goal is just to make good TV. I think we’re all aware of the icon status of the show, we’re so aware of that, and I think that that’s why Patrick was so humble and so grateful to be able to come back, because we are very grateful that we have this huge platform. And I don’t think any of us take the platform that we have lightly.
And so, at this point, I think, we don’t know what we’re going to do. We know that we’re grateful, and we know that we want to show our gratitude, and grateful to each other making the show, that we’re able to keep continuing to grow, and to tell stories that we think are important, and getting this moment. Listen, who gets career runs like this? Patrick Dempsey’s been working since he’s … I know he’s been working off-camera even earlier, but I mean, when was your first role, Patrick, when you were 16 or 17?
DEMPSEY: Sixteen, 17, so 30 years.
POMPEO: Who gets a run like that? So, I just think that we’re incredibly grateful to be able to still be here, and be telling these stories that we feel are important, and we’ll see. Creatively, this is our heavy-lifting, to keep raising the bar for ourselves, but we’ve got something great, which is we’ve got gratitude, and we’re all smart, creative people. So, if there’s a way to figure it out, we certainly will.
DEMPSEY: The range of emotions, where you’re getting a chance to cry, but you’re also getting a chance to laugh, I think that’s a huge success in the storytelling. The whole ride has been remarkable on so many levels, being a part of this show for so many years, and it’s profoundly changed my life in so many ways. I’m very grateful for that, and hopefully to use that platform in a positive way, where you’re doing something good. And I’m grateful to be a part of this show at this particular moment in time.
DEADLINE: The premiere is set in April 2020. Krista, will the show fast forward to now?
VERNOFF: We’re not fast forwarding. We’re playing it through. So, by the time it’s airing, most of what we’re doing is almost a year ago, in the timeline. And there’s more joy.
DEMPSEY: Do you get into how the disease is treated over time as well? Do you get into how the science — and I think this is an important thing for us to remember and to really believe in the science, in the breakthroughs that they’re making on a daily basis. How do you track that, and has that been part of your conversation?
VERNOFF: It is. It’s a constant part of the conversation, and we have three doctors on staff now who come into the writers’ room most of the time, and we have a lot of conversations of even the evolution, what you see in terms of the protective gear that they’re wearing in the premiere versus the evolution of the protective gear, when are they treating with ventilators and when are they not. There were drug studies and drug trials, and we’re doing our best to be honest about that progress, and also the evolution in the hospitals.
Grey Sloan in the premiere has a special COVID ward, and these intake tents, and then, throughout the course of the season, other spaces evolve to hold COVID patients, and we’re hearing news about other hospitals. Washington was hit really hard early on. So, we’re trying to play through all of that.
DEMPSEY: Sorry, follow-up question, if I may. Do you get into the politics of the mask, and how that affects in a negative or a positive way? Do you go down that road at all?
VERNOFF: We try to stay away from overt politics, and the politicizing of the mask is a real thing that happened. So, we’re not talking about politicians. We just don’t do that at Grey’s Anatomy, partly because we want the show to be for everybody, and we don’t want it to become so polarizing, where it feels like we’re preaching from some particular pulpit. We’re just sticking with the science, and the reaction of doctors to the idea that people are not understanding and/or not believing that masks are imperative to protect other people and themselves.
So, we’re playing it through character, is the answer, like what an outrage it is for these doctors, who spend their lives and their all-day, every-day, trying to save people, to see human beings out there choosing not to protect their fellow human beings, because they’re not believing in science, and they’re not believing scientists.
DEADLINE: How is filming going? Grey’s was one of the first shows to shut down production early in the pandemic to protect the cast and crew. How is it now, with the new COVID wave? I write stories about shutdowns virtually every day.
VERNOFF: I mean, knocking wood, so far.
POMPEO: Good so far, yeah. We’re good. Of course, anything can happen at any moment, but I think that collectively, everybody’s really careful. And again, we’re trying to be mindful of one another, and we’re trying to be mindful of how we live our lives when we’re not at work, because that’s the smart thing to do, and we have to come to work and keep everybody safe. Nobody wants to get shut down.
VERNOFF: We’re really careful in our creating of the show, also, to help the actors feel safe. We shut down before other shows, we also came back to production before a lot of other shows, thanks to truly the leadership of Debbie Allen. There was some leadership from me, but for sure, it was guided by Debbie Allen going, if we don’t come back, we’re never going to come back, come on, Krista, we’re coming back. Set a date, set a date, set a date, where’s the scripts? Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.
She kept saying, if you put a date on the calendar, we’re going to work toward it, and we’re going to figure out how to do it safely, and we really did figure out how to do it safely. We were lucky that we’re set in a hospital, so that our actors, when they’re working together tightly, can be in masks. But it was also my job, and the job of the writers, to come up with plans and motifs that allowed the audience to see the actors’ faces, and the actors to feel safe in that.
So, you didn’t just see a beach motif, which is a continuing motif through the season, and it was designed, that particular motif, so that Ellen could come to work without a mask and feel safe, because she’s outside; the epidemiologists have been clear about how much safer outside is. But you also saw, for the first time in 17 seasons, Meredith’s house back yard. We built a backyard set on the exterior of the lot, outside the writers’ bungalow, so that those actors could give us some no-mask time, and feel safe in the beginning.
And more and more, we’re understanding how to keep everyone safe indoors, so we’re getting a little bit more without masks indoors, but at the beginning, we had to really be creative, in terms of how are we doing this, how are we keeping ourselves safe, how are we helping them feel safe, and how are we giving the fans a show that’s joyful in addition to true.
DEADLINE: And one final question: is there any hope for Teddy and Owen?
VERNOFF: Teddy is doing good. They’ve got a long haul, Nellie. If there’s hope for them, it’s in the ethers, but you know, I didn’t have a lot of hope that Patrick Dempsey was going to be back on Grey’s Anatomy last year, and look where we are. So…