The best ensemble shows can hang their hat on any character. Every actor is capable of carrying a scene, be it big or small. Every character has to have the depth to pull off a good solid cry, and the breadth to interact with the rest of the cast well. Grey’s Anatomy has always relied more heavily on plot than acting, but tonight it proved it can be something more. In Kelly McCreary, the actress who plays Maggie Pierce, though, Grey’s Anatomy has revealed a true talent.
Last week’s episode left us with a cliffhanger. Maggie’s mother had gone into surgery to remove her inflammatory breast cancer, and things did not go the way they had planned. From the beginning of this episode — as Meredith’s voice-over tells a story about her mother in her advanced state of Alzheimer’s leaving behind an unfinished note (“Tell Meredith not to”) — it is clear that Maggie’s mother will not survive these complications.
The show opens with Maggie having a minor crisis. Here she is walking through the chemo ward, and seeing people in treatment, her mother asleep with a book in her lap. We see her mother, Diane (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), go into the MRI machine, and there’s a slow zoom on Maggie’s face. “Be Still My Soul” makes heavy use of the up-close-face shot but both McCreary and Richardson Jackson can pull it off. They are both facial actors, with great emotional movement that really carry this episode.
Maggie is her mother’s biggest advocate. When the first scans show up with a mass, Maggie (against the other doctor’s orders) demands a quick surgery. Meredith and Diane have a heart-to-heart one night, and Diane admits her stomach is bothering her. The next scene shows a line of doctors in front of a scan. Cells from the original tumor have travelled and grown in another place: in the liver. Once the cancer spreads, surgery is not a viable option. And though Meredith loves Maggie and they both love Lydia, that love manifests in passion. They are fighting across Diane over how to best serve her, and Meredith, as her doctor, condemns the idea of another surgery. So Diane fires her.
Now comes the fire of Maggie’s passion. She presents a clinical trial her mother could be included in to Dr. Bailey, Dr. Avery, and Dr. Webber. They agree to read up on the trial and circle back, but one of them think this is a good idea. Grey and Bailey come up with an idea to stint her, which could help her liver. Everyone thinks the trial is a bad idea, and isn’t afraid to speak their mind to Diane.
Dr. Webber is the first to warn her against the trial, which is very aggressive. He is worried about the toll that it will take on her body. But Diane, with her daughter, decide to do the trial anyway. We get one of the season’s best directed scenes next. In a second room for her chemo because she is in a clinical trial and everything has to be controlled, Dr. Bailey brings Diane a bunch of forms to sign, and says that there are a lot of potential symptoms.
Here is where Ellen Pompeo’s directorial debut really shines. As Dr. Bailey reads the symptoms, her voice lays over other scenes. We see the symptoms all appearing on Diane as Dr. Bailey warns her of them. The voice says night sweats, and we see her cold. The voice says weakness, and we see her collapse. It’s a smart way to progress an illness quickly in a very limited time-span until suddenly we hear Meredith saying, “This treatment is killing her faster than the cancer.”
But then just as quickly, she’s having a good day. Diane decides to teach her daughter about lasagna, a passed-down family recipe, and invites over all of her friends. She’s being a true mom: bragging the whole time about how her “baby was a genius.” A joyous family affair begins, and as her mother laughs and laughs, the laughter becomes a cough spewing blood. Nothing beautiful and good on this show, after all, can last too long.
Next we see an ambulance, and Diane being rolled out of it, Maggie having ridden with her to the hospital. She’s immediately whisked into surgery with an esophageal tear. Maggie is more concerned about her mother’s position in the clinical trial, though, than about what is maybe best for her. Next up in the fight against Maggie’s treatment is Meredith, who fails quickly. “She won’t make it to the end of the treatment,” Meredith says. And Maggie, in a moment of rage, accuses Meredith of never loving her mother.
Dr. Webber takes another angle, and fights with Diane. “You don’t have to put yourself through this,” Dr. Webber tries to explain. And here we get some background on Diane. We learn that she was the youngest of six children born in a shack with an outhouse. We learn that she believes Maggie is rare, special, and a gift. The whole conversation is a straight shot on Diane’s face, meant to show us that what matters to Diane most is that Maggie be happy, even if it costs her her life. “I don’t wanna die,” Diane says.
The conversation we don’t see is the one Diane has with her daughter, we only see its result: her daughter breaking down in the hallway, slumped against the wall, the tension in every fiber of her being. Kelly McCreary is brilliant here. Her jaw tight, her body stiff, her arms shifting, every cell in the being of her body shaking in rage at what life has brought her. It’s easy to forget that she is a woman acting, and not truly a young surgeon who has lost her mother.
Finally, eventually, Maggie talks to Meredith, who maybe knows best what it means to lose a mother slowly, and reckons with what is to come, good and bad. The acceptance of her mother's death begins. In a final, humorous scene, Diane gives her daughter some advice. “They are not a gift, they are your right, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” she says about orgasms. And more seriously, tells her daughter that she brought her engagement ring to Seattle and that she wants her to have it. Like all mothers, her number one priority is that her daughter find love. “Never make yourself small for anyone,” she says, “And try wearing a lil lipstick.” Maggie goes to open the window, and when she returns, her mother is dead. Sobbing, she continues to paint her mother’s nails.
The episode ends with Maggie seated at the kitchen table in the middle of the night with a cold lasagna in front of her, staring off into space. Meredith joins her, and we see the three roommates eating cold lasagna from a Pyrex shot from above. The only sound is the clinking of forks in the glass. Life, whether we want it to or not, goes on.
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