SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Put on A Happy Face,” the Season 16 finale of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“Grey’s Anatomy” wrapped up its 16th season with a bang — albeit, a bit earlier than originally planned.
With only 21 of the ordered 25 hours completed before production had to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the episode entitled “Put on a Happy Face” served as the show’s unintended season finale.
Fortunately for the drama, it worked as a closer. In addition to Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) giving birth to her son with Link (Chris Carmack), the doctors finally realized what was going on with Richard (James Pickens Jr.) — he was suffering from cobalt poisoning from his hip replacement.
And there was even a typical finale-level twist. On the day of his wedding to Teddy (Kim Raver), Owen (Kevin McKidd) was heartbroken to receive an accidental voicemail of his bride-to-be having sex with Tom (Greg Germann). Rather than immediately confront Teddy, Owen instead opted to postpone the wedding — with the claim that he got called into surgery — which his fiancee discovered when she arrived and found the celebratory decorations being dismantled.
What comes next? Here, showrunner Krista Vernoff breaks down the finale’s big moments and the uncertainty ahead.
How much did you have to adjust to make the episode feel like a finale, and what are the early plans for the episodes you weren’t able to produce this season?
We were so lucky that we happened to have a perfect season finale episode in the can when it became clear that we had to shut down. It was just dumb luck. We wrote this episode and I said to the writers, “You guys, this is like a season finale. Where were we going to go from here?” And so we got lucky.
I don’t know yet how we’re going to use what we had planned for the last four episodes. I’m going to gather the writers in about four weeks, and we’re going to start talking about Season 17. I imagine we will use some of what we had planned, and I imagine that we’ll have had a break, and a whole bunch of sleep, and a whole bunch of time in our houses to think. And we may come up with some different ways to tell some of these stories.
Looking at the episode itself, Owen found out about Teddy’s affair via voicemail, which was partially broadcast during a surgery before he demanded it get turned off. That was a pretty public reveal. What was the genesis of that, and what’s next for that triangle?
There were a lot of different ways to tell this story, and we talked about all of them in the writers’ room. At the end of the day, somehow we landed on this voicemail being played in the OR. It was one of those moments where you just are vibrating with excitement in the writers’ room — it’s not always easy to come up with new exciting things that haven’t ever been done on the show! [Laughs] When we landed there, it just felt like, “OK this is how we’re doing it.” Where it’s going to go from here, I honestly don’t know. That is the story that was really playing heavily for the last four episodes of the season, and how we play it through now may change as a result of how long the break is going to be, and the fact that we’re continuing to think about it.
The doctors went through a lot of potential, potentially life-ending theories about what was wrong with Richard before DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) realized it was a complication from his hip replacement. It looked like there was a lot of damage when they went back in to remove the cobalt and replace it. What will the recovery process be like?
I had the same feeling watching that surgery: “Wow, that’s going to be a painful physical recovery; more painful than a typical hip replacement.” But what’s amazing about this particular kind of poisoning and all the symptoms that go along with it is that you can reverse all those symptoms. What an amazing medical diagnosis and story this was! When you when you come up with something where you can put your most beloved character, arguably, through, what looks like Parkinson’s, what looks like Alzheimer’s, hallucinations, tremors, dementia — and reverse all of it through the diagnosis. To bring him back to the surgeon and the human being that he was, it felt like really exciting storytelling. And it really allowed for us to give Jim Pickens great material without permanently [removing] him. But there’s going to have to be physical therapy, for sure.
Amelia giving birth with an assist from Bailey (Chandra Wilson) was both a full-circle moment for their short-lived pregnancy club, but also a callback to Bailey’s own birth experience with George (T.R. Knight) in the second season. What was the inspiration for that?
I have to give credit to our writer Meg Marinis for that gorgeous moment where Bailey gets into bed with Amelia. Every time I watch it, I burst into spontaneous tears. It is the full-circle of pregnancy club, but it’s also the callback to Season 2 and George and Bailey. It just brings up all that nostalgia. And that was pitched by Meg Marinis, who has been with the show since Season 2. She was a PA, then our medical researcher for years, then a writer, and now she’s an executive producer. She’s been with us 15 seasons, and when she pitched it, we burst into tears. It’s just one of those moments. I think only Meg could have come up with that pitch. She’s been there from the beginning through all of it and it was so full circle. So beautiful.
Amelia and Link have been through a lot in their short time together. Do you anticipate them having a bit of happiness with their new baby, or is there trouble ahead?
You know, it’s funny, we had some difficulty planned for them in these back four, and then watching that journey all season and how long we extended the struggle between them, and how happy we all felt when they got together, I had just said to the writers [before we shut down], “Let’s just let them be happy for the rest of the season.” So now the rest of the season was just this episode. But I think that that mandate will carry into Season 17. I think we’re going to give them a break. [Laughs] It’s nice to see those two happy. They’ve been through a lot.
The baby-naming storyline was in Episode 22. So I’m going to protect [those details], because I suspect it’ll be a part of the Season 17 premiere.
Jo (Camilla Luddington) has gone through an understandable roller coaster since Alex (Justin Chambers) left, but she’s been discussing what it might even take to put herself back out there. Was that something that was going to be playing out in the final episodes of Season 16? And do you consider Alex’s story entirely closed, or might he pop up via texts to Meredith or others?
Oh, gosh, I just don’t know. I think we should talk again in May after I’ve had a few weeks with the writers.
What we had planned was a lot of Levi-Jo comedy. And I feel like Camilla has earned the right to play some lighter story. And it has always been my experience that there is a way to grieve that is dramatic, and there is a way to grieve that is largely comedic, both in life and on television. And we’ve been leaning into letting her play the comedy. We’ll probably stick with that plan moving into Season 17.
Even though DeLuca was correct about Richard, he did end up emotionally crashing by the end of the episode. Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) seems to be gravitating more toward McWidow, aka Hayes (Richard Flood), but still clearly cares about her ex. Where is her head at right now with them?
Giacomo gave such a gorgeous performance here. [DeLuca] had a massive win — and then his brain chemicals plummeted him down out of mania and into depression. And that’s what you saw there: what goes up must come down, and he came really far down. And I find myself really wondering, now what’s going to happen? I don’t know if DeLuca has lived so much life now, through this experience of this illness, that suddenly he’s more of a man who can hold his own with Meredith. Or, if in the time that he was ill, he did so much damage that Meredith considers him a friend now, but is more interested in McWidow. I don’t know. That’s the big conversation for when we get back to the writers’ room.
It feels like the show could feasibly be heading towards the end of a number of characters’ storylines. Are you anticipating any sort of cast shake-up next season?
I, at this point, do not have a plan to shake up the cast next season. I feel like there’s still a lot of stories to tell. Sometimes, when I’m watching the show, over the years, I get a feeling of character fatigue or feeling like it’s time to wrap that up. And I’m just not feeling that. I feel like there’s a lot of story moving forward for everyone.
This year, there was the benefit of knowing the show was renewed for next season. What conversations have there been with Ellen and the network and studio about the show’s future beyond this year?
It is an ongoing conversation. And I always say the same thing: I will plan the end of the show, when [series creator] Shonda [Rhimes] and Ellen and ABC all tell me that the show is over. [Laughs] I never believe it anymore. I don’t know what’s happening. I hope to know soon-ish, because if it is last season, I would like to plan it. But I just don’t know yet.
Certainly the world is ever-evolving right now, but at this point have there been conversations about whether the coronavirus would be incorporated into Season 17?
We have not had those conversations. It is a thing that I’ve been thinking about a little bit. If our world is really changed for the next year, which it feels like it might be, it feels like handshaking and hugging might be a thing that we don’t resume right away. I think it’s going to feel weird if the “Grey’s Anatomy” world is not reflecting that. But on the flip side, people need an escape right now.
But I don’t know. When I watch TV right now and people are shaking hands and hugging, it feels like a show from a different era. [Laughs] So I look forward to having the writers together — weighing the pros and cons together. We make those decisions as a group. I have a tremendous team of writers. And so I don’t want to make too many decisions without them, because when I do, I ended up changing my mind.
“Station 19” was heavily incorporated into “Grey’s Anatomy” this year, as the worlds really merged. Is the plan for that to continue next season?
I have not had those conversations yet. I think the reality is, normally, all of these conversations would have begun by now. But the fact is, all the Hollywood, we’re all [taking care of our lives] in a way that normally other people are helping us with those things while we run shows and have those conversations. So while officially we’re all still working, there’s a bit of a slow down to the pace at which we can have those discussions. So my genuine answer is I don’t know. I don’t know because I spend my whole day cleaning up behind three teenagers.
With a year of experience running the shared world under your belt, was there a particularly valuable lesson you learned?
The only thing I I’m working on is continuing to delegate. I feel like I have tremendous people who are tremendously good at their jobs. And the key to running two shows is letting everybody do more. And that’s what I’m working on. But in terms of the creative process, I’m really proud of what we managed this season. I don’t know if we want it to all cross over as much next year or not. At this point, “Station 19” is largely standing on its own, and I’m proud of that. Now it’s do we want to do more, do we want to keep merging? It’s been really fun to expand the world of our characters. Do we want to keep doing it or do we feel like we did it and want to do something else? I don’t know.