When Grey’s Anatomy premiered in late March of 2005, George W. Bush was president, Taylor Swift had not yet crawled from the primordial goo of Big Machine Records, and Hitch was in theaters. The series is still on the air in 2020, and remains an unparalleled viewing experience precisely because of how extensively viewers have sat with its characters. Devotions grow stronger with time. So, too, do devastations, in particular the show’s most recent: longtime cast member Justin Chambers’s unceremonious exit as Alex Karev.
News of Chambers’s exit came on January 10 and sent viewers into a tailspin. Aside from Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) herself, Alex is the only remaining member of the show’s original intern class. The last time we saw him was in the show’s 350th episode, supporting Meredith by reading aloud letters written by characters who left the show in years past. The scene was a tearjerker when it aired, but now it plays with a painfully irony. In the following episode, when Alex’s wife, Jo (Camilla Luddington), brought home a baby from a fire station, Alex’s reaction was left as a cliffhanger. Deadline and TVLine have reported that the 350th episode will likely be Chambers’s last, and that seemed to bear out in last night’s Alex-less midseason return, which left said cliffhanger dangling offscreen.
As it stands, Chambers’s exit serves as a reminder: Attachments to characters can get awfully tricky when they’re intrinsically tied to opaque, behind-the-scenes drama. And for Grey’s, which has never been a show without mess, onscreen or off, it’s one more blow for a show that’s become known for its sloppy good-byes.
It can be hard to emotionally invest in a show when it has the same turnover rate as the average media company. Viewers mourn every loss — most involving viscerally realized characters who were in their lives more continually than most art ever is. Most series with similar longevity to Grey’s are procedurals or daytime soaps, but while Grey’s has heaping elements of both, it is at its core a character drama. And when you’re watching for the characters, what happens to them at the end of the day really matters.
When Alex was introduced in the Grey’s pilot, he was a trashy nightmare of a man: sexist, cocky, and sneering, a foil to the more earnest surgical interns who took center stage. Over 15 years, though, Alex became an empathetic best friend and husband, a tried and true leader, and a literal savior of babies. He is without a doubt the Grey’s character who has grown the most. Redemption of the asshole is a classic arc, seen on everything from The O.C. to Game of Thrones, but most shows attempting the trope do so in one season, maybe five. But that sort of character development takes on a different weight over 15 years, allowing a character to grow more like people actually do in real life: with baby steps forward and massive slides back. When you spend that kind of time with a character, no amount of healthy perspective on their fictionality can keep them from seeming like an old friend.
But the revolving door of the show’s cast repeatedly and often clunkily reminds us that these characters are not friends. They’re cogs within an industry, their fates dictated by the unknown whims of the producers, studios, and actors who bring them to life — by real people with real needs and wants and conflicts that can, and should, take precedence over those of fictional characters. The average viewer, though, can’t expect to be privy to every goings-on in a workplace far separated from their own lives. For them, these Hollywood dramas create a disjointed viewing experience — especially in a show that immerses you so fully and so emotionally in the long haul.
It doesn’t help that the cast turnover on Grey’s is storied, to say the least. Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) was the first major character to leave the show, following an incident where Washington used a homophobic slur against co-star T.R. Knight, who played George O’Malley. In June 2007, ABC announced it wouldn’t renew Washington’s contract; at the end of the season Burke left fiancée Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) at the altar. Knight himself departed soon after. George all but disappeared from season five, even before throwing himself in front of a bus offscreen and dying at the end of it. His was the first major character death in the show, establishing the kind of fictional wounds Grey’s would inflict, heal, and reopen for years to come.
At the beginning of season six the show introduced six new characters, only to kill off two of them in a mass shooting in the finale, a brutal layoff if there ever was one. That season also saw the hasty exit of Katherine Heigl, whose feud with the show is the stuff of legend. Somehow her character didn’t die, despite having an aggressive form of cancer, but more onscreen killings were to come in later seasons via Mark Sloan (Eric Dane), Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh), and Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). The latter was most shocking — Derek was the male lead, and the show continuing without him felt like an impossibility, especially to longtime fans. And yet the series saw a ratings resurgence after his death. The reason is simple: Audiences had already put in over a decade with Meredith. They cared about her, and now she was a widow. Just as they had to adjust to his absence, they had to know how she would, too.
The exits weren’t over, though: Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) flew into the sunset with a milquetoast love interest in season 12. In season 14, producers let go Jessica Capshaw and Sarah Drew, who played Arizona Robbins and April Kepner, respectively. They cited creative reasons, and fans signed petitions.
The show’s most artful exit was Oh’s. When she decided to leave behind Cristina Yang in season ten, the show gave her a whole farewell arc full of bittersweet tears and a shiny new hospital in Zurich. It was a good-bye that honored what the character had meant to the show for a decade. With Cristina gone, though, there was a void. Meredith didn’t have a best friend anymore. Into that void stepped Alex Karev. He became Meredith’s “person” — the moniker Grey’s gives to the kind of best friend who is truly ride or die. As he and Meredith struggled together and leaned on each other, Alex became as integral to the soul of the show as Cristina was before him. Now it seems audiences might not get a good-bye for Alex Karev. He might just disappear, the reasons behind his exit still unclear to the general public. For the writers, it presents an unenviable creative task. For audiences, it’s a painful dive into the uncanny valley — a character who felt so real now just … gone.
At its best, Grey’s is a remarkable viewing experience. It’s narrative maximalism, able to tell challenging stories about heartbreak and revival through the sheer volume of what its characters have been through. They’ve been beaten, drowned, had brain tumors and C-sections in the woods, and everyone they love has left or died. Seeing them come back from these things is a reminder that we all can. That approach has an edge to it, though. Tip a narrative about survival too far in one direction and it becomes one about nihilism.
Grey’s has always risen from its own ashes, and it may just well surprise us again. At this point it will probably outlive us all. But the disappearance of Alex Karev is more than just another casualty for the pile. His departure is one more nail in the coffin of the found family that made this show’s heart beat in the first place.