Spoilers are ahead. Grey’s Anatomy was surprisingly forthcoming ahead of Thursday night’s new episode, “Breathe.” Last week the ABC drama confirmed the return of Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh), the late half-sister to Grey’s star Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo). Considering just how tight-lipped Grey’s Anatomy has been about its back-from-the-dead beach visits — who have spent season 17 counselling Meredith on the pros and cons of life as she battles COVID-19 — the Lexie notification felt suspicious. It felt like the Grey's Anatomy machine wasn’t telling us the whole story.
That’s because it wasn’t. As I predicted, Lexie’s dead on-again, off-again love interest Mark Sloan joined the sisters for their “Breathe” beach reunion. Not only did the cameo appearance provide closure for longtime fans of Grey’s Anatomy — it sent the rest of Grey’s Anatomy season 17 on a new (much more hopeful) course.
Lexie and Mark’s beach entrance follows in the same footsteps as cameos from Meredith’s late husband Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) and late friend George O’Malley (T.R. Knight). Lexie and Mark fill Meredith in on their continued presence in their living loved ones lives and remind her that the beach is a fantasy of her own making and control. Mark, like best friend Derek before him, sighs at Meredith, “The sand isn’t real.”
It’s the trio’s final conversation that separates this meeting from other beach chats. Derek has been consistently enigmatic, seemingly in a bid to maintain the possibility of Meredith entering eternity with him. George appeared to get the thoughtful farewell he was initially denied due to a gruesome and sudden Grey's Anatomy death twist back in 2009. Andrew DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti), who visited Meredith while his own life was in limbo, stopped by the beach to process his untimely demise and complicated relationship with Mer.
Lexie and Mark have no such existential aims. They want Meredith to stop dragging her feet and recognize — without question — the gift that is being alive. It’s a necessary wake up call for Meredith and Grey’s Anatomy itself, which has fallen into an understandable melancholy in the shadow of a devastating pandemic.
“So life is pain, right? Life is pain and somehow that’s the point?,” Meredith asks her dead loved ones towards the end of “Breathe.” The question could easily double as the mission statement of Grey’s Anatomy season 17 so far. Lexie and Mark immediately shut it down, screaming “No!” at Meredith in unison. As Meredith names all the people she has lost and the enormity of grief she has felt, Mark asks her what the cause of that pain is. When Meredith tries to evade the question, Lexie breaks it down for her.
“The depth of grief that you felt with all the losses? It’s because of the depth of love. As long as you’re alive — you get to feel it,” Lexie tells her sister. “You get to do something about it. Everything changes all the time when you’re alive. And all the time you fight the change. You cling on to what you have and what you know like that’s how it should always be.”
Lexie and Mark want Meredith to stop running from the change and pain of life (which is a piece of advice Mer has received since Grey’s began 16 years ago). It’s obvious Meredith is using the beach to hide from those difficult emotions and the toll they take upon her spirit. But, for dead people like Lexie and Mark, such effort is “a waste” when you could be leaning into the exhilaration of those experiences. The couple doesn’t even want Meredith to “waste” time missing them, or her other dead loved ones, since they are actually always with her. This sentiment is a particularly important point since it reminds Meredith that she will not lose her connection to people like Lexie, Mark, or Derek, should she choose to wake up.
“Don’t waste one single minute,” Mark urges Meredith.
By the end of the episode, Meredith is breathing without a ventilator. The preview for next week’s episode, “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right,” reveals that Meredith will wake up from her COVID-induced coma. Considering the contrast between “Breathe’s” trailer and the episode proper, it’s fair to assume “Make it Right” will be hiding some surprises about Meredith’s case as well, but we can focus on the positive for now.
After all, as the rest of “Breathe” shows us, Grey’s Anatomy is finally prepared to embrace its long forgotten optimistic tendencies.
In between shots of Lexie pushing Meredith to celebrate the simple existence of life and Mark smiling at a playground toy, the surviving doctors of Grey Sloan Memorial spend much of “Breathe” investing in their own happiness. Atticus “Linc” Lincoln (Chris Carmack) and Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington) get back into the operating room (albeit with complications). Chief Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) dances with joy. Most importantly, Maggie Pierce (Kelly McCreary) and newbie boyfriend Winston Ndugu (Anthony Hill) get engaged during a scene that will bring happy tears to your eyes. The “Make It Right” trailer even hits at the possibility of a Linc-Amelia Shepherd (Caterina Scorsone) engagement as well.
Grey’s Anatomy may just believe in true romance once again. We can’t help but thank Lexie and Mark for a lot of that magic.