Meredith Grey, Force of Nature: How Ellen Pompeo’s Iconic ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Character Changed Television

SPOILER ALERT: This essay contains spoilers from “I’ll Follow the Sun,” the Feb. 23 episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

From her first episode as Dr. Meredith Grey on March 27, 2005 — when “Grey’s Anatomy” premiered on ABC and became a once-in-a-generation pop-culture sensation — to what’s being billed as a (kind of, sort of) goodbye episode on Feb. 23, 2023, Ellen Pompeo could forge chemistry with anyone. Along with its lexicon-changing writing and intricate yet rowdy plotting by Shonda Rhimes, what’s made “Grey’s Anatomy” a phenomenon was watching Meredith just live her life. She was a character network television never seen before: a brilliant woman whose life had been marred by tragedy (an Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, an entirely absent father), yet who wasn’t going to let her dark and twisty past get in her way. Meredith had a lot of fun; she saved a lot of lives; she had a lot of sex.

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And it was her relationships that made “Grey’s Anatomy” stand out at first. There was the original core cast who surrounded her, of course: Meredith’s love interest Patrick Dempsey (as Derek Shepherd), and her friends Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl), Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) and George O’Malley (T.R. Knight) who quickly became her family (in the absence of her nuclear one). There were also Meredith’s mentors at the hospital who would become parental figures, Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) and Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson).

Original cast of "Grey's Anatomy."

Cristina summarized Meredith’s gifts best, naturally. As she bid Meredith goodbye at the end of Season 10 — and in an effort to stop Meredith from moving to Washington D.C. just because Derek wanted to for his career — Cristina told her: “You are a gifted surgeon with an extraordinary mind. Don’t let what he wants eclipse what you need. He’s very dreamy. But he is not the sun. You are.”

Seriously, to use Meredith’s favorite word, Cristina was right. Meredith forged bonds so convincingly (as Pompeo did with her scene partners) that she’s been the gravitational force around which “Grey’s Anatomy” has revolved for 19 seasons. The cast has turned over multiple times, with the entire original group, except for Wilson and Pickens Jr., having left. But Meredith has created new relationships, new connections, most significantly with the show’s sisterly trio of Maggie (Kelly McCreary) and Amelia (Caterina Scorsone).

So powerful are Pompeo’s alchemical abilities that during the show’s second season — in a two-part episode that kicked off after Super Bowl XL in February 2006 — she was able to establish a will-they-or-won’t-they-dynamic with the head of the Seattle bomb squad (Kyle Chandler) while her hand was inside a man’s chest cavity holding an undetonated bazooka shell in place. Maybe the relationship even could have gone somewhere afterward? But he blew up once he’d gotten the bomb a safe distance away.

“Grey’s” being “Grey’s,” Meredith has not only faced emotional turmoil, but she’s been in physical jeopardy a laughable number of times. That bazooka shell was only the beginning! In chronological order by season: Meredith drowned after treating victims in a ferry crash; she jumped in front of Derek as a vengeful gunman rampaged through the hospital, and told him to kill her instead; she was in a plane crash that killed her sister Lexie (Chyler Leigh); as she underwent an emergency C-section during a blackout, she had to talk a resident through fixing her ruptured spleen; and she was attacked by another patient and was nearly beaten to death. Then, of course, Meredith got COVID during Season 17, and spent most of that year on a beach in her imagination, being visited by long-lost cast members from “Grey’s Anatomy’s” lengthy roster of the dead: Derek, George and Lexie among them.

We’ve gotten through all of these crises together — even the season on the beach, which was rough! — and Meredith emerged stronger for it each time, ready to recommit to her work, and to dive into even more ambitious research.

Grey's Anatomy

That beach.

And now, Meredith is bidding goodbye to Seattle — and, maybe, to the show. She’s off to Boston, partly for the sake of the mental health of her highly gifted daughter Zola (Aniela Gumbs), and also to join Jackson (Jesse Williams), who basically dared Meredith to try to cure Alzheimer’s, backed by the incalculable funding he can give her. Given how Alzheimer’s has been woven into the show from the beginning, it would certainly be a full-circle ending for Meredith.

Though on that point, there’s been some confusion: It was announced before Season 19 began that Pompeo would appear in only eight episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” though her voiceover will still begin and end all of them. She remains an executive producer, and she could return whenever she wants. So the way this departure (Meredith’s and Pompeo’s) has been spun has been carefully managed as “Meredith’s farewell to Seattle.” In a promo for the episode released last week, Meredith says, “This is where I learned to be a doctor,” over vintage “Grey’s” footage, and a cover of “Chasing Cars” (an iconic song in the history of the show) by Tommee Profitt and Fleurie. “This is the place where I found my family — where I fell in love.” She then jokes during a surprise party for her, “You know I’ll probably be here next week.”

And it’s practically true: Pompeo will appear on the finale, and her status for next season is very much up in the air.

Other than revolving around Meredith’s imminent departure, “I’ll Follow the Sun” was a fairly standard episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” with multiple plotlines happening as her flight to Boston loomed. But behind the scenes, it did bring out the big guns, and the episode was written by showrunner Krista Vernoff and directed by executive producer Debbie Allen. There were some artful callbacks for Pompeo, especially during a scene with between Meredith and her on-and-off boyfriend Nick Adams (Scott Speedman). Nick was angry that Meredith hadn’t consulted him about the move, and she fired back. “I’m a grown woman with a big life, and a big career and three kids,” Meredith said. “And this move is what my daughter needs. I want you in my life if you want to be in my life. But if I have to choose, I pick me, I pick my kids, and I pick what’s best for us. And I am not going to beg you to love me!” That Meredith delivered this monologue in the scrub room outside of an OR, the same setting as her Season 2 “Pick me, choose me, love me” appeal to Derek — “Grey’s Anatomy’s” most (in)famous speech — was a delightful Easter egg, and a canny bookend to show how far Meredith has come.

After losing a patient, a rare occasion for her, Meredith stood outside Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, named after Lexie and Mark Sloan (Eric Dane), both of whom died after that plane crash. She gave one last peptalk to an intern, Simone (Alexis Floyd), whose grandmother also has Alzheimer’s. This is when I started crying, by the way, and I continued to through Bailey’s going-away-party toast, when she said Meredith had gone from being the “bane of her existence” to become “one of my greatest points of pride.” When Bailey got tongue-tied, Richard stepped in to say, “Dr. Grey, what Dr. Bailey’s trying to say is that this place won’t be the same without you.”

It’s so true. I remember receiving screeners for the ABC pilots (VHS tapes!) before the network’s magical 2004-5 season, which featured “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” They were all great, obviously, and “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” premiered that September, and became immediate hits.

Yet I kept wondering what was going on with the show that had been my favorite of all the pilots that year: “Grey’s.” In a cover story in October 2020, I wrote about how much the then-head of the network simply didn’t believe in the show, and how its sex-positive content nearly spelled its doom. But as soon as “Grey’s Anatomy” premiered, the viewers spoke loudly and clearly, and the “Grey’s” explosion would be heard around the world. Literally: It’s been licensed in more than 200 territories across the world, and translated into more than 60 languages.

Pompeo herself has proven to be a force of nature as well. Every time she speaks publicly, she tends to make news, and in 2018 — when equal pay was coming to the forefront as an issue in Hollywood — she detailed how she became the highest paid female actor on television, and got what she deserved. On Pompeo’s Instagram, among pictures of her family and her dogs, she’s stood up for #BlackLivesMatter, LGBTQ rights and resources for healthcare workers (especially during the height of the pandemic). Pompeo’s rare frankness for a celebrity, coupled with her singular Masshole style, has become fused over the years with the Meredith character, and it can be hard to remember where one begins and the other ends.

It’s a funny thing to watch a show for such a long time: Its characters become people in your lives. “Grey’s Anatomy” and Meredith Grey have become touchpoints for me: I’ve wanted her to be my doctor, I thought about her when I had my own experience with a parent having Alzheimer’s — she’s a real human being to me. She feels so much like someone I know that I want to remind her what she said to Derek after Cristina fired her up in that Season 10 finale. Your life is here, your chosen family is here, you don’t want to leave!

But of course, that wouldn’t work — she’s actually just leaving (for now, anyway) to star in a Hulu limited series. And “Grey’s Anatomy” will continue to regenerate without Meredith and Pompeo at its center — it did survive that whole COVID season when she was on the beach, existing someplace between Grey Sloan and the hereafter.

And who knows, maybe Pompeo will decide not to leave after all. It’s certainly possible! There’s an unresolved cliffhanger at the end of “I’ll Follow the Sun,” with Nick calling Meredith on the plane to declare his love for her, during which she pretended she couldn’t hear him. So I’ll wish that Pompeo changes her mind, and think of the wise words of Cristina Yang, who once said, “Whenever we think we know the future, it changes.”

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