Why The End Of Grey's Anatomy’s Domestic Abuse Story Is So Powerful

Photo: Courtesy of Mitch Haaseth/ABC.
After 14 seasons of television, you would expect most shows to lose steam or run out of ideas. Apparently, Grey’s Anatomy isn’t most shows, as evidenced by its emotional wringer of an episode, Thursday night’s “Personal Jesus.” In between a chillingly realistic exploration of police brutality and the tragic return of a Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital doctor’s ex-fiancé, the TGIT staple wrapped its harrowing and powerful domestic abuse storyline. Through an unexpected death twist and a few emotional scenes, Grey’s gave viewers one of its most important resolutions yet.
While there were a number of splashy, Twitter-friendly moments throughout “Personal Jesus,” the most necessary scene was also one of its quietest. At the top of the episode, Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington) and Jenny (Bethany Joy Lenz) convene after their shared abusive ex, famed surgeon Paul Stadler (Matthew Morrison), was hit by a car, leaving him in critical condition. Jo is Paul’s soon-to-be ex-wife, who fled their marriage and changed her name just to leave the violent man behind, while Jenny is Paul’s current fiancée, who only realizes she needs to escape her dangerous situation after meeting Jo and hearing her chilling side of the story.
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The big take-away from Jenny and Jo’s conversation is that anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship. This isn’t a problem that affects one type of person with one type of background, education, or lifestyle. “I’m smart! I’m a scientist! I’m a feminist! I never thought I would end up in something like this,” Jenny rages, likely describing a huge chunk of the traditional Grey’s audience. In just four short sentences, Jenny is able to remind the independent women at home, the kind of women convinced they could never fall for an abusive man, to do a true gut check on their relationship.
For both the good of the story and possibly at-risk fans everywhere, Jenny details how she found herself in such a scary situation. “It happened so slow,” she explains to an understanding Jo, saying she started freezing out people in her life Paul didn’t like, from co-workers to concerned family members. “And then my circle got smaller and smaller and smaller until all I had left was him.” Isolated and dependent, Jenny then began ignoring Paul’s behavior because he told her she was crazy; with no one there to corroborate the fact she wasn’t an unreliable witness, Jenny simply believed she was actually wrong. Jo previously confirmed she similarly stopped trusting herself in previous episodes.
“When he started hitting me, it was just barely a surprise,” Jenny concludes.
This story is important because it forces viewers to directly and personally empathize with an abuse survivor in a way they may not with Jo, for better or worse. In 2013, ABC’s then-top entertainment executive Paul Lee touted the fact his network led their broadcast competitions among viewers with four years of college, professionals, $100,000 and higher annual income, and women. Grey’s, then the number-one show in the country with women, was a big part of that.
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So, it stands to reason, the medical drama’s core fans remain in that “upscale” category even now. While those fans may feel sad about the circumstances that led Jo into a relationship with Paul — sleeping in her car, a lack of any strong family connections, a lifetime bouncing around the foster care system — it's likely they can’t see themselves in that story.
Feminist scientist Jenny’s slow descent into an abusive relationship, on the other hand, could easily apply to any audience member. This a quiet signal your doctor-lawyer-banker significant other could be just as violent as the abusive bikers and “low-class” criminals populating popular culture. Big Little Lies' Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård) can't be the only example of this fact, since everyone doesn't have an HBO subscription. Yet, everyone can watch ABC.
That’s why it’s also so important to see Jenny extricate herself from her relationship and end up doing a lot of good along the way. When Jenny and Jo go to inform a hospital-bound and concussed Paul the former is leaving him, he first tries to convince her she’s “crazy” again and will only hurt herself by taking him to court. Despite his nefarious intentions, Paul actually sounds sweet and sensible. But, as it becomes clear Jenny isn’t falling for his games this time, Paul's bare-faced toxic masculinity presents itself. Enraged by the possibility of losing everything, Paul tries to jump out of his bed to assault Jenny… and trips, smacking his head on the end of his bed.
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Paul ends up leaving himself braindead — the mind can’t come back from two massive concussions in a matter of hours — and his fate in the hands of the women whose lives he attempted to destroy. In a surprise twist, Paul’s violent misogyny literally kills him.
After all of this darkness, it’s uplifting to see some light peek out from Paul’s shadow. Jo, still Paul’s technical legal spouse and therefore next of kin, realizes the all-but-dead doctor’s substance-free body is the perfect candidate for organ donations. She signs him up for a full-body excavation, which means woman-hating Paul’s kidney is now going to save the life of a little girl in Billings, Montana. We can pretend the rest of his organs will save the lives of future female senators, doctors, and general patriarchy-smashers.
While Jenny worries they’re accidentally spreading their ex’s darkness across America by giving away parts of him, Jo, the rock of the episode, counters, “Paul was awful in this life, but now, in death, he gets to do all this good.” If Paul isn't going to get his comeuppance in court, that's all we can ask for.
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