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The Year’s Best Fight: Meredith and Cristina on Grey’s Anatomy

Over the course of ten seasons, Grey's Anatomy has killed off hundreds of characters — doctors, patients, children, adults, regulars, and one-offs alike. No one is safe! The show has pumped its indie-rock soundtrack, created and exhausted its own catchphrases (seriously), and built up and broken down more romances than a thousand middle school dances. Grey's does what it does, and even its "shocking" moments, like Heather's death on the season premiere, aren't shocking anymore. But Grey's did manage to surprise me this year, and it was with one of the show's most interesting stories in years: the Meredith and Cristina Fight. It is a really good fight.

The friendship between Meredith and Cristina has been a central part of the show since its first episodes; one of the series' calling cards has been its depiction of female friendship and particularly the primacy that friendship enjoyed over romantic relationships. Even the most ardent MerDer fans, who waited years for Meredith and her McDreamy to finally get together once and for all, know that Meredith and Cristina enjoy the most important relationship on the show. They're each other's "person," as they have said many, many times. Their friendship has seen them through miscarriages and abortions, through getting ditched at the altar and getting engaged in an elevator, through the deaths of parents and friends, through a plane crash and a ferry crash and a mass shooting, and through bottles upon bottles of tequila. I can't imagine envying the romantic or sexual relationships on Grey's Anatomy, but the Meredith and Cristina friendship? It's the dream BFF relationship.

That's ingredient No. 1 in a dramatic fight: stakes. We have high stakes here. Substantive, interesting fights — in life as in television! — also rely on two other ingredients, though. First, a topic on which our characters can reasonably disagree. And second, a reason why that topic is of personal relevance. Put another way, a good TV fight (and again, a good life fight) gets at these questions: Are we fighting about something meaningful? Is this meaning concrete and not just theoretical? And does anyone have anything to lose — really lose — in this argument?

Meredith and Cristina are fighting with each other about the choices they've made professionally and personally: to have or not have children, to marry or not to stay married, to stay maniacally, single-mindedly devoted to surgery or to expand their commitments to include things other than professional achievement. "You let up," Cristina tells Meredith in the season's fifth episode. Meredith picked motherhood over surgery, and that's a valid and fine choice, Cristina says. But that means Cristina's surgical skills have improved and developed in ways Mere's haven't. (And lest anyone accuse Grey's of being anti–working mom, Cristina herself cites Bailey and Callie as surgeons who did not "let up" upon becoming mothers.)

The fight has worn on and on since then, with Meredith and Cristina bickering over their respective medical trials, and doing that thing where you get even madder at someone because they're not "there" for you — but they're not there because you were already mad at each other. Things finally came to a head in the season's twelfth (and most recent) episode, when Meredith figured out Cristina was sleeping with one of her interns. "Congratulations, you've become the thing you worshipped," Meredith says snidely. "You've become the thing we laughed at," Cristina snaps back. One can be a great person and a great doctor, but when Meredith and Cristina looked at each other, that's not what either of them saw.

I watched a lot of shows where a lot of people fought over a lot of dumb crap this year. I even lived through some fights myself! What strikes me the most about Meredith and Cristina's fight is how authentic it is, and how even among the hyperbolic and melodramatic stories of the series, this cuts absolutely to the essential qualities of the characters. It's also a fight I haven't seen on TV before, one that seems pointedly contemporary to me. It's not that Cristina's jealous of Meredith's family; it's that she resents the pervasive cultural pressure to act as if she does. It's hard enough to make big choices for yourself, and to find out that you have to justify that to your best friend? Lean In does not cover this part.

"Here's a weird thing: many of you didn't seem to notice that Mer and Cristina MADE UP at the end of the last episode … ," Grey's creator Shonda Rhimes tweeted. I'm one of those weird people who did not notice. They reached a denouement, yes, but it seemed like their conclusion was simply that they'd become very different people over the course of their friendship, that they'd both changed and maybe it was in ways that were no longer compatible. I didn't take that as making up, but perhaps when the show returns we'll see a new foundation of trust and candor between Meredith and Cristina.

Not for long, though. Sandra Oh is leaving the series at the end of the season, so no matter what happens, we're looking at the end of an era for Meredith and Cristina. As long as Cristina survives her exit, though, we'll be able to hold out hope.

Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC