Grey’s Anatomy season 17 continues to macabrely toy with the idea of killing off its heroine, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo). The 2021 midseason premiere, “Helplessly Hoping,” picks up with Meredith in her most precarious medical position yet, after battling COVID-19 for seven episodes. Meredith is fully intubated in “Helplessly Hoping.” Her friends guard her bedside while her sisters, Maggie (Kelly McCreary) and Amelia (Caterina Scorsone), debate telling Meredith’s kids that their mom’s health has taken a turn for the worse.
Yet, it’s not Meredith who dies in the final act of “Helplessly Hoping” — it’s her ex-boyfriend Andrew DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti). DeLuca’s demise is devastating and bloody, reminding viewers of the life and death stakes on Grey’s Anatomy (both his portrayer Giacomo Gianniotti and Grey’s showrunner Krista Vernoff confirmed DeLuca is really dead). The twist also reveals just how much control Meredith apparently has over her limbo situation on “the beach.”
Meredith’s hospitalization for COVID-19 has led to a new overarching fantasy sequence for season 17: Meredith’s “beach”. Meredith has been visited by multiple loved ones, both living and dead, on the beach throughout season 17. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) made a compelling appearance. George O’Malley (T.R. Knight) showed up for the closure he has long deserved. Even Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) made a trip through the spiritual plane to be with Mer. DeLuca is Meredith’s latest visitor after he is stabbed in the torso while fighting sex traffickers in a related Station 19 episode. As DeLuca processes his feelings with Meredith on the astral beach, he undergo serious surgery in the real world.
For a moment, it appears DeLuca will survive his assault and overcome his severe wounds. Then he abruptly crashes. As doctors fight to save DeLuca, his beach avatar starts to say goodbye to Meredith. “If I go back and you don’t — I’ll miss you,” Meredith tells DeLuca, whom she dated on and off for seasons. “It’ll be okay Meredith. It will. It’ll be okay,” DeLuca reassures her. He seems to truly believe his words, suggesting the Grey’s Anatomy writers do as well. Then, as a version of DeLuca’s mother Lucia (Nancy La Scala) calls to him from the far side of the “beach,” Andrew announces, “I have to go.” So he does — easily. DeLuca runs across the beach and makes it into Luca’s arms quickly. When Meredith tried to do the same as Derek called to her episodes ago… she fell on her face.
Meredith tries to explain her unique experience on the beach in the episode-closing voiceover. The message ultimately suggests that Meredith’s lifetime connection to Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital — formerly known as Seattle Grace Hospital — is what is keeping her alive. She is the one with Bailey as a sentinel, Grey Sloan patriarch Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) for a medical guardian, and her name, technically, on the building. Before Meredith ever picked up a scalpel, she spent her childhood in these hallways as the daughter of Ellis Grey (Scandal Veep Kate Burton), a legendary Seattle Grace surgeon.
“I’m a little bit of an exception when it comes to having a happy place. Because the hospital’s always been mine,” Meredith says over “Helplessly Hoping’s” final scenes. “Maybe it’s because it’s where I grew up. But if you’re not like me… you’re going to want somewhere else.”
DeLuca isn’t anything like Meredith — and he went “somewhere else,” like the afterlife, with his mother. Meredith, on the other hand, is still hanging out at her beach waiting on new friends to arrive. As Vernoff told The Hollywood Reporter after “Helplessly Hoping’s” premiere, there are “really fun surprises coming up” in terms of who will appear on Meredith’s beach as she ponders her future.
No matter who pops up, Vernoff hinted that it is inevitable Meredith will decide to return to the land of the living after watching DeLuca wander into the great unknown with his mom. “Maybe that would translate to her waking up? Who knows? Or it will be a massive surprise when she wakes up,” she teased about the effects of DeLuca’s death in the Hollywood Reporter interview. “[The loss] hits different and it's going to send a shockwave through all the characters at the hospital — and maybe Meredith the most.”
Meredith can’t respond to DeLuca’s death if she isn’t awake to talk about. Just don't expect Meredith to do anything — including rise from a life-threatening coma — until she's ready to do it.