Wait, Is Jesse Williams Leaving Grey's Anatomy?

Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
Grey’s Anatomy is a series filled with pregnant, emotional pauses. Thursday night’s latest episode, “Gut Feeling,” got its very first one when Maggie Pierce (Kelly McCreary) learned her boyfriend Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) had taken an undefined leave of absence… without telling her. While every other doctor at Grey Sloan Memorial learned of Jackson’s exit through a mass email, Maggie was left in the dark.
“So where’d he go anyway?” Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd) asks Maggie, assuming she was the first doctor to hear about Jackson’s leave of absence, rather than literally the last. Cue that very pregnant pause. By episode’s end, Maggie is left reeling when she learns Jackson simply left her a voicemail explaining his hasty flight following last week's near-death experience and subsequent surgery tragedy.
Fans of Jackson felt similarly shocked, as the beloved doctor essentially disappeared without any true warning. All of a sudden, they were left wondering if Jackson, who has been with ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy for nine years, had left for good without so much as a “Goodbye.” The quick exit of Jackson’s longtime love interest April Kepner (Sarah Drew) last season didn’t soothe anyone’s nerves.
Thankfully, it’s highly unlikely Jackson Avery, or Jesse Williams, would get such an unceremonious exit.
Rather, it seems like Grey’s Anatomy is setting Maggie up for her own twisty love story in a season already obsessed with romance. As showrunner and first-time director Krista Vernoff told Refinery29 ahead of season 15, “I’ve been talking so much about how the show is a romantic comedy this season, and that it’s really true.” With the sheer number of settled, committed, happy couples populating Grey Sloan right now, it makes sense for Maggie to end up newly single in the “rom-com” season — someone other than merely Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) has to be.
It looks like Grey’s has already started exploring a few avenues for what Jackson’s absence could mean for Maggie. Despite the fact that she spends most of “Gut Check” in an internal panic over losing her boyfriend in such an impersonal way — “Is there something wrong with me?” she heartbreakingly asks sister Amelia Shepherd (Caterina Scorsone) — Maggie still manages to find herself in some flirty conversations.
First, she talks to new “Ortho God” Atticus “Link” Lincoln (Chris Carmack), who flirts with every woman he meets. Later, Maggie apologizes to Andrew DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) for trying to set him up with Amelia. During the conversation, DeLuca and Maggie’s “ancient history” comes up. While Maggie claims she isn’t interested in her dreamy ex (who secretly kissed her sister) anymore, on a show like Grey’s any mention of past sexy behavior usually leads to future sexy behavior.
The possibility of Maggie exploring her romantic options during Jackson’s absence is only more exciting when you realize Jackson has to come back eventually. That means there could be a big old love triangle conundrum on the horizon. Grey’s Anatomy loves a love triangle!
This is why Jackson’s surprise disappearance feels less like a forever farewell and more like a way to make his portrayer Jesse Williams’ busy schedule work for everyone. Williams was cast in road trip horror movie Random Acts Of Violence in mid-August, when production on the flick began in Toronto. It was expected the Jay Baruchel-directed project would film through September, precisely when Grey’s Anatomy would also be filming its early season installments, mostly in Los Angeles.
For example, during the last week of that month, the ABC medical drama was shooting episodes 5, 6, and 7, with scripts written through mid-season. That also suggests earlier season 15 episodes also filmed during September. Since Jesse Williams cannot be on two sets at once, it seems likely Grey’s simply had to craft a sensible explanation for Jackson’s short-term absence. Now, with Jackson’s post near-death experience search for meaning, the show has one.
And, if nothing else helps with your Jackson Avery-related anxiety, just know no one associated with the series has felt the need to comment on the TV doctor’s leave of absence, meaning it’s probably nothing to worry about. Jesse Williams has been silent about the subject on social media, no interviews have announced his exit, and Grey's production company Shondaland, which Refinery 29 has reached out to for comment, has yet to respond. The Jackson situation is a whisper of a moment compared to the tumultuous firestorm around Sarah Drew and Jessica Capshaw’s legitimate departures this spring.
While it’s impossible to make promises about Grey’s Anatomy’s future, it does seem like we’ll see Jackson again during season 15. The bigger question, however, is what lies ahead for season 16, as Jesse Williams is scheduled to begin is feature film directorial debut during summer 2019 with Till, about the aftermath of Emmett Till’s 1955 lynching. It's unclear how long production will take on Till, or how it will coincide with Grey's Anatomy's already-hinted sixteenth season.
So maybe enjoy all the Jackson you get for now.
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