Ellen Pompeo as Meredith.
Well, well, well! It looks like Grey’s Anatomy still has some tricks up its sleeves. Over the course of its 13 seasons, Grey’s has never shied away from trying new things. These experiments have had varying degrees of success: The Musical Episode was broadly panned (I’m always up for Sara Ramirez singing, but I still have nightmares about that “Running on Sunshine” number), whereas last season’s “The Sound of Silence” in which Meredith is trapped without a voice for most of the hour was gripping. “The Room Where It Happens” offers up a new experiment: The entire hour takes place in one OR, during one surgery. It’s a 60-minute play with four doctors: Meredith, Owen, Webber, and Stephanie. And it is glorious.
It’s sure to be a divisive episode, what with the thin plot, a slimmed-down cast making room for a bold focus on production, performance, and character building. At the very least, it acts as a nice palate cleanser to the stretch of run-of-the-mill episodes we’ve had to endure. (And, of course, Grey’s winking at Hamilton sends my heart aflutter.) For this little ol’ recapper, the experiment is an example of Grey’s firing on all cylinders. It is a deep dive into four of the show’s more interesting characters (complete with four great performances; Ellen Pompeo still has it, guys). It is surprisingly very emotional, made even more affecting by Debbie Allen’s directing and the instrumental music choices. Oh, and DEREK SHEPHERD IS THERE. My tears are but a Pavlovian response when I see Meredith looking at Derek. I have no control over it.
Don’t worry, we’ll get to Derek. But let’s tackle this piece of theater from the beginning. Without further ado, the Grey Sloan Memorial Players present The Surgery of John Doe.
We open on a dark, empty operating room in the middle of the night. Suddenly, the OR is flooded with doctors, nurses, and one car-accident victim who is in really, really bad shape. The dude won’t stop bleeding. At the helm of this seemingly sinking ship are Meredith, Owen, and Stephanie, all of whom have been up for days. Literal days. When Meredith remarks that the only way a doctor can tell if she’s too tired to operate is after she’s made her first mistake, it is terrifying. I mean, I can barely open a jar of salsa while lying on my couch all day if I get less than seven hours of sleep. Maybe take a cat nap before cracking open a human chest.
Speaking of naps, enter Richard Webber. He’s well-rested, well-fed, and a delight. The dude is ready to get his operating on. When he sees his fellow docs snapping at each other over the best course of action while the patient deteriorates, Webber attempts to take command with a little OR game. Instead of just treating this John Doe like a “sack of organs on a table,” he wants them to make the patient a real person, someone good, someone they’ll fight to save.
Webber imagines the patient is a woman named Gayle. Gayle plays the cello and has dreams of being first chair in the Chicago Orchestra. Gayle has two daughters and a son. She’s on her feet 16 hours a day. She has constant back pain. She teaches music and takes receptionist jobs to make ends meet. If you haven’t guessed already, Gayle is Webber’s mother.
As Webber watches Gayle practice her cello in the back of the OR, the real patient on the table gets worse. Meredith wants to close him up and wait to continue until he’s stronger. She wants to play it safe. Owen disagrees and Webber suggests an emergency transplant. Meredith snaps back that she outranks him and a transplant is out of the question. A tired Meredith is a very mean Meredith. Actually, a well-rested Meredith is also a mean Meredith, so good luck, dudes!
Queen Meredith will, however, let Owen attempt to fix the guy’s kidney bleed before moving on to the the bigger problem of his shredded liver. (I told you he wasn’t in good shape!) Owen encounters some difficulties — mainly, more blood. So much blood! To keep Owen focused, Webber wants to pass the “make the patient personal game” baton over to our military man. Owen doesn’t transform Gayle into a new patient, but he does conjure up the memory of someone very important to him: Megan Hunt.
That’s right you guys, we finally meet Owen’s sister. It’s not in the melodramatic way I had imagined, and I still believe she’s going to turn up at Grey Sloan one day, but it was nice to get the introduction. Even in Owen’s hallucination, the two have a playful, loving rapport. And she calls him Eeyore. Owen is Eeyore!
As Owen struggles with John Doe, Hallucination Megan pries a bit. Why is she here? Usually Owen brings her out when he’s feeling especially guilty. Megan keeps pushing. As the rest of the doctors stand frozen in the OR, Megan moves around them, wondering why Owen won’t let go of this patient when things are looking so dire. He tells her that you don’t quit on someone until you’ve saved them or you know that they’re dead. Get it, you guys? HE’S TALKING ABOUT MEGAN. Like Webber and his mother, it’s the memory of his sister that fuels Owen in the OR. He won’t ever give up. Against Meredith’s wishes, Owen’s going ahead with Webber’s transplant idea.
Before you think this episode is all “Ghosts of Doctors’ Past,” Stephanie gets a visitor in the OR as well: Mini Edwards. She’s the cutest, you guys. She pops up as Stephanie begins to piece together why they’re having so much trouble keeping their patient alive. As you may recall, Stephanie spent most of her childhood in the hospital with sickle-cell anemia. While there, she filled her days learning as much as she could about autoimmune disorders. It’s why she recognizes that their John Doe is bleeding uncontrollably because he has a rare platelet disorder called ITP. She tries to inform the rest of the gang, but she cannot be heard over Meredith’s telling Webber and Owen that they’ve gone and lost their damn minds.
Mini Edwards shows up to remind her older self to speak up. She knows this stuff. Stephanie finds her voice and convinces her superiors that she’s right. The only way to save this guy is to pump him full of steroids. They’re all like, that’s cool you figured this out, but the guy currently has no liver and flushing his system with steroids would be a very, very bad idea. #DoctorProblems.
Here comes the good/bad/sad news part of our program. The good: John Doe has a name! It’s Carl. His wife, son, and daughter are down in the lobby waiting. The bad news is that Carl’s in a very bad way. You know all those other times I said Carl was not in great shape and there was a lot of blood and stuff? Yeah, it’s way worse than that. He probably won’t make it. The sad news: This entire scenario of a father and husband dying in a car accident hits way too close to home for Meredith.
Meredith can’t shake the thought of the kids waiting downstairs for Carl, and she’s transported back to the night Derek died. We watch her as she tries to steel herself to tell Zola and Bailey that their father is gone. Little Zola tells Meredith to go fix Daddy because she fixes everyone and all human hearts shatter into tiny little pieces. Crying, Meredith backs away from her kids, puts on her surgical mask, and walks back into the OR. The Shonda Tears are real tonight, people.
This nightmarish trip down memory lane puts the fight back into Meredith. She’s not playing it safe anymore, not if they can save this man. She wants to give him a liver transplant … using the remaining good part of his own, currently removed, liver. It’s risky, but it’s the only real option. So, the good doctors find ways to push through their exhaustion to save Carl. For Webber, it’s remembering how he couldn’t save his mother from pancreatic cancer when he was 10 years old. For Owen, it’s the heaviness of never getting closure over Megan. Stephanie is fueled by the promise she made to herself as a little girl in a hospital bed. Meredith owes it to her kids.
And there in the scrub room, as Meredith thinks about the point of Webber’s OR game, to make surgery personal and to find motivation in that, in walks Derek Shepherd wearing his ferryboat cap. It’s an old memory, but one that will keep Meredith pushing for a long time.
Just like that, the OR is cleaned and emptied, ready for the next surgery. How about an encore?
Sob Scale: 7/10
Derek Shepherd. Ferryboat caps. LITTLE ZOLA. Somebody hold me!