How Grey's Anatomy Pulled Off Patrick Dempsey's Surprise Return

Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey and showrunner Krista Vernoff kept a massive secret about that Grey's Anatomy premiere for months!

By Lauren Piester Nov 13, 2020 5:50 AMTags
Watch: Patrick Dempsey Takes the E!Q in 42

Now that was the kind of surprise we didn't know we were waiting for. 

In the last 30 seconds of its season 17 premiere, Grey's Anatomy shocked us all with the return of Patrick Dempsey as Derek Shepherd, who reunited with Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey on a breezy beach and will return for next week's episode too. Yes, he's still dead, but even in a dream sequence, this is the first time Dempsey has returned to the show since Derek's death in 2015. 

Derek's return means there's absolutely something wrong with Meredith, which is concerning, but the reunion was actually designed as a way to bring fans some joy in a time when there's not a ton of joy to be had. Pompeo, Dempsey and showrunner/mastermind Krista Vernoff explained how the reunion came about in an interview with Deadline

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"It started as, how do we give people some escape," Vernoff said. "I had this imagining of a beach motif throughout the season, and I called Ellen, and I said, 'What if we bring back, I don't know, some dead character that you could dream of on the beach, that would be so fun for the fans.' And she said, 'Let's get Patrick.' Even in my most excitable dream life, that thought hadn't occurred to me as an option, and there it was." 

Apparently, Pompeo and Dempsey had been hanging out and hiking in Malibu, and since Pompeo knew how much work he had been doing with his cancer foundation in Maine, she thought maybe he'd like to bring some joy to Grey's Anatomy fans. 

Krista Vernoff

"There's just so much darkness, and we knew that coming together would be a little ray of light," Pompeo said. "And so, I think we had the same idea, at the core, to want to help people and bring a smile to people's faces. So, he loved the idea, and we were just so excited, and we had a ball filming it." 

Dempsey was definitely on board with bringing people some happiness. 

"I've been tracking what Grey's had been doing with giving masks, and making sure that people had the right equipment, and it came from that place—OK, what can we do to make people feel better, to give some comfort in this time of uncertainty, and that's how it began," he said. "And it was really a wonderful experience to go back, to work with [director/EP] Debbie [Allen]." 

Almost no one knew about Dempsey's return, as Vernoff revealed in a tweet after the episode aired. 

"Most of the actors didn't know. Some of the writers didn't know. Most of the good folks at the studio & network didn't know," she wrote. "It's so fun watching it all unfold." 

She elaborated in the Deadline interview, explaining that they put the name of Meredith's dead mother in in the script at the table read. 

"I have to say that it was an epic feat, the keeping of this secret," she said. "I didn't send cuts to the studio and network that included that last scene. I didn't have writers' assistants in the writers' room for the last couple of months. There were writers who didn't know we were doing this on that staff. Most of the actors didn't know we were doing this. The crew didn't know we were doing this when they showed up on the day." 

Curiously, when Deadline asked if we might end up seeing Meredith's dead mother after all, Vernoff said this: "I don't know. You have to tune in and see who comes to the beach. It'll be a joyful discovery." 

Petition to see George O'Malley (T.R. Knight) and Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh) again! 

If you're ready to swoon over MerDer once again, here's Pompeo talking about her chemistry with Dempsey: 

"It felt great. Patrick and I have this chemistry, where I think, even from when we first met, for some reason it just felt like we've known each other for a hundred years, and it's just the same feeling," she said. "It's like riding a bike, we just have a chemistry and a dynamic that's always served us well, and I think we have a genuine affection for each other." 

Let's just fast forward to next week's episode, shall we? But also can we request that Meredith doesn't die? Thanks so much!

Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.