In a special, thought-provoking episode, the minds behind Grey's imagined a surprisingly different reality for the doctors of Seattle Grace

Grey's Anatomy, Ellen Pompeo
Credit: Vivian Zink/ABC

The previews for “If/Then” — Grey’s Anatomy’s new episode last night — looked like one egregious, what-if gag after another: Karev looks like Clark Kent! Meredith has stick-straight hair! Cristina is a bigger bitch than she normally is! Bailey is a soft-spoken nerd with dreadlocks! Ellis Grey is alive and working it hardcore at Seattle Grace! The episode was touted as a look at what would have happened if things had been different for our favorite television doctors — what I’m dubbing Bizarro Seattle Grace — but initially, it looked simply like it should have instead been titled “If The Doctors Had Bad Stylists/Then They’d Look Like This.”

Admittedly, there was a focus on changing the looks of some of the doctors — I’m not exactly sure why that was so supremely necessary, other than to drive home the point that these were different versions of the beloved characters we know — but, just a minute or two in, it became clear that this episode was about more than just how the medical professionals styled their hair. If you didn’t pick it up by the end of the hour, “If/Then” was about destiny and how — no matter the windy, horrible path you’re on — you may still arrive at the same place the universe had intended all along.

Trusty voice-over master Meredith Grey guided us into the odd — and, I’m just going to say it brutally here, somewhat pointless — premise. “What if one little thing I said or did could have made it all fall apart? What if I’d chosen another life for myself? Or another person? We might never have found each other,” she began at the top of the episode. “What if I’d been raised different? What if my mother had never been sick? What if I’d actually had a good father? What if? What if? What if?…” What if, indeed! Let the dream begin!

Her hallucination or dream — whatever you want to call it — encompassed changes for most of the Seattle Grace crew: A sulky Derek was still with a pregnant Addison (Kate Walsh returns yet again! What if she hadn’t gotten a spin-off?), although they were unhappy together. Ellis Grey was the chief at Seattle Grace and happily married to a rather submissive Richard Webber, who had helped raise a seemingly well-adjusted Meredith Webber. (Yes, you read that right — Meredith Webber.) Callie was married to Owen, who was dealing with post-Iraq issues. (Teddy was nothing but a mention in passing, by Callie, who thought she was a male friend helping him through his stress via Skype.) Cristina was a loner — shocking! — and a stealth surgeon who everyone hated because of her surly demeanor and the fact that she slept with Dr. Burke, who had apparently left the state after their affair. (There were lots of winks like this — mostly to departed characters — throughout the episode.)

NEXT: Bailey is a nerd, Karev wears horn-rimmed glasses, and a few doctors get no Bizarro-self updates

Bailey was a nerdy, dreadlocked doctor who wouldn’t speak up for herself and was accustomed to being pushed around. Meredith was engaged to an adorably horn-rimmed Karev, who had the sunniest outlook at Seattle Grace. Lexie wasn’t even a doctor: She was a druggie who’d over-dosed and was brought into Seattle Grace for treatment. Even the departed — the not-so-dearly gone Izzie and the dearly gone George — even got mentions: Izzie was referenced as a crazy intern who had slept with a patient (Denny!) and stole a heart for him before being fired, while George was no longer dead but, instead, had flunked his intern exam and had never been heard from again. Another fun detail of this episode was seeing Dr. Charles Percy back and alive, after he’d died so tragically in the famous Seattle Grace shooting episode. (It would have been nice, in another winky moment, to have seen him and Bailey have a little bit of interaction.)

Three doctors oddly got little update: Kepner, Arizona, and Avery seemed to be the same characters we’d always known them to be. Sure, Arizona was sans Callie, and Kepner was a little more sexually inclined (hello there, Karev!) than we know her as currently and she — instead of Cristina — was Meredith’s “person,” but they were sadly rather unaltered. It was even more pronounced for Avery, who hadn’t changed one iota for the most part. Sadly, none of the actors playing these characters even got to do anything different with hair and makeup. But I guess that’s the hazard of working on a such a huge ensemble: Not every character can be serviced strongly in every episode.

Some of the imagined storylines were duds, mostly glaringly Callie and Owen’s tense relationship and parenting of three slobbering children. I suppose there was nothing too insulting about it, but in the end, it was boring, and haven’t we already seen the post-traumatic stress thing with him? I guess the point there was supposed to be that, without Cristina, he might not have made it through all that successfully. The one interesting thing about the storyline — and this goes back to that destiny thing I mentioned earlier — was the spark you could see developing between Callie and Arizona. It was a little sad, too, knowing that somewhere, deep down inside Callie, were repressed lesbian feelings that she probably wouldn’t act on since she was married to Hunt. Bizarro-Seattle Grace, for the most part, was a icky place.

NEXT: Ellis Grey’s return wins…for the most part

One of the most interesting imaginations was that of Ellis Grey, who never got Alzheimer’s disease and instead ran Seattle Grace while married to the love of her life, Richard Webber. I think the thing that struck me most was how ruthless she was, how obsessed she was with winning accolades and being perceived as perfect, no matter what the cost. (Read: No matter if that meant firing certain doctors, like Miranda “Mandy” Bailey, or making her own daughter feel worthless.) Of all the iterations of Ellis we’ve seen before — whether it was before she died or via flashbacks or dream sequences — I never had the sense that she would have been this wretched of a person. Smart and no-nonsense, sure. But evil? Even to her own daughter? No. I suppose Meredith — who, in last night’s episode, was closer to her stepfather Webber — has always referenced how she wasn’t a very present mother for her, but here she was very much present and very much a monster at the same time. Fascinating.

Naturally, the over-arching destiny theme played out in small hints and stolen moments: Cristina connected with Owen, Arizona and Callie’s blossoming interest in one another, Avery’s obsession with Lexie, Bailey’s coming out as a strong-voiced person. “I just lost my job. Do you see me crying?” Bailey said to Karev, who was moaning about screwing things up with his fiancé Meredith. “I have no earthly idea what to do about it, but do you see me hiding in an elevator whimpering about it? No! Because what do we say, Alex? What do we say? We create our own destiny. Well that’s exactly what I’m going to do. You should, too.” Someone found herself, it seems. Go, Bailey!

It seemed — if this scenario continued to play out — that everyone might, somehow, arrive back at the place where they are in real Grey’s world, but that idea came back to Meredith Grey most poignantly, of course. First, she helped save the drug-addled Lexie, who she didn’t even know was her sister. Would they meet each other? It can’t be said for sure, since this was just one what-if episode, but it seems like it would have been a strong possibility.

More striking was the final scene of the episode, which found her at Joe’s Bar, first with Cristina, who had been there during the saving-Lexie situation. After fighting over a surgery earlier in the day, the two were trying to do the friend thing by celebrating the Lexie save with some tequila. When the conversation was at a lull, we heard Cristina hilariously say: “We don’t have to do that thing where I say something and then you say something and then someone cries and there’s a moment or whatever?” To which Meredith responded: “It’s just that nothing is turning out the way I thought it would. I don’t even recognize my own life.” But one thing was clear: The pair were talking — finally — and this was the beginning of the “maniac” Cristina becoming Meredith’s “person.” Destiny had finally come calling!

NEXT: “You’re just a girl in a bar.”

But even more striking were the Joe’s Bar interactions between Meredith and Derek, who had been cranky to her earlier in the day. “Some things are going to work out as if they were destined to happen,” Meredith voiced over as the pair sat near each other at the bar, with Cristina gone. Hilariously — because of his cranky demeanor — Derek wasn’t known as McDreamy in this alternative future. Instead, the other doctors called him McDreary. Meredith told him that, they laughed, and more tequila was poured, echoing the drunken night they first met in the bar in the Grey’s Anatomy pilot, which aired almost seven years ago now. “You’re just a guy in a bar,” Meredith added, over the scene. “You’re just a girl in a bar.” Coupled with the trouble that Addison and Derek had earlier in the episode — Sloan was the father of her baby, it turned out! — it was more than clear that Meredith’s destiny of finding love with Derek was about to get a big jump-start, but just via a slightly (or very?) different path than has played out over the past eight seasons.

Despite enjoying this all, one big question came to mind as I watched this episode: What’s the point? I get that it’s fun to imagine what might have happened if you had done things differently. We all do that, probably nearly every day — probably to an unhealthy degree. But what a sort of horrible world this bizarro-Seattle Grace was, right? What purpose did this episode serve? Was it supposed to just be a fun, Christmas Carol-style look at what could have been?

The fact is that Meredith couldn’t have done anything about her mother getting Alzheimer’s disease; she couldn’t have done anything about not connecting with Cristina early on; and she couldn’t have done anything about not hooking up with Derek during that initial one-night stand that eventually led to a lasting relationship. Some things just happen as they do. Could she have prevented any of the things in her current life from happening? Could she have made the others happen? Would she have wanted to change them if she could? I guess maybe that was the point: Destiny eventually would take over, no matter the path. I’m putting too much thought into what was supposed to be just a frothy, “What if…” episode, but I can’t help it. Despite any faults, the episode was certainly thought-provoking!

What about you, Grey’s Anatomy viewers? Were you pleased with the show’s “If/Then” imagination of what could have been at Seattle Grace? Which storylines did you love? Which did you hate? Did you find the hour as poignant as it was trying to be?

Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky

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Meredith. Alex. Bailey. The doctors are definitely in on Shonda Rhimes' hospital melodrama.

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