Sometimes TV characters apparently just have to die.
That's the lesson we're all coming to terms with this morning as we nurse our emotional hangovers, courtesy of Grey's Anatomy. We used to be used to this show doing this to us, tragically killing off characters we had come to love, but it's been a few seasons. The last main character to die was Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), and that was season 11. It's now season 17, and we had grown complacent. Even with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) on a ventilator due to COVID-19, we were not prepared.
The latest casualty is Andrew DeLuca, played by Giacomo Gianniotti. He was the first person that Meredith fell in love with after Derek's death, one half of one of our very favorite recent Grey's romances. She stood by him as he grappled with bipolar disorder, and he has been by her bedside whenever he could during her illness. His death came with a visit to her coma beach, and he professed everything she meant to him before running down the beach to be with his mom.
Mer told him she'd miss him if she went back and he didn't, and he said she'd be OK, but did anyone stop to wonder if we, the viewers, would be OK?
We hopped on the phone with Gianniotti and made him relive the moment when he learned DeLuca's terrible fate.
Long before last night's episode, titled "Helplessly Hoping," was set to film, Gianniotti was asked to come into showrunner Krista Vernoff's office, along with executive producer Debbie Allen.
"They kind of jumped right to it and said, 'We've been in the writers room for a long time going back and forth, and we're trying to come up with something for the midseason finale, and we've tried it a million different ways and it just keeps coming back that the story to tell is to bring back the sex trafficking storyline...and close the loop,'" Gianniotti recalls to E! News. "But the unfortunate part would be that DeLuca would meet his demise, but he would die a hero to stop this woman.'"
DeLuca did meet his demise as a hero after spending an entire episode of Station 19 tailing a known child kidnapper alongside his sister, Carina (Stefania Spampinato). It was a brave but pretty stupid decision for a lot of reasons, mainly because he's a doctor and not really authorized to chase after criminals through the streets of Seattle.
He and Carina even followed the woman onto a train, with half of Station 19 waiting for them at the next stop. As the woman was arrested on her way out of the train station, DeLuca was suddenly and quietly stabbed by an unknown man, left to be found bleeding on the ground by his sister.
"I think it's like the most DeLuca thing DeLuca's ever done," Gianniotti says of the chase. "He's always jumped in the line of fire. It's very of his character throughout the seasons and the years, to go above and beyond, to break code protocol, to do things that are maybe unorthodox to save his patient's life."
That penchant for going above and beyond came to a head last season when DeLuca first met the red-haired kidnapper. She was pretending to be the mother of a young patient, but he saw through her ruse. Few other people believed him, and it not only got him into serious trouble but also brought on a bipolar diagnosis. Season 16 ended with Meredith encouraging him to get some help, which he did before season 17 began.
"This season saw a big change and him coming out of a big mental health crisis and seeking help and treatment and medication, so I wanted to make it clear that this wasn't DeLuca in some manic episode, being irrational," the actor explains. "There's some kind of fine line between a person's personality and their mental illness, and I wanted to make sure it was very clear that it was not his mental illness that thrust him into this situation. It was very much DeLuca's heart, his core values and his character that cared about stopping this woman from hurting other people. And I think we did a great job telling that."
Gianniotti had to keep this storyline a secret from nearly everyone, including all of his co-stars. They learned his fate during the table read and "it was hugely emotional."
"Everybody was wrecked by it, everybody was taken aback," he remembers. "But this is the game. That's the gig, and the show must go on."
When it came time to film the episode, he says the toughest parts to film were all of his final scenes with his co-stars.
"Every time I had a scene with a new actor, I knew it was the last time I was gonna act with that actor, and that was the most emotional part. Like, 'I'm not gonna share the screen you again. I'm never gonna walk to the set with a cup of coffee in my hand and say hello to you and give you a hug.'"
He credits the success of the show to the fact that its stars love and care about their job, and Grey's has maintained success for so long by constantly adding to the cast.
"I've been so lucky to be a part of it," he says. "Everyone just brings their A game and really cares about the show, even all these years later."
Most of the midseason premiere took place in the hospital, but large chunks of it were set on Meredith's coma beach, allowing Meredith and DeLuca—and by extension, Pompeo and Gianniotti—to have an extended goodbye.
"I think there's a lot of parallels in duality between DeLuca being on that beach and me, Giacomo, being on that beach," he says. "Ellen and I have been very close over the years and certainly much closer when the writers wanted to explore a romance between us. We spent so much time together over the last couple years, so having these scenes on the beach were kind of lovely because it gave me the time to spend with Ellen, kind of wrapping up our goodbye as friends. It was nice that it wasn't rushed."
Had Grey's not decided to stick a comatose Meredith on this beach, these characters would not have gotten a goodbye even close to this. While we can't actually tell if this would have hurt more or less, Gianniotti is thankful for those scenes.
"It was such a nice way to end my time on the show, to get to have some big acting scenes with Ellen Pompeo, and after the action, in cuts, to spend some time with this person that I've had such a tremendous amount of respect for as an artist and as a friend," he explains. "It was a real pleasure to have that opportunity."
As for what happens next, expect things to be "very sad" for a while as the doctors grieve.
"I think the first step is just shock. There's not really time to shed the tears because you're so shocked, and I think the doctors that were a part of his surgery, that's where all of them are at," he says. "So in the next episode, we see them deal with the reality. Like, this wasn't a dream. This was real. We really lost DeLuca. And that is devastating, and it levels everyone in the hospital."
If you're already mourning DeLuca, get ready for even more tears next week.
Meredith, meanwhile, is still unconscious, but has also now shared this beautiful goodbye with her ex. Gianniotti thinks that when she wakes up (assuming she will), either she'll be in "devastated shock" or she'll remember the closure that she got on some other plane.
Of course, this is Grey's Anatomy, so even dead characters like to pop up now and again. Gianniotti directed a later episode in the season, and DeLuca certainly won't be forgotten.
"If you're a true fan of Grey's Anatomy, you know the characters never really die," he says. "We see flashbacks, we see so many storytelling devices that the writers over the years have used to see old characters that we've lost, so I think the same storytelling devices are going to be used to continue to see DeLuca for a little bit longer. So even though he's dead, whether it's a dream or a flashback or something, there is certainly a world where we can still enjoy a little bit of him."
It won't be enough, but we'll take it.
Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m.