Thursday night’s Grey’s Anatomy episode, “Papa Don't Preach,” begins with a begrudging sense of optimism for doctor Maggie Pierce (Kelly McCreary). On the one hand, she has stumbled into her biological dad Richard’s (James Pickens Jr.) long-standing family feud. It’s awkward. Yet the tough situation also introduces Maggie to Sabrina “Sabi” Webber (Crystal McCreary, real-life sister of Kelly McCreary), her new cousin. The two immediately hit it off, bonding about shared interests and their uncanny lookalike status.
That’s when I knew Sabi was going to die. If there’s anything “Papa” accomplishes, it’s highlighting exactly which Grey’s Anatomy patient is fated to die for the good of the narrative.
It all comes down to what happens between a doctor and their patient within the first 10 minutes of the episode. If things get a little too personal — and the patient’s death would be a little too tragic for the doctor in question — they’re not long for this world.
Take Maggie and Sabi’s early hallway conversation in “Papa.” Before this moment the stakes of their relationship are all related to Richard and his deep family problems. Then Maggie and Sabi have this early-in-the-episode heart-to-heart. They realize they may only be cousins, but there’s an inescapable pull between them. They like the same crossword puzzles, enjoy the same music, and share the ability to whistle. As they speak, they voices get noticeably more excited. All of a sudden, Sabi isn’t simply Richard’s niece for Maggie. She’s someone who could be Maggie's family, too.
Sabi cements this relationship by taking Maggie’s phone, adding her contact information, and sending Maggie their selfie together. Now they're part of each other’s lives. The selfie has the ability to haunt Maggie for all eternity. “Papa” purposefully includes this quick scene — it’s only about a minute — to ensure the audience cares about Maggie and Sabi as an independent duo. Without it, her inevitable death would only seem impactful for Richard, rather than for her doctor, Maggie.
This is a pattern Grey’s has followed for quite some time. Take this season’s “Reunion,” when Levi Schmitt (Jake Borelli) drops a catheter wire into a patient. The intern may have had a nice conversation with the man’s daughter, but there were no sweeping emotions. No ardent promises for the utmost care. The patient almost died, but didn’t — the loss of him wouldn’t have changed much for Levi as a character.
On the other hand, Grey’s Anatomy season 15 gave us two great-but-tragic examples of the series’ most macabre habit. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) quickly formed a bond with matchmaker Cece Colvin (Caroline Clay), a terminally ill women. The second you recognized their heartfelt connection, you should have known Cece would die (and she did in “Shelter from the Storm"). Similarly, “Anybody Have a Map?” informs viewers how much Richard cares for nurse Frankie (Stacey Oristano), giving them an entire tight-knit off-screen history we never witnessed. She dies before the episode is over.
The moral of the story is: if Grey’s Anatomy really, really, really wants you to care about a sickly patient, avoid that temptation at all costs. Or, you can suffer the teary consequences.