SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t watched the March 11 crossover episodes of “Station 19” (“Train in Vain”) and “Grey’s Anatomy” (“Helplessly Hoping”) on ABC.
RIP, Andrew DeLuca: surgical attending at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, ex-boyfriend of Meredith Grey, brother of Carina DeLuca, and, as of ABC’s crossover episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19″ on Thursday night, murder victim by the hand of a henchman in a trafficking ring. Yes, DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) was stabbed by one of the human traffickers he and Carina (Stefania Spampinato) had chased through Seattle, and despite receiving care at his own hospital, he died. But his efforts weren’t in vain, we learn: The traffickers are all arrested.
It was the culmination of a “Grey’s Anatomy” story that had been cut short by the COVID-19 production shutdown in March. In what turned out to be one of the final episodes of Season 16, DeLuca suspected a patient was being trafficked by her so-called “aunt” who had brought her to the hospital, but because he was in the middle of a manic episode, no one believed him. In the midseason finale of “Grey’s” in December, DeLuca — medicated for his bipolar disorder, well-rested and clear-eyed — spotted the trafficker, Opal (Stephanie Kurtzuba), and this time, he wasn’t going to let her get away.
In an interview with Gianniotti, who was on “Grey’s” for seven seasons, he said that when he learned how his character was going to die, he’d wanted to make sure that it was apparent that DeLuca — “a very brave and noble person,” in Gianniotti’s words — go out as “a pillar of representation for people struggling with mental health.”
“It wasn’t that he was unmedicated and unrested, and that’s what led him to put himself in a dangerous situation,” Gianniotti said. “This was the most DeLuca thing DeLuca has ever done.”
In the episode, as DeLuca hovered between life and death, he communed with Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) on the beach where she has spent most of this season, also in a liminal state, having been taken down by COVID in the season premiere. There, Meredith has hung out with Derek (Patrick Dempsey), her dead husband, and George (T.R. Knight), her dead friend — as well as characters who are still alive.
Of his beach scenes with Meredith, Gianniotti said: “You see DeLuca more happy and relaxed than you’ve ever seen him ever on the show, because all of those stressors are all gone. And he’s with the person whom he loves, which puts them even more at peace.”
“Grey’s Anatomy” — now its 17th season, and still the one most watched shows on television — is itself in limbo, according to showrunner Krista Vernoff. With negotiations with Pompeo for a contract extension ongoing, Vernoff told Variety she has to “plan for both contingencies” as she and the writers room map out the end of the season — or the series.
Though DeLuca is dead, Vernoff revealed that we haven’t seen the last of him — that’s what the beach is for, it seems. And Gianniotti, mentored by “Grey’s” executive producer-director Debbie Allen, returned recently to direct an episode that will air in the spring. He will miss the fans, Gianniotti said: “I’ve never seen a show be so beloved. To feel that love, and have felt that love over the seven seasons has really been remarkable.”
As Vernoff said, “He’s still in the family.”
In an interview, Vernoff talked about how she conceived of DeLuca’s death, the difficulties of not knowing whether the show is ending and how shooting during COVID has changed “Grey’s Anatomy.”
And what in God’s name is happening on the beach!?!
You killed DeLuca.
I’m the worst.
How did this story come about?
Honestly, the story told itself to me. I went for my walk on the beach to come up with my pitches, and these episodes came in whole cloth, like a vision. And I was like, “Oh, no! Really, that’s the story?” And it was. We knew as I pitched it that it was the midseason finale story.
Sometimes stories tell themselves to you, and your heart just breaks. You’re like, “That’s not what I want the end of that story to be!” But that’s so much of life this year.
Can you talk about killing a major character this season, and having the cause of death not be COVID?
That was born, I’m certain, of my psyche wrestling with all of the ongoing tragedies and traumas in the world not stopping due to COVID. There’s this feeling of injustice, like, no, COVID is enough. But sometimes you’re going through all of it at once.
Can you talk about putting DeLuca on the beach with Meredith, and the larger meaning of the beach as a storytelling device this year?
The beach was born out of desire to have an escape from the pandemic.
We came back before almost anyone else. And the actors were scared, and nobody really knew for sure that all the safety protocols were going to work. Doing the pandemic felt like the right thing creatively, but it also felt like the thing that was going to make the actors feel safe to come back to work, because they were all going to be able to be in masks. And if they weren’t, they would be outside. And once the decision was made to do COVID, and then the decision was made to give Meredith COVID, it felt like a way to get Meredith outside without a mask, and in a non-pandemic world.
If you’re a magical thinker like I am, that beach is a real magical in-between place. But if you’re not, if you are not a believer in magical things — if you are an atheist, a scientist, a whatever, my stepsons don’t believe in a magical place — we’ve designed it very carefully so that it also could just be a dream. So anytime someone’s on that beach with Meredith, they are also in her room so she’s hearing their voices from her hospital bed.
When DeLuca visits her on the beach, for me, DeLuca’s between life and death. For my stepsons, Meredith heard in her hospital room that something happened to DeLuca. So now she’s dreaming DeLuca! I wanted very much for the motif to work no matter what you believed.
It just feels to me like whatever you believe, that’s right.
DeLuca has been on the show for a long time. What did you want his final episode to say about him?
I think he went out a hero. I think that he went out fighting for what he believed in. And he was through his mental health crisis. He’d become a very productive member of the hospital staff. And he wasn’t going to let this woman walk away again.
What was it like when you told Giacomo Gianniotti what was going to happen to DeLuca?
He was so relieved that I was not having him kill himself, or go out in a mania frenzy. And he was excited to play it — he played the hell out of it. He actually does appear in a couple more episodes this season. And he’s directing an episode.
I’m going to assume that Meredith wakes up and finds out that he’s dead. Do you see the beach as a place she’ll have an awareness or a memory of in any way?
I don’t have too much more to say about that, because I don’t want to spoil too much. And also: Sometimes I change my mind. But at the moment, yes.
It’s been such a heavy season for both “Grey’s” and “Station 19,” reflecting the world right now. But I know that’s not necessarily where your heart is as a storyteller. Can you talk about where the thinking is on continuing “Grey’s Anatomy”?
When you’re living through a pandemic, and you’re coming back amidst a pandemic, and you decide to do the pandemic, the nature of the storytelling turns a little bit darker. And so for this moment, it is where my heart is.
And I also feel like my heart as a storyteller, my sense of light, and my sense of hope and beauty and joy that infuses most of what I do is expressed through that beach. The joy, the collective joy for all of us in getting to see Derek Shepherd again, getting to see George O’Malley again, in getting out of the hospital and getting onto the beach, and seeing Meredith’s relief there — I know that we’re worried about her, but also there’s joy.
And in terms of whether or not it’s the last season of “Grey’s Anatomy,” I don’t know. And that’s the truth. I wish I knew. It’s a source of frustration at this point. And it sort of doubles my job, my workload, because I have to plan for both contingencies. But I am. And God willing, I’ll know soon.
It can’t end like this! Can you reveal how many episodes will be in this season of “Grey’s Anatomy”?
That’s a lot.
It is a lot. Yeah, it’s a lot, considering what we’re navigating.
Will anyone else be joining Meredith on the beach?
Yes! But I won’t tell you.
Returning cast members or current?
There are some surprises in store.
Now that you have shot more than half the season during COVID, can you talk about what you’ve learned over the course of the year?
The crew is exhausted because they’re behind masks and visors all day. The masks and visors are dehydrating and stultifying, and as a result, you need more breaks. You need to send everybody off the stage to take their masks and visors off to hydrate. You can’t ask everybody to be there for 12 or 13 hours at a stretch. So we’re shooting 10-hour days. And that is a really significant change to what we’re able to accomplish and shoot.
What I’ve learned, and I’m continuing to learn, is how to write the show in a way that makes it producible — we cannot have scenes with as many characters in them. And we cannot have as many scenes. And we cannot have as many locations! Because we can’t have as many company moves. All of it has to become smaller, and that changes the stories we tell. If you usually have five or six people in a scene, and now you usually have two people in a scene, sometimes the whole cast isn’t in the episode. You look at an episode and you’re like, “Where’s Amelia?” Well, she’s home with the kids! We didn’t make the company move.
I think that there are silver linings: Deeper, longer richer scenes are really beautiful things sometimes. But they’re different for “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel, both for these fictional characters and for all of us?
Yes, I do! I feel like we’re all living the light at the end of the tunnel right now as our parents and grandparents get vaccinated. And as we begin to emerge, hopefully, from this year of cocoon. I feel like we’re living in in some light, and I do see a light at the end of the tunnel for these characters, whether this is the end of the series or the end of the season.
There’s so much coming up! I know this one is going to be devastating for the fans. And I feel it too. I cried harder watching this episode, this cut, than I’ve cried since I watched the episode where George O’Malley died. And that is a really powerful tribute to the character that we built and to the actor.
This interview has been edited and condensed.