If you were excited by last week's Grey's Anatomy twist, imagine how it must have felt to have written it.
Patrick Dempsey's shocking return to the long-running ABC drama was even a surprise to some cast and crew, meaning some people were keeping a massive secret for a very long time. While it was a surprise masterminded by Ellen Pompeo, Dempsey, showrunner Krista Vernoff and creator Shonda Rhimes, the secret-keepers included writers and executive producers Andy Reaser and Meg Marinis, who are responsible for the season's first three explosive episodes. They've been sitting on this news for months.
"I'm very relieved," Reaser told E! News after his episodes aired. "I've avoided Twitter for most of the summer just so I don't accidentally say something."
Marinis even kept the secret in her own household.
"My husband was like, ‘What?!'" she recalled.
Reaser wrote the first two installments of the season with staff writers Lynee E. Litt and Jase Miles-Perez, and Marinis' episode—all about the fallout from Meredith's collapse and subsequent beach dream of her dead husband—airs tonight. We got on the phone with both Reaser and Marinis to talk about what it was like to not only bring Dempsey back but to figure out how to write TV's biggest medical show during the biggest medical crisis of our times.
Reaser called it a "huge thrill" to write the two-hour premiere, but it was also a "big puzzle." The episode had to address all of the lingering questions and cliffhangers from last season while also introducing us to a whole new world of Grey's—one filled with unfamiliar COVID-19 symptoms and protocols and uncertainty that couldn't be ignored no matter how much Teddy (Kim Raver) cheated on Owen (Kevin McKidd).
The cliffhangers were eventually addressed through flashbacks, which were originally going to be spread out evenly across the two hours. When that became, as Reaser described it, "unwieldy," they decided to focus each episode on just a couple of stories at a time. That meant Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) and Link (Chris Carmack) and their new baby didn't make an appearance until hour two, along with Owen and Teddy's horrible love triangle with Tom (Greg Germann), while Jo (Camilla Luddington) and Jackson's (Jesse Williams) ill-fated hook-up got more attention in hour one.
Then, in the last moments of the two-hour spectacle, an exhausted Meredith collapsed on the ground in the parking lot and retreated to the dream beach where Derek was waiting for her, and an entire fandom lost its collective mind.
Read on for the behind-the-scenes scoop from Reaser and Marinis, including how they're preparing for every episode to be a possible season finale.
E!: Can you walk me through the process of writing Patrick into the show and keeping that huge secret?
Reaser: Meg and I can't speak too much to [bringing in Dempsey] because it definitely falls above our pay grade when it comes to those epic decisions—Patrick and Ellen and Krista and Shonda were involved in all of that—but what I can tell you from our end is that we were working on the premiere and we started getting texts from Krista to just Meg and me saying, "Oh my god guys, I think we're gonna have Patrick comes back and it's gonna blow everyone's minds."
Marinis: And then I burst into tears.
Reaser: Meg burst into tears, we had our own minds blown. And then it became…I'm so happy to be done keeping this secret, because we didn't only have to keep it from America. We had to keep it from parts of the network, parts of the studio, definitely the press, and then parts of the writing staff. We teased the information out to the staff. We're doing everything on Zoom now, so we'd have these sorts of—looking back at it—ridiculous moments where we just said, "And then we're going to go to the beach, Mer is gonna…" And then we'd just say, "Hey, can everyone who's a consulting physician or a writer's assistant just leave for a minute?" So they knew something was up, but still, even last night, our medical researcher texted us and said, "I don't know how you guys kept that from us for six months."
Marinis: It was funny because I feel like every executive producer took a turn at writer's assistant all over again because we had to take notes on what we were talking about and we couldn't let our writer's assistant inside the room.
Reaser: We had a big day a couple of months ago where we had the writer's assistant come into Zoom and told her and then we got to watch her freak out, her burying-her-head-in-her-hands reaction of a fan. And then we got to see it on a huge, huge scale, which was just such a trip.
E!: What was it like to watch that reveal unfold on the internet?
Marinis: I couldn't keep up. I kept trying to refresh Twitter, and the first thing that came up was that their minds were blown when [Amelia and Link's baby] was named Scout Derek Shepherd Lincoln. I was like, oh god, just wait. They were going so crazy for that but they had no idea what was coming seconds later. It was really fun to watch all the capital letters at the baby's name, and then that.
Reaser: I was very surprised at how much of a reaction there was to the name of the baby, and maybe I shouldn't say this, but I hadn't even put it together that we were going to go from little baby Derek to seeing Derek, and it felt even more intentional than I had even planned it.
Marinis: Andy, come on!
E!: What was your reaction when you realized you were getting to write the episode with the Meredith and Derek reunion?
Marinis: I mean, I jumped up and down. I've been on the show for a really, really long time and so I was here during the years when Derek was alive. So he's a huge part of the show for me, and even since the character's been gone, writing Meredith…you kind of just think about her past with Derek and how it's affected her life that he's gone. So I was so excited, getting to talk to Krista and figure out how we were going to lay out the story. I don't want to give the next episode away, but it's going to be very joyful for everyone to continue watching.
Reaser: Krista was so integral to making this happen because it's just so unbelievable that we were able to do this. She had a very specific vision for how to do it, and she really just coordinated bringing people together and figuring out how we could shoot it during COVID, and part of our job was figuring how to fit it into the world of the show in a way that feels seamless and seems to make sense, so it was a group effort that she spearheaded. It all started with that crazy vision that she had, and we still kind of can't believe that she pulled it off.
E!: This great moment of happiness comes with Meredith collapsing and likely almost dying again. Can we not just get one nice thing without Meredith nearly dying?
Reaser: I feel like one of the key things of the success of this show is striking a tone that is right in between where a bunch of things overlap. There's the heightened fear of death and life and there's the heightened sense of love and how much people mean to one another, and there's always finding humor in the midst of all of it, and I feel like this really just hits it in the sweet spot of where Grey's is. You're finding yourself all mixed up and wanting lots of different things, which is how I feel like often is. I like that it's happening in that sport of space where don't just feel 100 percent one way.
Marinis: It's kind of the same thing as writing the show during the pandemic. The pandemic is happening on the show as well, and it's still going to be Grey's even though COVID is happening. So we're still going to find ways to bring humor and joy and light even though we're in a backdrop of something very, very serious and scary happening.
E!: Krista has talked about how she initially didn't want to write the pandemic into the show, but the writers' room convinced her otherwise. What were those conversations like from your perspective?
Marinis: I was somebody who wanted to go full on. I knew we were concerned that we were all living the pandemic, so does everybody also want to be watching it in their most loved TV shows? I also couldn't decide in my mind what I thought was better, but hearing the doctors that come to our room and speak and then reading the stories that were coming out about healthcare workers and people who were having a personal experience with COVID…it was breaking our hearts in every way. Once the decision was made to write it into the show, I was fully on board. It's not just about honoring the lives that have been lost and the health care and frontline workers, it's also the biggest thing that has happened in the medical community, and we're a medical show.
Reaser: Typically when we talk to our doctors and consultants, they're just so excited to be talking to us. They're excited to pitch some innovations that they've worked on or some wild stories, but for the first time since I've been here, the doctors had a look to them of just fatigue and exhaustion and heartbreak. One of the doctors had said we are so used to being respected and looked up to and sought out for answers and it feels like we've moved into a time where people don't trust us and think that we're trying to manipulate facts for some sort of political reason. And to have those sort of complaints lodged against them while also risking their lives literally every day and not seeing their families and losing their colleagues was really, really heartbreaking and we wanted to honor that.
I'll also say that when we started talking about this in May, we wondered if by the time the show came on, COVID would be in the rearview and if people were going to be thinking, ‘I don't want think about earlier in the year.' Tragically, it's not even close to being behind us yet, and I think that adds something to the urgency of the show and maybe the comfort that fans are going to want when they're seeing these beloved characters be right at the edge of the volcano when it comes to treating it.
Marinis: The doctors that we spoke to, they seemed—"haunted" is not the right word, but they wanted their stories to be told. Some doctors seemed like they really, really needed to talk about it and it almost helped them to be able to voice it to people who weren't seeing it every day. I just hope that we can honor them in some way.
E!: Things have changed so much since May, so what is it like to be planning out the season knowing that things could be completely different again by next May?
Reaser: We're working on it. We have ideas of what we'd like to do, but sort of the way the show has always worked is we make plans and then we are prepared to adapt as the world changes, as our circumstances change. One thing I will say is that we knew that every episode we make could be the last episode we make. There could be another lockdown. There could be a shutdown. There could be stuff that is so beyond our control and our approach has been to just throw as much story into these episodes and cram as much into them as we possibly can in the event that any week's episode suddenly becomes the de facto season finale.
Marinis: I remember when we were talking to Krista once and she was like, "You think all of that goes into the first few episodes?" And we were like, "Yeah." We wanted to be able to tell as many stories and big stories as we could at once.
Reaser: I think we're topping ourselves every week, and I think everyone's going to be like, it's still Grey's Anatomy. Obviously there are these bigger circumstances, but we're still operating at 11.
Marinis: You're gonnna laugh really hard and you're gonna cry.
Reaser: And if the history of this show has taught our fans anything, it's that literally anything is possible and nothing is off the table.
Those are some strong words, but if even McDreamy can return, they just might be true.
Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.