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Every Major Character Return, Ranked

Photo: ABC

Even by Grey’s Anatomy standards, the return of Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) in the season 17 premiere was a genuine shocker. Sure, McDreamy didn’t do much more than smile and wave (and his follow-up cameo in last week’s “My Happy Ending” wasn’t any more involved), but considering that the last time fans saw him he was being removed from life support after a car accident, his re-appearance is still wholly welcome — even if it does mean that, once again, Meredith is one medical complication away from meeting her demise.

Since this is Grey’s Anatomy, though, and the titular Grey, Ellen Pompeo, is happy to keep cashing her $20 million paycheck, don’t expect the world’s unluckiest Dartmouth grad to actually kick the bucket anytime soon. What we’ll get, instead, is a nail-biter of a COVID-19 plotline featuring several instances of a passed-out Meredith dreaming of seeing Derek on a beach — and, according to the promos for December 3’s episode, the return of at least one more person from her past. Whoever it is (Ellis? George? Lexie? Joe the bartender?), they’ll be the latest in a long line of significant characters who’ve re-appeared after years away from Grey Sloan Memorial. Seeing as some of those returns were far more welcome than others, however, we’ve decided to rank them all. And no, we’re not counting characters like Ellis Grey who came back several times over the years, or characters who only re-appeared through old footage, like everyone in that Day of the Dead episode where Mer saw the ghosts of half the show’s starting cast. Onward!

11. Leah Murphy

“Final” episode: Season 10’s “Fear (of the Unknown)” (May 15, 2014)
Return episode: Season 13’s “Roar” (October 27, 2016)

After getting fired by Richard for her less-than-stellar surgical skills, resident Leah Murphy spent some time wallowing in her depression before starting work at a different hospital. Eventually, she decided to re-apply to Grey Sloan in the hopes of working under cardio head Maggie. It was an awkward return, and it didn’t last long; the character only stayed a few episodes before disappearing without any fanfare, on-screen or off.

10. Katie Bryce, Part 1

“Final” episode: Season 1’s “A Hard Day’s Night (March 27, 2005)
Return episode: Season 12’s “My Next Life” (Marrch 3, 2016)

A decade (in Grey’s time) after teenage pageant contestant Katie Bryce was treated for an aneurysm by Meredith and Derek in the show’s pilot, she returned to the series with yet another aneurysm—this time, to be operated on by the other Dr. Shepherd, Derek’s sister Amelia. Everything went fine, and Katie reminding Mer of how much of a “trainwreck” she was as an intern was pretty amusing. Overall, a perfectly nice, if not particularly notable, return.

9. Nancy Shepherd

“Final” episode: Season 3’s “Let the Angels Commit” (November 2, 2006)
Return episode: Season 15’s “Good Shepherd” (April 11, 2019)

Besides Amelia, Nancy is the only other one of Derek’s sisters that we’ve ever met more than once. After storming into Seattle Grace back in Grey’s early days to unleash a reign of terror that earned her the title “McBitchy,” she came back to the show to trick Amelia into reuniting with her family. Fingers crossed we see this drama-loving icon again someday, and for a longer run.

8. Nurse Olivia

“Final” episode: Season 6’s “I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me” (October 1, 2009)
Return episode: Season 14’s “Bad Reputation” (April 26, 2018)

Oh, Nurse Olivia. She slept with Alex, gave George syphilis, and even got caught up in Izzie’s LVAD mess before being let go from the hospital during the Mercy West merger. She always deserved better, which made her return in Season 14 a delight. Watching her call out Alex for being the one who actually spread the STD and warn Jo about her fiance’s former cheating habit and Evil Spawn attitude? Even better.

7. Carolyn Shepherd

“Final” episode: Season 5’s “Sympathy for the Devil” (January 15, 2009)
Return episode: Season 15’s “Good Shepherd” (April 11, 2019)

Derek’s mom (the formidable Tyne Daly) only appeared on Grey’s twice, but both times were a doozy. In the first, she intimidated Meredith into wearing a high ponytail and made a terrified Lexie list out her sexual history. In the second, she fixed her strained relationship with daughter Amelia while poking gentle but deserved fun at the doctor’s constantly messy life. Carolyn Shepherd forever.

6. Teddy Altman

“Final” episode: Season 8’s “Flight” (May 17, 2012)
Return episode: Season 14’s “Break Down the House” (September 28, 2017)

It’s hard to remember now that we can’t go five minutes on Grey’s without Teddy causing chaos, but there was a long period when the doctor was MIA from the show. After leaving Seattle to take a military job in Germany, she returned several years later to work at the hospital again, have a baby, and experience serious issues separating her personal life from her job. Three seasons later, little has changed.

5. Thatcher Grey

“Final” episode: Season 7’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” (February 10, 2011)
Return episode: Season 15’s “The Winner Takes It All” (January 31, 2019)

Meredith’s dad Thatcher came back a number of times over the years, but there was a solid gap between his seemingly last appearance in Season 7, when he underwent a kidney stone operation, and his actual last appearance in Season 15, when he died. The man was always a complicated character — an angry drunk who suffered more than his fair share of loss — and his sendoff was appropriately fitting. Both Mer and Thatcher got to say their piece, healing some, if not all, of their lifelong wounds in the process.

4. Katie Bryce, Part 2

“Final” episode: Season 12’s “My Next Life” (March 3, 2016)
Return episode: Season 16’s “My Shot” (November 14, 2019)

Katie Bryce’s first return to Grey’s was purely entertaining, but her second time was actually quite emotional. When Meredith went in front of the medical board to keep her license, several of her past patients returned to speak on her behalf—including Katie, who spoke about how Meredith had managed to diagnose her aneurysm and save her life on her very first day at Seattle Grace. It was a lovely full-circle moment for Grey’s fans, and a powerful act of support for the besieged doctor.

4. Doc the Dog

“Final” episode: Season 2’s “Losing My Religion” (May 15, 2006)
Return episode: Season 3’s “Some Kind of Miracle” (February 22, 2007)

Yes, he was only gone for one year, and yes, he’s a dog, but bear with me, okay? Doc was a Very Good Boy who famously got caught in a classic Grey’s love quadrangle and tolerated Meredith even though she passed him back and forth between owners every other week. It was devastating when he died of cancer, so when he appeared in Mer’s post-drowning, kind-of-afterlife vision as a healthy, happy pup, who didn’t cheer?

3. George O’Malley

“Final” episode: Season 5’s “Now or Never” (May 14, 2009)
Return episode: Season 17’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (December 3, 2020)

The death of George O’Malley was one of Grey’s saddest moments — even today, try thinking of Meredith realizing he was writing 007 in her palm and not get emotional. His return to the show 11 years later, though, was pure joy (you know, despite it happening because of Mer’s COVID-induced stupor). Seeing him on that beach, a little bit older but just as caring and witty as ever, was a gift for Grey’s fans and a smart way of giving closure to actor T.R. Knight’s abrupt exit from the show all those years ago.

2. Preston Burke

“Final” episode: Season 3’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?” (May 17, 2007)
Return episode: Season 10’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (May 1, 2014)

When “Cardio God” Burke left the show in Season 3, it was for good reason; ABC chose not to renew Isaiah Washington’s contract after he reportedly used a homophobic slur on set, then repeated it at the Golden Globes a few months later. And although the character’s sudden absence resulted in one of Sandra Oh’s best acting moments ever, Grey’s did feel undoubtedly different without Burke, who’d both mentored and loved Oh’s Cristina Yang. So, when it came time to say goodbye to Cristina herself seven years later, it was fitting that Burke was there to send her off—and he did so with a gorgeous Swiss lab, 49 3-D printers, and a true recognition of Cristina’s talent that the doctor (and Grey’s fans) had been waiting almost a decade to see.

1. Derek Shepherd

“Final” episode: Season 11’s “How to Save a Life” (April 23, 2015)
Return episode: Season 17’s “The Center Won’t Hold (November 12, 2020)

Yes, all he’s done so far is stand on a beach, shout at Meredith, and look pretty. But he’s Derek Shepherd! He’s McDreamy! Mer’s true love is back — at least for a few episodes — and that’s the best thing any Grey’s fan could ever hope for.

Every Major Grey’s Anatomy Character Return, Ranked