'My goal is always that every season feels like its own special animal,' she says
Another doctor has vacated Grey Sloan Memorial, but when Grey’s Anatomy returns, Callie’s (Sara Ramirez) move to New York won’t be as devastatingly heartbreaking to the hospital as it was to the audience.
“It’s not this sense of loss,” executive producer Shonda Rhimes tells EW. “In our world, Callie still exists.”
But the move does provide the long-running drama a unique opportunity to shift the focus back to the four remaining original characters. “Meredith will always be the nucleus because she’s the voice, but to have the four originals still is pretty amazing,” Justin Chambers, who plays Alex, says of his fellow mainstays, including Bailey (Chandra Wilson) and Webber (James Pickens Jr.).
For Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), this season delves into the struggle of how to move forward. After facing the near-impossible task of healing in the wake of Derek’s death, “She’s in a place of What’s next?” Rhimes says. “How do you grow up from there? What are the next steps when you’re ready to step out on your own?” Part of that next step is navigating the murky waters of a love triangle with recent rebound Riggs (Martin Henderson) and Meredith’s half sister Maggie (Kelly McCreary) — though don’t expect a catfight. “What I love is that we’re not ever a show that’s about a guy coming between two women, because I really feel like that’s never interesting,” Rhimes says.
Focusing on the OGs also means calling back the dynamics of the early seasons — “Symmetry is a thing on this show, because the audience loves familiarity,” Pompeo notes — while making season 13 feel fresh. “My goal is always that every season feels like its own special animal,” Rhimes says.
Case in point: Alex reverts to his jerky self of the old days in the wake of pummeling DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti), believing the intern was making a move on a drunken Jo (Camilla Luddington). It turns out her name isn’t even Jo Wilson, and she’s still married to the abusive man she ran away from. “Meredith suffered a violent attack last year and very much overcame it, and this idea that women are often treated in this way is disturbing to me,” Rhimes says of the show taking on the issue of violence against women. “But it’s also very interesting to me to get to tell the story of Jo from this perspective of somebody who has walked away from a past that happened so long ago and might have to face it again.” Below, Rhimes goes in-depth on season 13:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The show is putting focus back on the remaining original characters. How is that resonating in the stories in season 13?
SHONDA RHIMES: It just means that part of what we’re doing is we’re really telling stories that are about — our story arcs this season are about Meredith, about Alex, about Bailey, and about Richard, and that’s where we’re pointing our compass right now.
Does season 13 therefore feel in the spirit of those early seasons?
My goal is always that every season feels like it’s its own special animal, so I don’t think that would be a totally accurate thing to say. But I think it does feel really good.
As you’re leaning into stories about the originals, everyone on set seemed very happy and very much like this is something that they want to continue doing. Was it therefore then really easy for you to get everyone to come back for season 13?
You know what was hilarious to me about all this reporting about everybody was coming back? How do I say this without getting in trouble? The news stories that always get reported don’t really have much to do with the timing of reality. So the flurry of reports about who was coming back was really late for us. It didn’t really have anything to do with our lives. So it was not a concern of mine. I was way past being concerned about that stuff because it didn’t really have any effect on us. I always think it’s interesting how long it takes people to get a hold of something that by that time I was like, “What? They’re actually reporting that? They think that’s a story at this point?”
What I love is, because we’ve all been together so long and we’ve all been a family for so long, there’s no like, “Oh, I’m going to hold my breath and cross my fingers and hope to see what happens.” We have these conversations. It’s like when I say I go to Sandra [Oh] at the beginning of every year and say like, “Are you going to do it again?” because I know her and I know where her head is at. I sort of know where everybody’s head is at and we all have these conversations endlessly about what we want to do, how long we want to keep doing it, and how long we want to be creative for in this way. It’s not really about crossing your fingers, holding your breath, and wondering what’s going to happen, which I feel really fortunate about, and it’s because everybody is so mature, and we’ve all had this relationship for so long.
With the season picking up right where we left off, how does Meredith react to being in a love triangle again?
I never thought of it as being a love triangle. It’s not really a love triangle. For a love triangle to be a love triangle, I think all three people have to actually be involved. A. I don’t know that she’s in love. B. I think she’s taking care of her sister and that’s part of it. She’s now got an actual family that she’s surrounded herself with, and now she feels responsible for them.
What does Meredith feel for Riggs right now?
I think she’s got an attraction. There’s an attraction for him, absolutely, and I don’t think she’s actually taken the time to figure out what it is. I’m not sure she’s even ready to make that decision at this point when we come back into the season.
With Maggie admitting her feelings for Riggs, does that force Meredith to face her feelings head-on?
I don’t know that that’s necessarily what happens. In a weird way, it gives her an ability to not have to face that decision head on.
How does this affect her dynamic with Maggie?
What I love is that we’re not ever a show that’s about a guy coming between two women, because I really feel like that’s never interesting. So I don’t think it affects her dynamic with her sister as much as it’s about who she’s going to be and how she’s going to decide to deal with the situation.
Maggie has admitted she has feelings for Riggs totally unaware that her sister has slept with him. How do you think Maggie would feel knowing that this was kept from her?
What I love about it is it’s this very innocent moment of Meredith had no idea that any of this would turn into a problem in this way, and Maggie had no idea any of this would turn into a problem in this way. He’s just a guy that she likes that she thinks might like her, and Meredith has this secret dream about this guy that she was not planning on getting involved with. I don’t think that, for either of them, anybody is doing anything wrong, because I don’t think either of them really set out to do anything in that way. I don’t know that it’s a hurtful act.
If last season was about bringing these three sisters together, is this year about pulling them apart?
I don’t think this season is about pulling them apart. What’s really nice is that, in a weird way, I feel like we’ve grown them up in a really great way. We allowed Meredith to have a family in a way that she hasn’t had before. She’s got this relationship going with her sisters, and they really helped her through what was an extraordinarily traumatic time. Now she’s in a place where she’s in that step of What’s next? How do you grow up from there? And I think they’re all struggling with that. What are the next steps that come from when you’re ready to step out on your own?
Amelia has gotten married, what does that mean? I love the fact that the last episode was “Oh my God, what the heck am I doing?” because she did do something awfully fast with not that much thought put into it. So she’s married somebody. We’ve got Maggie, who is jumping out there and thinking like, “I’m going to find love with somebody,” and being completely oblivious to the social cues around her. And you’ve got Meredith who is dipping her toes in the water and trying to figure out if she even wants to be dipping her toes in the water. So for them it’s really about what’s next.
Speaking of what’s next, in the finale, Alex beat DeLuca within an inch of his life. Can you talk about the consequences of his actions both legally and professionally?
There are going to be some really big consequences. We talked about it a lot in the writer’s room, how we were going to deal with this, and what we thought made sense, and I really wanted to tell a story that felt true. What happens when you really screw up? Alex is a guy who has worked really hard to grow up, and be a responsible adult, and to not be the kid he was when we first met him. To find himself in this position I think is just interesting for him as a character because he is in this place of growth. He is a character who every single time he has become involved with a woman, that woman has, in some way, destroyed him. We are going to watch what happens for him now and how that challenges him and changes him.
Justin has intimated that we’re seeing an Alex that is more like the jerk of the earlier seasons.
I think people who are hurt revert to their less mature selves a lot of the time. He is hurt and he doesn’t quite know how to cope with that. What I love is that he and Meredith are trying to get through it together, and she’s trying to take care of him, and he’s trying to take care of her, and at times they don’t appreciate each other’s methods.
How will what Alex did divide the hospital?
I’m not as keen on the concept that it’s going to divide the hospital. It definitely poses some problems for the people in charge. It definitely poses some problems for Bailey, who has worked really hard to be in charge and to find a place of leadership, then to find herself in a situation that is really volatile, and a very volatile workplace is not a lot of fun. The idea that one of her employees has attacked another one of her employees, what is she going to do and how is she going to cope? That world is really interesting to watch her survive in, especially when it’s supposed to be a teaching environment; it’s supposed to be a nurturing environment.
And I love the fact that we’re going to get to know DeLuca a lot better, who we don’t know at all, and who we’ve just started to scratch the surface of. Now, because this thing has happened to him, he has found himself in a spotlight that he was not interested in ever being in.
How is what Alex did going to affect his relationship with Jo?
I think that is going to be the key. That relationship is going to be deeply affected — I don’t think that there’s any way it couldn’t be after what he did, after what happened. There’s no way to have that occur and to expect that there aren’t going to be any consequences.
One of the more shocking moments at the end of the season is that Jo Wilson is not actually Jo Wilson. Where did this idea come from and what more are we actually going to learn about her this season?
Oddly enough, that concept is something that we — the writers — have talked about for years, and have always been like, “Is this the right time? Is this the right time?” We’ve been trying to figure out when to deploy that. It felt right at this moment in time because Jo’s backstory has always been very intriguing to us, and this idea that she is now fully who she says she is, and that she is somebody who has reinvented herself. I love her as being somebody who has reinvented herself. I also love her as being somebody who has overcome a lot of really, really bad things to make something of her life. She’s a survivor. The idea that she’s a survivor and that very act of being that person is threatening to that relationship is interesting. The fact that Alex is a guy who his response is to beat somebody up is a little problematic.
You’re introducing a story of domestic violence this year with Jo’s past. How big will that feature and why was it important to showcase that this year?
I don‘t think that I ever think about doing things, like, “Oh, we’re doing a domestic violence story as an issue.” It felt like it was time to tell Jo’s story, and it felt like it was time to tell Jo’s story especially in the context of Alex, who he is and how he grew up. Alex is so defined by who he used to be and who he is trying to become, and so is Jo. So those stories were very interesting to me. Meredith suffered a violent attack last year and very much overcame it. This idea that women are often treated in this way is disturbing to me, but it’s also very interesting to me to get to tell the story of Jo from this perspective of somebody who has walked away from a past that happened so long ago, and might have to face it again.
How does Callie’s absence at the hospital resonate with all the other doctors?
We felt really good about it because of the way we got to let her go, surprisingly. I mean, it wasn’t what I expected, but it did feel surprising like, “Oh, wait, we did get to let her go and she did get to take her daughter with her.” So we’re not playing that there’s been a devastating loss. We’re playing that Callie went to New York, so that’s where Callie is, and it’s helpful to get to play it that way. There’s not as much of a big hole left, which is great. We’re playing that Arizona gets to go visit her daughter and her daughter gets to come see her, so it’s not this sense of loss. In our world, Callie still exists.
Is there room for her to return? And will you be introducing a new ortho doctor?
Yes, there’s always room in my world for pretty much everybody in the Grey’s family, I like to say, who is still alive. There’s always room for Callie Torres, and Sara knows that. We’ve talked about that a lot. And two, I don’t know that I’ve thought about a new ortho doctor. I don’t think of the doctors in terms of their specialties. It really is about “Oh, is this going to be an interesting character? Is that going to be an interesting character?” So I don’t know if we’re going to introduce a new ortho doc or not.
You previously mentioned Arizona would get a love interest last season. Are we finally seeing that this year?
We are. We’re absolutely going to see it. Jessica was very, very delightfully pregnant at the end of last year, and so she’s not in the first two episodes — which everybody brace yourselves for — because she’s taking a little bit of time off for kids, but then she’s back. I’m very excited to introduce a love interest for her, and to get to tell a story with her that lets her be who she is, and to see who she is post the relationships that she’s had. I think that’s going to be fun and interesting to do. And to do it organically, you know? You don’t want to just stick two people together. I want to do it organically and I want the audience to be rooting for it. So I think we’re going to have fun with it.
Do you know who that love interest is yet?
Is there anything you would like to share about this love interest?
Jackson and April, can you talk about how they’re coparenting this season?
Yeah. You know, we really had a lot of fun talking about, in a much lighter way, what it means to be uncoupled, to be divorced, and to have a kid, and how you do that? Like, how you do it with a new baby. The idea [is] that maybe they’re going to really try to do this in a healthy way, and is that healthy way going to feel so healthy when they still have feelings for each other? Those feelings are still there. Just because they couldn’t make it work doesn’t mean that they don’t still really care about each other. We’re going to get to do this in a lighter, more fun way, of how it feels to see your ex go out on a date, and do you try to sabotage it a little bit? There’s some flirting that happens. We think we can have a little fun with it versus being sort of dark and grim.
Can you talk a little bit about what we’re seeing for Bailey and Ben?
Yeah. With them too, the other thing that I really look forward to and I love is I love seeing this very healthy couple that truly loves each other, that can fight and get along and be sexy and feel real, that we can enjoy watching be a couple with all of the ups and downs of whatever that means. That feels rare on television. Everybody is always very dramatically one way or the other, and I think that there’s something delightful about watching this couple, that is going to make it, struggle through life. We’re going to really get to enjoy that, even if Bailey gets jealous of somebody, or even if he’s having a hard time with her job, there’s something lovely about watching them figure this thing out together.
How about for Webber as a doctor this year? Also, are we going to be seeing more of Webber and Maggie’s relationship?
We are going to be seeing more of Webber and Maggie’s relationship. We are also going to be seeing more of Webber as a leader and as a person who is taking care of the younger doctors. We’re also going to be seeing a little bit of Webber as a grandfather, which we think is very charming because he really is this wonderful guy who stepped into being a part of Catherine and Jackson’s family, which I think is wonderful. But yeah, we’re going to see him grow his relationship with Maggie, and grow his relationship with some of the other doctors that he’s mentoring.
What’s next for Stephanie?
We’re going to get to have some really interesting episodes with her, because I think that there is a lot of undiscovered country with her. I thought we had some really good camaraderie between Amelia and Stephanie. They were really interesting together last year and I loved getting to watch her grow as a surgeon and as a student. We’re going to really try to explore that some more. I also loved getting to tell the story of her having a love interest and what that was like and watching her in that way. So it’ll be really fun to do some more of that.
For Owen, what does his relationship with Riggs look like this year? Can they reconcile? And also, is his sister actually dead?
The first question, his relationship with Riggs is really a very large question of the season. How does that relationship reconcile, what does it look like? We were joking, like how does a man who is married to someone like Amelia, who loves to talk everything out and take all 12 steps of everything, how does somebody like him who doesn’t want to talk about anything, how does he cope with this when she’s a very much let’s heal kind of person? So watching him deal with this will be very interesting. As for whether or not the sister is dead, I think that’s interesting that people think that’s a question, but that’s an interesting question.
That you’re not going to answer.
Of course not.
Grey’s Anatomy returns Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.