The Evolution of Meredith Grey: How Grey's Anatomy Got To "I Love You" Over a Jail Phone

Showrunner Krista Vernoff looks back on the journey to the new, happy Meredith who may or may not be heading to prison.

By Lauren Piester May 17, 2019 1:00 AMTags
Grey's Anatomy, Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey, Giacomo GianniottiABC/E! Illustration

Meredith Grey might just be heading to jail, but she's also in love and finally not afraid to say it, so at least we've got a bright side to look on.

In the season 15 finale of Grey's Anatomy, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) wrestled with the fact that her boyfriend Andrew DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) had decided to take the fall for her well-intentioned insurance fraud and had been carted off to jail, and after trying the Spartacus trick with Richard and Alex—only to get all three of them fired—she made a huge decision. 

She visited DeLuca in jail, and through the glass, said three little words she hasn't said to anyone since (or aside from) Derek Shepherd: "I love you." And she also said a few other words about how she's turning herself in, going to jail herself, and hoping to plead her case with an understanding judge.

In other words, Meredith Grey is about to finally face some consequences for her impulsive actions. And it's kind of about time.

Ellen Pompeo Will Never Say Never to More "Grey's Anatomy"

"We were really excited by exactly that in the writers' room," showrunner and executive producer Krista Vernoff told E! News. "Ellen and I were laughing on set. She was like, ‘what do you mean this is my first offense? I break rules all the time!' And I was like yeah, but you've never been busted. It's your first offense."

Meredith does love to break the rules, always in the name of saving or helping and without much thought for what it might do to her—she's the queen of self-sabotage, remember.This time isn't much different, other than the fact that insurance fraud is a really, really big deal, and a really bad way to solve a terrible problem.


For those of us who have been wondering why on earth Meredith's first instinct was to write down her own daughter's name to help out a patient when she's got so much of her own money and a whole money-filled foundation within arm's reach, Vernoff says Meredith's decision wasn't one made out of logic.  

"To me, she was looking at a system that is broken, and a system that is asking [this father] to quit his job if he wants to be able to afford the surgery for his daughter, but quitting a job will basically get him deported. Quitting his job will mean he can't provide for his family. His wife is being held…the systems are so broken and it enraged her. And when you make a decision from a place of rage, it's rarely a well-thought-out decision."

Grey's Anatomy's Departed Doctors: Where Are They Now?

Plus, that girl's going to need a lot more surgeries than Meredith herself could pay for, at least not without that father feeling extremely indebted to one particularly kind doctor.

Whatever reason she did it, it's done, and Meredith's legal troubles are only just beginning.

Vernoff says they purposely "really laid the groundwork" for viewers to think that this would turn out like every other time Meredith has done something very stupid in the name of saving a life, and that it would be a one-off episode, or a mistake that would eventually cease to matter, like that time she screwed with the Alzheimer's trial. This time, it's very much not.


"We had her smuggle Megan Hunt's kid into the country, basically illegally, and we never came back and talked about it. It just was done. So we've seen her break a lot of rules and not have consequences, so we were like, everybody will think this story is over when she does this thing. They'll think it's a one-off story because we've done that several times before, and it will shock the hell out of the audience when very real consequences and ramifications come down because of it," Vernoff says. "And very real consequences and ramifications have come down, and they will be played through the next season."

That means that yes, this firing is real, and yes, this potential jail time is very real.

Grey's Anatomy Renewed Through Season 17 With More Station 19 Crossover

"You're not going to come back in the fall and find all the fired doctors working at the hospital, and everything's handled. That's not what's happening," Vernoff promises. "I don't know what's happening, but I know when we get into the writers' room in June, we are going to follow through on that story."

It's obviously hard to take your main character, your title character, and threaten to send her to jail, because we're all going to immediately assume that Meredith Grey will be just fine. That's especially the case with two more seasons ordered and no real talk of the end of the show, but it's also a prospect that has the writers' room excited heading into season 16.


"I mean, it's a bold stroke," Vernoff admitted. "We were pretty excited. We were pretty excited when we figured out that that's what we were going to do. It really felt like look, we've been making this show for 15 seasons. It's almost 350 episodes, and what do you do that you haven't done before? How do you keep it fresh? How do you keep it new? How do you keep the audience from getting ahead of you, and this felt like an answer to that."

The other new territory Meredith is exploring is a new and very serious relationship with DeLuca, which is now inextricably tied with her crime. He watched Mer write down her daughter's name in place of a sick little girl's name to save a stranger's life, and that only confirmed how in love he was. He said "I love you," and Meredith couldn't yet say it back, but he was still immediately ready to sacrifice his career to take the fall for her.

The Status of Grey's Anatomy: What the Cast & Producers Have Said About the End

Meredith later revealed she was only unable to say it back because it scared her to say it after the last person she said it to was Derek, and then the next thing she knew, she was stuck in a hyperbaric chamber and DeLuca was handcuffed and on his way to jail, for her.

As new as these legal consequences are for Meredith, season 15's love story has been equally as new and a whole lot of fun.

Ever since Derek died in season 11, Meredith had kind of taken a step back from her own love life. She tried a little bit of reluctant dating, but one night resulted in her screaming at a guy to leave in the morning, and her fling with Nathan Riggs (Martin Henderson) was discarded (by Meredith) the moment his presumed-dead fiancée returned.

The Riggs storyline, as Ellen Pompeo described it in her iconic 2018 THR essay, was a result of ABC racing to "get a penis in there," and when the network didn't love the storyline, it ended.

Then Vernoff, who had left the show after season seven, returned, and the show gave Meredith some space to get some s—t done.

In season 14, Meredith finally achieved her lifelong goal of winning a Harper Avery (as complicated as that award would become), and cemented Meredith Grey as the sought-after surgeon her mother raised her to be, and that she and Cristina Yang had always dreamed of being.

Shonda Rhimes' Grey's Anatomy Pics Are So Pure

"When I came back to the show in season 14, Ellen wanted to make sure I wasn't just coming in to pair her up with another guy," Vernoff explains. "She was a little tired of playing romance. She'd been doing it for a lot of seasons, and I said, great, let's not."

Pompeo, in fact, had a request.

"She said, ‘I want to be like a medical superhero,' and I said, ‘Done.' And that's what we did for that season," Vernoff says. "It was great, and we loved it, and I think that I earned her trust and we became creative partners, and then it was like, OK, are we ready? Can we dip our toes back in?"


As Vernoff reminds us, at the end of the day, the show is about the romance, and season 15 was even dubbed by the writers the "season of love," a season full of "fun and joy and light."    

"It's a romantic…medical romantic…it's a romantic dramedy with a little bit of medicine thrown in," she says. "It's not a medical procedural, right? So romance is a key ingredient, and Ellen was super game coming into this season. She really enjoyed everything she got to play last year, and then this year, she was ready to play with this."

Grey's Anatomy: Epic Romances

This, specifically, began as a drunken kiss, crept into Meredith's very sexy dream sequences, briefly entertained itself as a love triangle, and then slowly blossomed into one of our favorite Grey's Anatomy ships maybe ever. (Yes, we said it. Ever.)

"I feel like we slow-rolled that. We started it as an unexpected fantasy, born of an uninvited kiss or a complicated accidental kiss at the wedding, and then it evolved, using [matchmaker] Cece, and Link as a little bit of a temptation triangle, and then that became DeLuca about halfway through the season, and we just eased our way into it."

That, Vernoff says, was all in service of making Meredith's big "I love you feel" feel earned. And if that tear that rolled down our face when we watched it was any indication, it definitely did.


"That is a collaboration," she explains. "That is us writing a thing and then Ellen playing the hell out of it, so that by the time we got that "I love you," it felt true, and it felt earned, and it felt exciting and it felt unfinished because it's behind glass and because it took her so long to say it back to him, and because she has verbalized how scary it is for her because the last person she said it to was Derek. It gives us places to go next season that are interesting and complicated."

A season and a half ago, you might never look at Andrew DeLuca and think he'd be the perfect man for Meredith Grey. He was sleeping on couches and crying over his ex-girlfriend, Sam Bello (Jeanine Mason) moving to Switzerland to escape deportation. He was the guy who Zola remembers as a sort of vagrant with a guitar.

Grey's Anatomy: A Brief History of Meredith's Love Interests

He's also a fair amount younger than Meredith, and he's a resident where she's a highly accomplished attending, the chief of general surgery. That's obviously not a new pairing on this show which began with an intern falling in love with the chief of neurosurgery, but still, no one was putting the two together just yet.

Then DeLuca kissed Meredith at Alex and Jo's wedding, and then Meredith was having dreams, and suddenly we were all dreaming of Giacomo Gianniotti speaking Italian to us in an elevator, and of Ellen Pompeo speaking it right back.  

The age and power dynamic difference in this relationship and Meredith and Derek's tumultuous romance is not exactly the same, but there's a certain sense that this relationship is able to run because Derek and Meredith once walked.


"We weren't designing it to do the opposite, but certainly that dynamic gave us permission to do this one. It felt like, OK, we told that story, and now is it OK for Meredith to be dating a resident? Is it OK for this age gap or difference in life experience to exist, and the answer is yes, because we saw it really successfully early in the series with Derek and Meredith," Vernoff says. "He was older, he was more experienced in life, so we just wanted to see Meredith happy again, and we wanted her to fall in love in an unexpected way, and we liked the chemistry between her and Giacomo."

Ellen Pompeo Slams The Bachelor Creator for Attacking Kelly Ripa

Some fans were unsure of what to think of the relationship because of our long road with DeLuca so far, and some worried or thought that it might just be a fling, like all of Meredith's other attempts at romance post-Derek. In the writers' room, MerLuca was always the real deal.  

"We never thought it was a fling," Vernoff says. "I think if you added 10 years to DeLuca, you wouldn't have thought it was a fling. You would have thought this was a guy that she likes, and who's sticking when the other ones are not. But because there's a little bit of an age difference between them…not a huge age difference, but just enough that you don't usually see it on television…It's our societal sort of unconscious bias that I think made people dismiss it initially because we have decided somehow culturally that women who are older than men, that that's somehow an invalid pairing."

Karen Neal/ABC

With Derek's death, it's kind of like Meredith got even older than she actually is. She closed herself off for a while, and saw herself as finished, her sex life closed down, which she even said out loud a couple of times. But watching the series all the way through again (highly recommend) shows that Derek was really only one part of Meredith's story. The years since have felt like a new story, one filled with a joy that the show had never had before, with a Meredith who no longer feels like everything in her life is doomed, because the worst has kind of already happened and yet she has survived. 

Since Derek's death, Mer has gained two sisters who have become her best friends, roommates, and basically her co-parents. She's gotten everything she ever wanted, and is now seeing that there's more out there that she didn't even know she wanted. It's like she gained back those years she lost when Derek died.

Grey's Anatomy Actor Giacomo Gianniotti Marries His Longtime Love in Italy

She hired a matchmaker. She started dating a resident 10 years younger than her. She flitted around a work party trying to act "normal" after her surrogate father caught her making out with her boyfriend. She's committing crimes out of the goodness of her heart, she's saying "I love you" to a man in jail, and she's smiling more than she's maybe ever smiled before.

"When Ellen Pompeo smiles, we smile," Vernoff explains. "I feel like that's the world of Grey's Anatomy. It's like, when Meredith is happy, it comes through, and we feel happy."

And doesn't Meredith (along with the rest of us) deserve that happiness? 

"She went through such a journey of grief with Derek and rebounds and sort of almost recoveries, and you know, one step forward, two steps back, and to watch her light up in this way for the first time…I don't think we've seen her light up this way since Derek. And that's been really wonderful."

Meredith's future may now be a huge question mark filled with court dates and time behind bars and a job she's been fired from, but it's also a bright future that includes a supportive boyfriend, a found family that will fight like hell for her, and at least two more seasons on our screens.

So all told, things are looking pretty good for Meredith Grey.

Grey's Anatomy airs on ABC.