Few things are more bittersweet on television right now than Grey’s Anatomy. Ever since the season 17 premiere in November, fans have gotten to reconnect with some of their favorite characters. First, they got McDreamy himself, Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), following his season 11 demise. On Thursday night, George O’Malley (T.R. Knight) made his surprise return to Grey’s Anatomy in new episode “You Never Walk Alone,” 11 years after his abrupt and gruesome death.
Yet there has been a painful catch to these heart-swelling comebacks: they’re caused by the medical decline of Grey’s Anatomy protagonist Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), who is fighting a worsening battle with COVID-19. In “Walk,” Meredith’s condition is so grave, she is unconscious for the entire episode. Meredith appears to only be “seeing” her late loved ones because she is caught between the realm of the living and the dead. As her future is decided, Meredith is trapped on an imaginary beach. These blast-from-the-past visits are her only solace. Despite the grim nature of Meredith’s circumstances, George’s return is the latest piece of evidence that Meredith will survive this life-threatening virus.
A large portion of Meredith and George’s time on the beach is dedicated to whether or not Meredith should choose to stay alive or give in to the oblivion of death. Meredith asks if this next step is a decision she is allowed to make. “I didn’t,” George begins. “I would have stayed. If I could have. It’s different for everyone, though.” Considering how much emotional impulse has defined Meredith’s stay on the beach — Derek has told her she can’t “get anywhere” here because she is “worried about the kids” — it is clear she is one of the people who can choose her fate.
George goes out of his way to make the case for life as a counter to the pull of immediate eternity Derek, which is established in prior episode “My Happy Ending.” In “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Meredith and George walk on the beach. The former tries to argue that her death wouldn’t be so terrible for her loved ones. “I was devastated when you died,” Meredith tells George. “And then I was okay. Even with Derek… Eventually you go on.” Meredith's suggestion is that her three children — Zola (Aniela Gumbs), Derek Bailey (Ryder Goodstadt), and Ellis (Ella and Gracie Faris) — would also eventually move on from the grief of losing her too.
“My mom didn’t go on,” George tells Meredith, calling us back to his 2009 death. George officially died in the season 6 premiere, “Good Mourning,” after suffering multiple traumatizing injuries in the season 5 finale, “Now or Never.” George was struck and dragged by a bus for almost a full city block after he pushed a woman out of the way of the vehicle, saving her life. George died a hero. Still, George's mother understandably cannot let go. “Some grief is heavier than other grief,” George explains. “Sometimes it moves through you. Sometimes it just gets stuck. You carry it. My mom carries it.”
George is hinting that no matter how much Meredith may want to believe her kids will “move through” losing her, they probably won’t. They will probably carry it. For that reason alone, she should fight to live. Plus, George points out how much he misses dancing, laughing, eating, and the “crunch of cereal” straight from the box. All of these big and small details, to George, are reason enough for Meredith to return to the land of the living. If anyone could convince Meredith of such hard work, it’s George. As Meredith tells him, his fatal sacrifice so many years earlier “changed her life” permanently. “Because you went all-in for everybody. Your friends, your family, a woman at the bus stop! You think that didn’t somehow effect me?” she admits.
With the so many other lives dependent on her survival — at one point George says Meredith will “break” surrogate father Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) if she stays on the “beach” — it’s unlikely Meredith will choose death following her time with George. Especially since Meredith says the vital factor for “cultivating resilience” — an essential in fighting a deadly virus — is “positive relationships.” Meredith has these in spades between her friendships with George, Richard, and Bailey (Chandra Wilson), who end the episode sitting together on the beach, bending the veil between Meredith's hospital reality and mental fantasy as an effective nod to vintage Grey's Anatomy.
Even Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff implied Meredith isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Now you’ve seen that sometimes when people sit in Meredith’s room and talk, they appear to her on the beach, so the beach throughout the season exists not just with very special guest stars,” Vernoff told Deadline following “Walk’s” premiere. This means Meredith will stay alive long enough for a “season”-long exploration of the beach. Vernoff doubled down on the likelihood of this outcome when explaining what fans can expect from Derek, who has yet to have a long discussion with Meredith in the way George does in “Walk.”
“Eventually, they’ll get to have deeper, richer conversations as Meredith and George did … We had two days [with Patrick] to capture four episodes, and so that’s why you’re not getting the full meal in one episode,” she confirmed to Deadline. “It’s like you had a little taste before dinner and come back for dessert.”
After dessert you usually leave the restaurant. After seeing George, it looks like Meredith will leave the beach.