Thursday night’s new Grey’s Anatomy episode, “Sign O’ the Times,” leaves you wondering about Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams). Every other character spends the final five minutes of the chapter coming home in some fashion. Cormac Hayes (Richard Flood) reunites with his sons while roomies Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington) and Levi Schmitt (Jake Borelli) banter about car rides back to their apartment. Most importantly, Winston Ndugu (Anthony Hill) arrives in Seattle following a heart-rending meeting with racist sheriffs on the highway.
Jackson is the only one leaving for somewhere else. The final scene of “Sign O’ the Times” shows Jackson dropping an overnight back in the trunk of his luxury car and driving into the night. His destination is not revealed. The trailer for next week’s episode, “Good As Hell,” suspiciously doesn’t include a single glimpse of Jackson, thereby keeping his endpoint a mystery. Two big clues over “Sign O’ the Times” give us a hint about where Jackson is probably going: to visit his dad Robert Avery (celebrity brother/father Eric Roberts) in Montana.
While Grey’s Anatomy refuses to tell us where Jackson is rushing off to, the show doesn’t completely leave viewers in the dark. From context clues, we know Jackson only requires a small duffle bag for his trip and that his destination is “close” enough that he can drive to it. Then, in a critical reveal, Jackson’s GPS tells him the trip will take 11 hours.
Many fans theorized that Jackson is headed to Minneapolis in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in the Midwestern city. The horror of police brutality does weigh heavily on “Sign O’ the Times” and its corresponding Station 19 episode, “Get Up, Stand Up.” But, Minneapolis is a whopping 24-hour drive from Seattle. On the other hand, Bozeman, MO., where Jackson’s father lives, is almost exactly an 11-hour drive from the Emerald City, depending on rush hour. To add to the Robert connection, Jackson's rarely spoken about dad just so happens to come up mere minutes before Jackson hops into his car.
Towards the end of “Sign O’ the Times,” Jackson, feeling uneasy about his lack of protest experience as a Black man, confronts his mother, Catherine Avery (Debbie Allen). He is upset that Catherine, the head of the powerful Harper Avery Foundation, is uninterested in his plan to fight COVID-19 in low-income communities and is slow to action on various dire concerns like the Black maternal mortality rate. Catherine preaches the importance of tackling one issue at a time. “I don’t want to play a role in a system that’s just broken,” Jackson complains.
“You sound like your father,” Catherine responds with a grim laugh. “Oh, that’d be the worst thing in the world?,” Jackson shoots back before realizing the hurtfulness in his words. Catherine is insulted nonetheless.
To understand why Jackson’s words are so cutting, we need to go back to 2017 episode “Who Is He (And What Is He to You).” That season 13 installment is fans’ single opportunity to meet Robert, who left Catherine and Jackson early in the latter’s life. Although Catherine built the Harper Avery Foundation to its current grandeur, it's her ex-husband Robert who was born into the Avery family and would have been heir to the foundation. Jackson never knew his father — or spoke to him — until visiting Bozeman to save a sick little girl (Lauren Boles) in “Who Is He.” There, Jackson learns his dad, a surgeon “many lifetimes ago,” as Robert says, abandoned his family… to run a dinner in the mountains. Initially, Jackson is gutted to realize just how happy Robert is without him and Catherine.
During Jackson and Robert’s first conversation in “Who Is He,” viewers get some insight into why Jackson may be visiting his father now, in season 17. “The whole Avery thing? Yeah, I just couldn’t do it,” Robert admits in the older episode. “If it works for you, great. For me… the galas. The handshaking? It wasn’t my thing. But when I found out what was, you couldn’t drag me away.”
For the first time in his life, the “Avery thing” genuinely isn’t working for Jackson either. He is fed up with red tape and people pleasing inherent to running the Harper Avery Foundation; the necessity of “convincing some trustees” to approve a great idea like a COVID treatment facility for vulnerable people infuriates Jackson. His “thing” may now be something a little bit more dynamic than a well-meaning but slow moving foundation. After being reminded of his father’s similar disillusionment by Catherine in “Sign O’ the Times,” it makes sense for Jackson to want to pick Robert’s brain about what to do next.
Even if Robert’s answer is “desert your family and open a self consciously folksy eatery,” we know Jackson will never get away with shirking his responsibilities so flagrantly. Catherine wouldn’t allow it — and neither would Jackson's ex/co-parent April Kepner, who is played by Sarah Drew. Coincidentally, Grey’s Anatomy recently confirmed Drew is scheduled to come back to the halls of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital for a cameo this season All of a sudden, April’s imminent return is making a lot more sense.