I got into the Grey’s Anatomy game late — like, season 13 late. Because of my extremely delayed fandom, it took a while to figure out the rhythms of a series I had only understood through headlines, parody Supernatural episodes, and memories of my friends sobbing over unexpected deaths of very attractive men. However, the shocking and painful demise of Nurse Frankie (Stacey Oristano) earlier this season finally got it through my head: Greys. Is. Not Playing.
So, when Thursday night’s “The Winner Takes It All,” came around, I began preemptively sobbing into my pasta. All the signs of the episode suggest beloved Grey’s Anatomy matriarch Catherine Fox Avery (living legend Debbie Allen) would die. The iconic surgeon enters the episode suffering from a rare and near-impossible to treat bone cancer, a diagnosis introduced in the same episode that included Frankie’s heartbreaking death. Catherine’s risky upcoming treatment, which the installment centers around, spells doom, whether that means death or paralysis.
Yet, when “Winner” comes to a close, Catherine doesn’t die. Catherine The (Grey’s Anatomy) Great, lives. The twist not only proves ABC's oldest Shondaland drama can still surprise viewers over 300 episodes in — it also comes from a deeply personal place from one Grey’s writer.
The biggest hint of Catherine’s death comes in the episode’s happiest moment. Before Catherine heads into surgery, Jackson turns on Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” A few scenes earlier, Catherine had told her son the iconic song has gotten her through life’s most challenging moments for decades. So, Catherine, clad in just her hospital gown, joyously spins through the operating room as her unofficial theme song blasts through the speakers. She passes from loved one to loved one, dancing with a huge smile on her face.
If any scene in the history of television seems like a Big Farewell for a beloved character and star, it’s this one. At this point, it seems all but promised Catherine will not make it through her surgery, but at least her family and friends will live on with this perfect Motown-y memory. Cue the tears falling into my aforementioned farfalle.
Catherine’s mini party is all the more special when you learn it was inspired by episode writer Elisabeth Finch’s real life, as she wrote in a guest column in The Hollywood Reporter. Finch is living with her own rare form of bone cancer and was asked by showrunner Krista Vernoff to write about her experiences. This storyline is the result.
That’s why Catherine even beams through her “Mountain” moment in the first place: Finch has her own theme song that powers her through cancer’s most trying times. “I'm thrown in MRI machines regularly, and I sing 'Sloop John B.' to keep myself calm the way Catherine sang 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough,'” Finch, who also executive produced the episode, writes. “And then I go to work. And Catherine will, too.”
This kind of uplifting surprise — rather than a classic “dark and twisty” one — packs an emotional wallop. You can feel the palpable relief of Jackson, Catherine’s husband Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.), her lifetime friend Thomas Koracik (Greg Germann), and Amelia Shepherd (Caterina Scorsone) when Catherine wakes up from surgery alive and with all of her motor functions intact (surgeons Koracik and Amelia are especially thankful their legendary patient is still alive). Very few people expected such a positive outcome and, yet here it is.
Unfortunately, there is a small blight over the latest Grey’s “miracle,” as Catherine calls her survival, which is the fact her doctors couldn’t completely remove her tumor. About 5% remains, since that portion of the mass was fused to her spine. Getting rid of that last piece of cancer would have also paralyzed Catherine and ended her career. Now, she’s looking at a lifetime of scans and treatments.
“And in between I’ll operate. And I’ll hug my son. Make love to my husband. Chase my Harriet. Make mistakes and pick fights about who gets to pick the movie for date night,” Catherine reminds everyone from her recovery bed. Essentially, she will live.
That’s exactly the message writer Finch wanted viewers to take away from her heart wrenching episode. “I may live with cancer the rest of my life. Because it's a chronic condition, I identify as a person with a disability,” Finch writes in her THR column. “I have a full life of work and friendship and love and travel and failure and joy. But I've never seen that version of cancer, that version of ability on television.”