Seventeen seasons in and Grey's Anatomy is still surprising us.
At the end of an action-packed two-hour premiere on Thursday, the long-running medical drama pulled off its biggest surprise return ever by bringing back Patrick Dempsey as Derek Shepherd. He's still dead and only exists on the beach Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) is dreaming of after collapsing in a parking lot, but still, for the first time in five years, he's really truly there.
He was just about the last person we expected to see back on Grey's, partly because we haven't even thought about him in a while and partly because actors don't tend to show back up after leaving Grey's Anatomy, no matter how strong a connection their character has left behind or how mutual their exit was. Sandra Oh, Kathering Heigl, T.R. Knight, Sarah Drew, Jessica Capshaw, Sara Ramirez, Chyler Leigh, Eric Dane—all made huge impressions on the show and never looked back.
Only Isaiah Washington ever returned after his big departure, and that was just to give Cristina (Oh) her big send-off. If you had asked us to rank the departed docs based on how likely we thought they were to ever return, only Heigl would have been behind Dempsey.
First of all, Derek's dead. Like Knight, Leigh and Dane, Dempsey's character is very much not alive. That rarely stops a TV show from bringing back an actor if they want to bring back an actor, but it's a pretty big reason not to, even on a show that occasionally features sex with ghosts, a la Izzie (Heigl) and Denny (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) back in season five.
It's weird that Izzie left her husband with nothing but divorce papers and wind, and weird that Cristina has never once come back to visit her BFF, but not weird that a dead husband never came back from the dead, so it's not like we've spent five years wishing for a Derek sighting from the great beyond.
"There's only certain ways you can [write out an actor]," she said. "When Sandra Oh left, which was equally devastating, if the character is still alive, then the audience can never let go of that character and then they always want them to come back. 'Is she going to come back? Is she going to come back?' So I think knowing that he did an amazing 11 seasons and was ready to move on, you can't have that."
Rhimes and Pompeo called the exit "mutual" at the time, but both have made comments in the years since that implied that there was more going on behind the scenes.
Mutual or not, Dempsey's departure from the series was not without its tension. In a new interview with The Los Angeles Times, showrunner Krista Vernoff even remarked that Dempsey was not even on her radar when she had the idea that Meredith might see someone exciting on that beach.
"I called Ellen, and I was like, 'What if in the first few episodes, you're on a beach in a dream sequence?' And she goes, 'What if we get Patrick Dempsey?'" Vernoff recalled. "In all my wildest fantasy imaginings of who we might get, he was not on the list. Because there was some complexity around him leaving the show. I said, 'Are you serious?' And she said, 'We just went on a hike together. He really wants to do something...with masks...and we're good. I bet he would do it, Krista.'"
So why did it not even cross Vernoff's mind?
Late in 2015, Rhimes confirmed to Larry Wilmore that she had once killed off a character because she didn't like the actor. Dempsey was asked by EW if he thought she was talking about him, and he responded, "I think she loves being provocative and that's fine for who she is." He went on to praise her for being "savvy."
Then, in January 2018, The Hollywood Reporter published a now iconic profile of Pompeo, highlighting her new deal that made her the highest paid drama actress on TV. She described the end of her working relationship with Dempsey as "tumultuous" and recalled years of trying to get a pay raise as the titular star of the show.
"They could always use him as leverage against me—‘We don't need you; we have Patrick'—which they did for years. I don't know if they also did that to him, because he and I never discussed our deals. There were many times where I reached out about joining together to negotiate, but he was never interested in that," she said. "At one point, I asked for $5,000 more than him just on principle, because the show is Grey's Anatomy and I'm Meredith Grey. They wouldn't give it to me."
The aftermath of Dempsey's exit was similarly frustrating.
"So, what does it look like when he leaves the show? First, it looks like a ratings spike, and I had a nice chuckle about that. But the truth is, the ink wasn't even dry on his exit papers before they rushed in a new guy," Pompeo revealed in the THR piece. "I was on vacation in Sicily, decompressing—it was a long working relationship and it was a tumultuous end and I needed a moment to just chill with some rosé—and they're calling me, going, ‘What do you think of this guy?' ‘What do you think of this guy?' And they're sending pictures. I was like, ‘Are you people f--king nuts? Why do you feel that you have to replace this person?'"
In December 2018, Pompeo appeared on Red Table Talk and revealed that she and Dempsey hadn't spoken since he left Grey's Anatomy.
"Typically when people leave the show, they need to sort of re-find themselves, who they are, without the show, because the show takes up so much of your life," she said. "You need that time to figure out who you are without the show. So, we have not spoken but I will always have a place in my heart for Patrick."
Basically, between Pompeo and Rhimes, there were enough quotes to have us convinced that even if no one could confirm any bad blood, Dempsey was fully done with Grey's Anatomy and never planned to look back. And that was sort of fine, because Grey's and Meredith did such a great job moving on without him that we (this writer, at least) never even missed him.
In the L.A. Times interview, Vernoff described the moment as "moving and healing."
"This show has been on for 17 seasons," she said. "There's been some drama around some exits. And there have been enough years in the interim that everyone grows up; they grow up, they realize where they got things wrong. There's always sort of two sides to every story. What it felt like was a homecoming."
That's why Derek's appearance at the end of the season 17 premiere was both shocking and thrilling. That wasn't just an appearance we didn't think could happen—we hadn't even considered it as a pipe dream. Dempsey's return (and the stories around it) mean that he and Pompeo are not only friends again to the point where the cameo was her idea, but he's also willing to go back to being Derek Shepherd just to make the fans happy in a difficult time.
We didn't know we needed, wanted, or could ever have this, but boy are we glad we do anyway.
Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.