Grey’s Anatomy was rocked in early January 2020 when it was officially announced that one of the series' few remaining original cast members, Justin Chambers, had left the ABC medical drama — and his final episode had already aired. The bombshell left fans wondering how Grey’s season 16 would wrap up the storyline of Chambers' beloved character, Alex Karev. It was an especially pressing question since Karev was at the center of two major storylines: the expansion of on-the-rebound hospital Pacific-Northwest and the ongoing recovery of Alex's wife, Jo Karev (Camilla Luddington).
Viewers waited with baited breath to see how the 2020 midseason premiere of Grey’s, “Help Me Through the Night,” would handle the Alex shakeup. They essentially got nothing in return. However, Thursday night’s “Save the Last Dance for Me,” has finally started explaining what an Alex-free Grey’s would look like.
The reality is that a painful change is ahead for Grey's Anatomy and Jo — but there is a lot of purposeful promise, too.
“Dance” gives us a few glimpses into Jo and Alex’s marriage since the latter “went to Iowa” to help his mother in “Through the Night.” The situation is very bad. Alex hasn’t been returning Jo’s calls and she is becoming increasingly anxious over the lack of communication. “He says that he’s going through something and he needs time,” Jo tells Amelia Shepherd (Caterina Scorsone). “If I didn’t know better, I would think that he’s getting revenge for when I needed time, but I know he would never do that.”
This little bit of exposition suggests Grey’s wants us to know Karev is in some sort of crisis. This response — rather than an off-screen fatal accident — gives the Grey’s writers some wiggle room to deal with the absence of Justin Chambers, which is a good thing for fans. Production could easily put Karev’s character in limbo by explaining he has decided to stay in the Midwest for an undetermined time. This way, Karev can deal with his mental health issues in the fresh air and outside of the bustle of a city like Seattle. That explanation for Karev’s exit would give Jo the option to wait for her husband to return to their home together or divorce him, mourn the relationship for a while, and eventually jump back on the rollercoaster that is Grey’s Anatomy dating.
One of these possibilities sounds more like Grey’s, a show that is ruining Amelia’s best relationship for little reason. On the other hand, the series has spent so much time building up the Karevs’ marriage. It is possible they’ll give Chambers a lot of time to reconsider any type of return before knocking his entire on-screen relationship to bits.
Another section of “Dance for Me” suggests the series is holding out hope for a Karev return, even if it’s in a smaller capacity than before. Towards the end of the episode, the most powerful Grey Sloan doctors — Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.), Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams), and Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd) — confront their new “chief and chiefs,” Tom Koracick (Greg Germann), about recent hostile work conditions. It’s a move that comes after Grey Sloan owner Catherine Fox (Debbie Allen) buys Pac-North, hinting that Grey’s is trying to wrap up the plot point of Alex running his own hospital (with Chambers gone, why have two expensive hospital sets?).
The end of the Pac-North story should be another nail in the coffin of Karev’s character. Yet, the conversation between Grey’s OGs and Koraciak only confirms the series is leaving room for Karev.
“Alex Karev and [Cormac] Hayes can co-chief,” Meredith says during negotiations, purposefully saying Alex’s entire name so there is no confusion between him and his fellow doctor wife. Alex Karev may not be on Grey’s Anatomy right now, but he is technically the co-chief of pediatrics at Grey Sloan.
Although Grey’s is ensuring there is space for Karev, “Dance” does signal the drama knows it can’t keep treading water forever when it comes to one of its most integral characters. The final scene of the episode shows Jo coming home and looking hopefully around for Alex. She is met by an empty, pitch-black apartment. Jo is heartbroken. In voiceover, Meredith says, “Time goes on, and when one things ends, something new always begins.”
As the season 16 finale looms in the weeks ahead, expect to know what that new beginning will be for Jo — and Grey’s Anatomy as a whole — by the end of spring.