A few years ago, Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff dubbed the newest season of her ABC drama “the rom-com season.” Now, in season 17, those swoony themes feel like a mere distant memory. In the midst of an already frightening year, the most dire development has come to Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital: Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) has COVID-19 and, in Tuesday night’s “My Happy Ending,” her symptoms only worsen.
“My Happy Ending” picks up four days after Meredith’s love interest Cormac Hayes (Richard Flood) found her collapsed in the Grey Sloan parking lot. This episode confirms Meredith passed out because she is positive for COVID-19. Although Meredith isn’t at peak health, she is convinced she doesn’t need to be occupying a hospital bed that could go to an even sicker patient. Then Meredith collapses yet again, this time in the relative safety of her hospital room.
We find out Meredith mentally keeps going to the imaginary beach we first saw in 2020 season premiere “All Tomorrow’s Parties” when she is unconscious. Meredith's late husband Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) is there. From Meredith’s perspective, Derek is an eternity away halfway down the beach. “The sand isn’t real,” Derek tells his wife. It’s an ominous suggestion that although Meredith believes there is all of this space between her and Derek — Grey’s Anatomy's loving avatar for death — it’s not real. Derek’s words hint Meredith can be as close or as far from death as she chooses, the sand is just a metaphor (even if it hurts when she trips into it).
That’s why, when Derek first mentions the sand, he says, “You’re worried about the kids.” Meredith isn’t ready to die since she is subconsciously focusing on her love for her three young children, with whom she video chats during the episode.
As “My Happy Ending” comes to a close, Dream Meredith runs toward Derek. She is more interested in him — and her feelings for him — than the trappings of her life. In the real world, we see Meredith is unresponsive in her hospital bed. She is closer to death than she has been all season. The trailer for upcoming episode “You'll Never Walk Alone” reveals Meredith will continue to be unconscious.
“Over 1,700 healthcare workers in the U.S. have died of Covid to date. Many thousands more have been infected … We saw an opportunity to dramatize and illuminate their plight through the incredibly well loved and well-known character of Meredith Grey,” Grey’s showrunner Vernoff told the Hollywood Reporter in a statement following “Happy Ending’s” premiere. “Meredith has a real fight ahead of her. And ... she has that beach. Darkness and light. It’s a powerful season.”
Vernoff’s statement signals just how seriously the Grey Anatomy creative team wanted to take the COVID-19 pandemic. As Vernoff told Variety ahead of season 17’s premiere, one of her writers, Naser Alazari (who is also a doctor), told her, “This is the biggest medical story of our lifetime, and it is changing medicine permanently. And we have to tell this story.” There is no more powerful way to depict the seriousness of this virus than by putting Grey’s Anatomy beloved heroine of almost 20 years directly in its very realistic crosshairs. It is possible Meredith's condition will deteriorate even more in coming episodes, or she will suffer the lasting effects of coronavirus for the remainder of Grey's Anatomy.
Yet Grey’s Anatomy can’t actually let Meredith Grey die — no matter how close she gets to death’s door during her COVID battle. This outcome is more of a production reality than anything. In 2017, Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes — who is the creator and executive producer of the drama, but no longer its day-to-day showrunner — told E! News the show will end when Meredith’s portrayer Ellen Pompeo is done. “Ellen and I have a pact that I'm going to do the show as long as she's going to do the show,” Rhimes said. “So the show will exist as long as both of us want to do it. If she wants to stop, we're stopping.”
Fans got confirmation Grey’s still hinges on Pompeo’s participation in 2020 from ABC president Karey Burke, who echoed Rhimes’ outlook. “Grey’s Anatomy will live as long as Ellen is interested in playing Meredith Grey,” Burke told reporters during a Television Critics Association panel, reiterating her hope that Grey’s Anatomy continues well beyond season 17.
If Meredith dies during the COVID-19 pandemic, her story is over; Ellen Pompeo’s life on Grey’s Anatomy is over. Season 17 just started last week — it is impossible that the series’ team is willing to let its star go so quickly, thereby kicking off the established Grey’s Anatomy ending protocols. So, cry for Meredith and the medical dangers inevitably ahead, but don’t lose sleep over her ultimate mortality. In the most unpredictable time in recent memory, Meredith Grey has the most secure future out of all of us.