Grey's Anatomy recap: 'Only Mama Knows'
In honor of Throwback Thursday, this hour of Grey’s Anatomy wasn’t just throwing us back to the days of Ellis Grey and Richard Webber. It was also throwing us back to the type of episode we expected from this show in the early seasons, the type of episode that gave you chills and reminded you why this show is so good at drama. And at the center of that, as always, was dark-and-twisty Meredith. Only this time, we were learning exactly why she’s so dark and twisty from a new perspective: from Ellis’ perspective, and Richard’s, and even young Meredith’s.
We start with Meredith watching a tape of a speech her mother gave about being the only woman in her surgical program and getting published in the Journal of American Medicine. She talked about the audacity it took for her, a woman, to name her method after herself—The Grey Method—and how the boys roared about it. And as Mer watches, we see something that’s a rarity for Meredith when it comes to her mother—she’s proud.
As Mer puts it, this is how her mother wanted to be remembered. But because memory is faulty and unique to every individual, everyone’s memory of Ellis Grey is different. For Meredith, she remembers the mother who tried to kill herself in their kitchen. She remembers the mother who called her nothing more than “ordinary.” She remembers the mother with Alzheimer’s. But in this moment, she realizes that maybe some of her memories got jumbled up over time. “No memory is perfect or complete,” she says. “We are in one place, then another, and it all feels like one, long, inescapable moment.” It’s now that we get confirmation that the flashbacks that kicked off the season were two separate entities. There was the time that Richard left Ellis and she tried to kill herself. And then separately, there was the time she went to the hospital to give birth to Maggie. It took this long for Meredith to be able to tell them apart because, like Ellis always said, “The carousel never stops turning.”
Speaking of, Meredith is once again arguing with Derek about how he’s waiting for her to pay for his sacrifice, waiting for her to fail. She says she’s done measuring her accomplishments against his and he needs to stay out of her way. His response? “You sound like your mother.” In other words, McDreamy just said the meanest thing possible to his beloved. But in a way, it’s a beautiful parallel that the show is building. Although Meredith is nothing like her mother in many ways, she’s starting to understand the struggle between a fulfilled personal life and a fulfilled professional life. Ellis might’ve been extreme, but her situation is relatable.
In fact, Meredith decides she needs to know more in able to relate. She asks Richard for Ellis’ journal from the spring of 1983. She needs to know what happened when everything fell apart between them. And through flashbacks, we learn exactly that.
After a young Richard and a young Ellis decide that they need to be together to be happy, they make a pact. They will both leave their spouses and finally start their life together. Only, on the day they are supposed to tell their spouses their decision, Ellis learns that The Grey Method has earned her her first Harper Avery nomination, which also marks the first time a resident has been nominated. It was the greatest moment in Ellis’ professional life, and it was also the moment that ended her relationship with Richard.
NEXT: Sister, sister
As Richard would eventually confess to Meredith, he was jealous of Ellis and not in a healthy-competition sort of way. His jealousy was hateful, as if she were too far ahead for him to ever catch up. “Her success illuminated everything I hadn’t yet accomplished,” Richard says in yet another beautiful parallel to Meredith’s current relationship woes with Derek. Before Richard could tell Adele the truth, he found himself thinking that he would spend his entire life feeling like this, being in Ellis’ shadow. “So I ruined it,” he says. And as a result, Ellis went home and attempted suicide.
Intercut with a flashback to Richard’s speech to Ellis in her hospital room in season 3, he apologizes to Meredith, who realizes she would’ve had a whole other life had he chosen Ellis. “I made the wrong choice for the wrong reason,” he says. And he’s so sorry. You hear that Mer? Don’t make the wrong choice with Derek for the wrong reason.
Speaking of Derek, he finally finds his way into the loop in this episode when Amelia asks him to assist Maggie on a surgery and convince her not to resign. And after Maggie greatly impresses Derek in surgery—she paralyzes a man and then miraculously fixes her mistake—he asks for the truth. She points him to Meredith, who spends her three minutes with him arguing about his “like your mother” comment before he returns to Maggie, who fesses up. When she tells him that she’s Meredith’s sister, Derek finally has the reaction that Maggie has been waiting for. He’s happy. He’s so happy that he gives her a nice, long (and awkward) hug. He tells her that Meredith is “terrible” with sisters, but Derek? He’s not. He tells Maggie not to leave until they talk again, and then he gives her that McDreamy smile we’ve been missing that all but guarantees she’s not going anywhere.
Derek then finds his way back to Meredith, where he puts a halt on their fighting. Mer tries to fight even that, but he stands by his truce… because she has a sister and he needs to know that she’s okay. Meredith finally calms down enough to recall the memory of her mother being pregnant. She remembers how Ellis’ water broke on the kitchen floor and how it scared her because it reminded her of her mother’s suicide attempt. She remembers Ellis moving them across town after giving birth and how, afterward, Ellis started her fellowship and Meredith started first grade. She remembers.
So before Maggie can leave, Meredith asks to show her something. She pulls out Ellis’ journal from 1983 and shows Maggie what she can. Ellis wasn’t a warm person, but the journal showed wine stains from when Ellis would write her thoughts every night. And around the time Ellis figured out she was pregnant, the wine stains stopped and were replaced with lists of everything Ellis ate that day. It’s not much but it’s enough to show she wanted the baby to be healthy. Ellis Grey tried. And that’s a new memory Meredith can add to her list, because as she puts it, memories are “our most valuable possessions. They made us who we are.”
And for Ellis, who we are isn’t just about our successes but also our mistakes. Finally hearing the end of her speech, Ellis says she dedicated her first Harper Avery to “all the women surgeons who would come after me.” In other words, she dedicated it to her daughters.
It was a great hour of television filled with meaningful lessons. There were big surgeries. There were lighthearted moments. Alex found himself becoming the new Arizona, and Bailey found herself offering parenting advice to Richard. But more than anything, this episode focused everything on the dark-and-twisty side of Meredith in the best possible way. Meredith’s relationship with her mother will always be one of the show’s most heartbreaking and most riveting. It’s rich with drama, and put in the hands of Kate Burton and Ellen Pompeo, it’s mesmerizing.
If this is what we can expect from a “Season of Meredith,” then count me in. Seriously.
Check out Natalie Abrams’ post-mortem to find out what’s next for Meredith and Maggie.
Meredith. Alex. Bailey. The doctors are definitely in on Shonda Rhimes' hospital melodrama.