Um, hello Grey’s friends. Hi. Hello. I am standing up. I am sitting down. I am processing the big farewell to Alex Karev. I am processing the fact that Dr. Alex Karev up and left his wife, his person, his friends, his job to live on a farm in Kansas with Izzie Stevens. ISOBEL STEVENS, CUTTER OF LVADS. I am processing.
All I could think about while watching “Leave a Light On” is how sad I was that the good-bye to a beloved character who had been with us since the very beginning was just a clip show. Because, I have to tell you friends, Alex abandoning his wife — who I don’t even like — would’ve gone down a whole lot smoother if we could’ve seen him reunited with Izzie and MEETING HIS CHILDREN. What a time. What a world.
But here’s the thing. Because Justin Chambers left so abruptly, the team behind Grey’s Anatomy only had so much to work with. If they couldn’t have him back to film anything new, and they couldn’t travel back in time to plant some seeds, there were limited options. Have I ever wished death on a character I love as hard as I was ahead of this episode? It just felt like Alex dying, although tragic, would’ve been the only way to write the character off that made sense after everything he went through. Over 16 seasons, we watched Alex Karev grow up. He was but a garbage dumpster of a human being when he first walked into the OR as an intern, but by the grace of Jo and Meredith and Bailey and Webber and Arizona, he became one of the good guys. One of the best! He could never just leave his wife and his people. He knew the pain of being left! The Alex Karev we’ve watched for — holy hell, almost two decades if we’re rounding up — wouldn’t do that. So, he would have to be killed off. Except, as we learned tonight, he wasn’t killed off. He did leave his people. We should get into it, right? I am processing, but we should get into it. Because honestly, it almost works.
Four hand-written letters arrive in Seattle — one each to Meredith, Jo, Bailey, and Webber — in envelopes labeled with a return address from Alex Karev, in Kansas. Okay, Meredith’s return address simply says “Evil Spawn” which is a delight for like two seconds until you remember that this is definitely a good-bye letter. The episode is basically split into four sections, with each person reading their letter — well, Webber throws out his letter but he does discuss it in his AA meeting — amid montages of that character’s best moments with Alex. After weeks of speculation, Grey’s doesn’t wait long to make the big reveal: Alex has left Seattle for good to be with Izzie Stevens and their two kids. Yes, friends! Their two kids.
In the midst of what must have been chaos trying to figure out how to wrap up this story, how hard did the Grey’s Anatomy team celebrate when they remembered they did an entire storyline in season 12 about Jo finding out Alex and Izzie froze embryos during Izzie’s chemo in season five? I mean, the actual freezing of the embryos was a huge storyline back in that season, and we do get to relive one of my favorite Alex and Meredith scenes, when they are in the on-call room and he’s working through having children with Izzie this way and Meredith lets him rant and just responds “I know,” and anyway, it’s a perfect scene. But having made the callback to those embryos existing in season 12, and Alex signing away his rights to them, the idea that Izzie would’ve used them to have kids on her own and not tell Alex feels a little less out of nowhere.
As Alex explains in his letter to Meredith, when he was calling up people to write letters and testify on Meredith’s behalf during her trial for her medical license, he called Izzie. This is another little bending of Grey’s history that actually fits really well here. You guys, all they had was retconning! When Alex called her, it was like nothing had changed between them. And then she told him about her kids. Their kids. Five-year-old twins named Eli and Alexis. I mean, the boy should’ve obviously been named George, but sure, FINE.
Alex tells both Meredith and Jo that once he saw his children, he loved them, and there was no way he could leave them. He barely had one parent growing up, and he was going to be a father to these kids. As he explains, again to both Mer and Jo, if it was just about the two women he loves, he’d stay with his wife. But it became about more than just that. He wanted a life with his kids. And honestly the idea of Alex not wanting to miss a second with his children, to be a great dad, that all makes sense. Alex not being mad for one single second about the fact that Izzie had secret kids five years ago and never told him? That makes a little less sense.
Let’s relax a minute here and remind ourselves that yeah, obviously, Alex could’ve, I don’t know, maybe asked if Jo wanted to move with him so he could be around his children? So, like, it was definitely ALSO about the two women he loves and who he wants to be with. Let us not kid ourselves.
But those are the basic facts about Alex’s fate. Aside from explaining where he is and his decision to stay there in each of his letters, he also reflects on his relationship with each person he’s writing to. Again, Richard doesn’t read his aloud, but he does talk a lot about how much being a teacher to Alex meant to him and how angry he is at Alex for walking away from working with the best surgeons and not even saying good-bye. However, he also knows how much he missed out on with Maggie and understands his decision. I’m sorry, Richard’s speech is lovely and all, but he’s acting like he can’t just go to Kansas and see the guy. Richard thrives on that drama, you guys.
In his letter to Bailey, Alex thanks her for being the only teacher in his life who pushed him to be better, to do better. Honestly, I could watch a montage of Bailey yelling at Alex all day long. It keeps me young. She asked more of him than anyone else. She helped him grow up. Now, you can BELIEVE that Bailey is seething when she reads this letter and realizes that Alex “Don’t Tempt Me” Karev is abandoning his wife and friends and job, but it also helps Bailey and Ben put the whole Joey situation into perspective. It’s a miracle that Alex ended up the way he did, and that doesn’t always happen. Bailey and Ben are finally both on the same page about Joey. So, that’s nice.
Meredith gets the best letter out of all them, which isn’t surprising. She is the only person who could ever set him straight, and that’s exactly why he can’t do this in person or on the phone — he knows she’d yell at him until he stayed. And like Cristina did as she left Seattle, Alex tells his best friend something that she needs to hear. Cristina reminded Meredith that “Derek is not the sun,” Meredith is. Alex tells her she’s “always been [her] own person.” That she is a “freaking force of nature.” Meredith is like, please don’t leave me, but also tell me more.
And then there is Jo. Poor Jo! And poor me for having to sympathize with a character I can’t stand, you know? Jo’s letter truly sucks. Alex says very nice things about how when he said he loved her and that it would be them forever he meant it and that she deserves the very best things — but also, he’s in love with Izzie. Seriously, this letter is dumb and we all know there is no world in which Alex would leave Jo, except for the world in which the actor portraying Alex had to suddenly leave the show. That’s it, that is the only world.
And I guess that’s what it comes down to in the end. That this ending is really the best we could hope for under these circumstances, with only old clips and voice-overs to rely on. Alex is happy and loved and has the family he’s always dreamed of — but it is legitimately wild that Alex Karev is running off to be with Izzie Stevens after all this time. The show does its very best to try and justify it with all the kid stuff and with the final montage of Alex and Izzie’s (very compelling!) love story throughout Grey’s Anatomy’s run. It is a valiant effort! And yet, the episode ends with Meredith opining that “there’s really no good way to say good-bye” which seems like the show’s version of the shrug emoji. Under these circumstances, there really was no great way of saying good-bye to a character who has been with us since the beginning, who had truly one of the best and most consistent character development arcs on this show up until now. It is fine? It’s fine. I am still processing.