How Grey's Anatomy Is Dealing With Domestic Violence

Photo: Courtesy of Richard Cartwright/ABC.
Grey’s Anatomy was originally packaged as a sexy medical drama where all the impossibly attractive doctors hook up in broom closets, which it technically is. Season 14 midseason premiere “1-800-799-7233,” does have a gratuitously long shot of Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) sitting in just a towel, letting viewers revel in his many-abbed glory for nearly two full minutes. But, there’s more to Grey Anatomy than shirtless doctors and soapy hacker schemes. There’s also a lot of heart and thoughtfulness. That much becomes clear in “1-800,” as the TGIT staple explored the complicated depths of domestic violence through Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington) and the appearance of her abusive estranged husband, Paul Stadler (Glee’s Matthew Morrison) at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital.
Going into “1-800,” specifically named for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, viewers knew to expect a devastating meeting between Jo and Paul since the violent man’s earth-shattering surprise entrance closed out the 2017 winter finale “Out Of Nowhere.” In that moment, we’re reminded Paul beat Jo over the smallest thing, bruising her face and stomach. The abusive relationship became so toxic, Jo, who was going by her original legal name of Brooke Stadler at the time, abandoned her entire life, moved to Seattle, and changed her name to better hide from her spouse. Only a woman who's terrified for her life would go to such drastic measures to protect herself.
That’s why it’s so important Grey’s focuses on Jo’s response when the doctor is unexpectedly confronted by her abuser. Paul and his frighteningly sharp canines might be there prattling on about his new fiancée and life as a “new man,” but the opening scene is all about Jo, who gives us an intensely evocative performance without saying a word. The camera purposefully centers on her bewildered, horrified, and shocked face as Paul’s voice sounds far away, like she’s hearing it through a seashell. To further allow us to understand exactly how an abuse survivor feels in such an awful moment, the camera spins around a woozy Jo. It’s enough to make you dizzy — and we can all assume the terrified doctor feels the same way.
In this opening scene, it’s important to see how quickly Paul already begins laying the groundwork to gaslight Jo. After fewer than 10 sentences, the abusive doctor beings hinting Jo is the unstable one, not him. “You look so good, Brooke. So much better, I mean,” Paul says, suggesting the put-together doctor in front of him couldn’t be further from the messy woman he was married to. He continues to hammer his subtle point, adding, “It looks like you finally got the help you needed.” When Arizona Robbins stumbles into the scene to “fangirl” over Paul, a revolutionary surgeon, he further puts Jo’s reliability into question, saying of their past together, “I’m not sure how much she remembers. She was quite the partier back then.”
While Paul is on the surface “joking” about whether Jo, who was once his student, can recall his medical school teachings, that commentary is also a defense if she ever tells Arizona, or anyone else, about his abuse. Underneath all the smiling, there’s the suggestion of, “How can you even trust her memories of our relationship? She was drunk the whole time.”
Paul dispatches a similar, slimy attack against Jo when he ends up in a surgery room with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), who tells him she knows exactly who he is and what he’s done. Instead of recognizing his own disgusting behavior, Paul blames Jo for their marital failures with a myriad of reasons: her upbringing, her instability, her drinking, her inherent awfulness. Thankfully, Meredith doesn’t fall for Paul’s treachery, but it’s more than likely many people who didn’t know Jo have believed his lies, hook, line, and sinker.
The way Paul manages to manipulate any story to make himself look like the injured party — “He twists the truth and changes it to fit his own story,” a teary-eyed and panicked Jo tells Meredith — speaks to how abusers manage to walk among us undetected. At face value, literally, Paul is a handsome, clean-cut white man at the heights of one of the most altruistic of professions. It’s easy to immediately trust him, as Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) does when he meets Paul and allows him to scrub in to help out amid the latest chaos to hit Sloan Memorial. I mean a genius man who offers to volunteer in the midst of a hospital-wide crises has to be a Good Guy, right? He can’t be a woman-kicking monster, right?
In the world of Me Too and Time's Up, where harmless-seeming men have been dragged into the light and shown to be the predators they truly are, it’s easy to imagine those closest to Paul admitting they “had no idea what was going on.” And, that’s because Paul had perfectly rigged the game against Jo and all of her alleged “craziness.” Paul's “persuasiveness,” as Jo calls it, is so fine-tuned, even she believed she was wrong for a time. This might be fictional, but, Jo's story is like countless other real-life women's stories as well.
Unfortunately, we come to find out Paul’s insidious machinations have come to affect his latest romantic partner, Jenny (One Tree Hills’s Bethany Joy Lenz), as is the case with so many abusive men. Jo creates a distraction for Paul so she can have a few minutes alone with Jenny as a way to save her from a possibly deadly situation. While Jenny originally dismisses Jo’s accusations against Paul, she clearly believes the abuse survivor when she details the day her estranged husband kicked her so violently he broke her ribs and almost ruptured her kidney. Despite believing Jo’s sickening report, Jenny still betrays her and gives Paul his estranged spouse’s information, the same information Jo handed over to Jenny in case she ever wants to escape her relationship, which is implied to also be abusive.
Jenny’s stunning move is an important message about how abusers manipulate their victims into remaining loyal, even when it could be fatally detrimental to their own safety.
So, Grey’s might be a sudsy drama packed with hot doctor love triangles and Jesse Williams’s pecs, but, it also has the precise, measured care of Meredith Grey’s scalpel when necessary.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.
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