Grey's Anatomy Season 13 Midseason Premiere Recap: "You Can Look (But You'd Better Not Touch)"

Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
The world of the Grey Sloan memorial hospital has been swirling with minor storylines for the entire thirteenth season. Is Alex Kerev going to prison? Will April and Jackson survive their infighting? Is Owen’s marriage doomed? What is Meredith doing? Grey’s Anatomy has always functioned as a large cast show. Using the entire staff of a major hospital, the only reason Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) has ever been the “star” is that it’s her voice that narrates us through the experience. But when too many of those plot lines get moving at once, it’s easy to feel like none of them really matter at all. It’s difficult to emotionally connect with the patient at the center of the episode if there are six other plots with recurring characters spinning around that you care more about.

The largest drama on this season of the show heading into the break was whether or not Alex Kerev (Justin Chambers) will choose to take a plea deal over his violent assault of another character. The showrunners have tried to make this plot the most emotional part of the show for half a season, but it seems like maybe they’ve realized it wasn’t quite working.

What has always made Grey’s Anatomy a hit show, what made it ABC’s TGIF showstopper before TGIF was even a thing, is that it is an incredibly emotional show. Characters can die at any moment, and the show is ruthless. Any pain or trauma Meredith Grey could possibly go through, she’s been hit with over the course of the show’s 13 seasons. But somewhere over the course of the last season and a half (ever since Meredith’s husband Dr. Derek Shepherd died) the show misplaced its emotional core: the patients they are treating and the families that love (or sometimes) hate them.

The show’s biggest moments over 13 seasons have almost always centered around the person receiving care. Sometimes that person was a recurring character put in a complicating position, but more often, it was a one episode character with a great story. In “You Can Look (But You’d Better Not Touch),” Grey’s Anatomy attempts to return to the emotions that made its early seasons great by narrowing its focus incredibly.

For the entirety of this week’s episode, we only deal with three recurring characters, and a whole host of new players. To open, Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw), Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington), and Chief Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), are making what the Meredith narration calls a “housecall,” something doctors have been doing for centuries. But the house they’re entering isn’t a suburban chateau holding an injured and relatable patient: it’s a maximum security prison hospital where a 16 year old girl who is 31 weeks pregnant needs medical attention for her pregnancy.

The doctors enter the situation at various levels of unease. Jo Wilson reiterates in the elevator that no one intends to wind up in a maximum security prison. “You get hungry and desperate or broke and desperate, and stuff happens.” Later in the episode, she reveals that she herself had a difficult adolescence: sleeping in a stolen car, and committing a few crimes of her own. Arizona, as always, plays the medium role—caring about the patient and trying to stay professional. And Bailey is the skeptical one. She is visibly uncomfortable being in the prison hospital and easily spooked by the inmates.

The star of this week’s episode, though, is 16 year old Kristen Rochester (Anna Jacoby-Heron). The episode never tells us exactly what Kristen has done to get the kind of lock-up she has, but from the doctor’s very first interaction with her, they’re warned that she’s dangerous. “Rochester’s a wild one,” the prison doctor Dr. Eldredge (Klea Scott) warns them. “I don’t have time to stitch you off if she goes off on you.”

And go off she does. In the first moment Dr. Eldredge is in the room, Kristen jumps on her, breaking her finger and earning herself 24 hours with all four limbs cuffed to her bed. This display of violence is meant to spook, and it works. The doctors visibly recoil and so did I as a viewer. Television is supposed to teach us empathy for other situations and people, but it’s hard to empathize with that kind of violence.

That’s the complicated space this episode asks us to occupy: one in which we can accept that a person could be unspeakably violent and deserve to be locked up, and still be a human worthy of respect and decency. The episode argues that the two, in the current system, are almost impossible. In one scene, Dr. Eldredge shows Dr. Bailey the medical supply closet. It is almost empty. There are not enough sanitary napkins for every woman in the wing having her period, much less enough gauze or medicine. “When the state chooses between cutting the school budgets or the prisons, guess which one they pick,” Eldredge says.

It’s a miracle, the show reiterates, that the doctors got to see Kristen at all. The only reason they’re allowed in is because Kristen’s lawyer Amanda (Jasmin Savoy Brown) seems to run the entire prison system with the flip of her hand. The doctors are allowed in because Kristen’s baby has a tumor attached to it that is draining the baby’s blood supply. The doctors need to separate the baby from the tumor so that the baby can continue to grow safely. The procedure is successful, but Kristen is pushed into early labor.

In the most emotionally gripping moment of the night, Kristen’s mother (despite being in the waiting room) refuses to come see her daughter and support her while she’s in labor. “She’s someone that I don’t even recognize now,” her mother says. And despite Dr. Roberts’ pleas, she stands her ground. Kristen is forced to give birth alone, handcuffed to a table until her wrists are rubbed raw and Dr. Bailey begs for them to be removed.

After giving birth to a healthy baby, Kristen talks to her daughter, begging her, “I want you to be good. Listen to your grandma. Don’t be like me.”

The three doctors leave the hospital already emotionally crushed, it was an exhausting episode and in the car on the way home, it becomes clear that the emotional rollercoaster isn’t over quite yet when Dr. Bailey reveals that she talked to Alex Kerev, and he took the plea deal. He’ll have to go to prison. The episode ends with all three doctors holding back tears in their eyes, exhausted emotionally and physically. The Kerev news didn’t pack the punch I expected it to, but then again, maybe I was just too worn out by Kristen’s story to feel anything else.

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