May's season finale crash claims yet another victim as Seattle Grace says goodbye to one of its own
Greys Anatomy Eric Dane
Credit: Karen Neal/ABC

For the first few minutes of tonight's ninth season premiere of Grey's Anatomy, I was convinced we were in the midst of another alterna-reality episode of the ABC soap. My brain knew otherwise, of course, but remember when they did that oddly intriguing and oddly weird "What If?" episode last season? Yep, this return to the Grey's world felt so different that it was reminiscent of the feeling that episode exuded.

So many things were weird: Lexie was dead! There were new interns and residents! Cristina was away working in Minnesota! Karev was headed to Johns Hopkins! There was no sign of Kepner or Arizona! Bailey (Chandra Wilson) was deliriously happy! Derek (Patrick Dempsey) and Callie were shattered with grief! Meredith was tearing around the hospital as the new Bailey/Nazi, nicknamed "Medusa"! Sloan was laying there on life support! Sorry for all the exclamation marks, but they seemed rather necessary, considering how dire all of these things are. Is this the Seattle Grace we left last May when a huge portion of our beloved doctors were stranded after their plane crashed in Idaho? Nope, not exactly—in fact, not at all. Clearly, lots had changed, making this an intriguing hour of television.

Granted, while many things had changed as we zeroed back into Seattle Grace Mercy West after a summer away, some were exactly the same. Like, say, how Meredith opened the hour with her patented monologue that cut right to the chase. "Dying changes everything," Meredith began, foreshadowing the grim hour to come. "The world just keeps on going…without you." Meredith was surely referencing the death of her sister Lexie, who died under a chunk of a plane in May's finale, plus another death to come in this hour, that of Mark Sloan (Eric Dane), who was lying in a hospital bed, on life support, presumably after his internal injuries from the finale's plane crash got the best of him. And that's probably where we should start.

Because it would never be any other way on a show as sudsy as Grey's, creator Shonda Rhimes decided to kill Mark Sloan—also known lovingly as McSteamy, due to his shower-steam-and-towel introduction to Grey's in season 2—in an excruciating and melodramatic way. At the top of the hour, a deadline was set: 5 p.m. We viewers didn't know exactly what the deadline was for, but it wasn't hard to guess, especially after we learned that the life-supported and unresponsive Sloan had a directive in his living will, spelling out that "if after 30 days, there were no signs of recovery," Richard Webber said, "Mark wanted to be let go." And then he added: "That's all we're doing. Honoring his wish."

The weird thing about it whole situation, of course, was the fact that we didn't know how Sloan got to this devastatingly injured point. So his internal injuries must have gotten worse from what we'd seen in the finale? But how exactly? What happened out there in the wilds after last May's finale cut off? It must have been bad if a guy as strong as Sloan couldn't survive—or his injuries must have been just that bad and we didn't know it.

"I keep thinking if I say something big enough or shocking enough he'll open his eyes."

It's very sad, but there was never really even a shred of hope that Sloan would somehow make a miraculous comeback during last night's episode. Sure, Callie (Sara Ramirez) tried her best to make that happen, as she sat crying at his bedside. "I keep thinking if I say something big enough or shocking enough," she told Derek, "he'll open his eyes." Even under such horrible circumstances, her efforts there were worth a laugh—one of the few lighter moments of the evening happened here. "Oh God, it's so hot in here," she said, pushing herself upon Sloan's unmoving body. "I think I'm going to take off my shirt. Oh yeah, that's better—it's so much cooler with my boobs out." But nope, not even that fake-out worked to wake him up—which, considering his love of all things flesh, is shocking.

Sloan's impending death infected the entire episode—and nearly every character. Callie and Derek were bereft, as I mentioned, and in a different way, so was Avery, who sat with his old mentor and read him charts and updated him about patients he was working on. However, again, the march toward death was unwavering, as Avery said goodbye in his own way. "You've taught me a lot," Avery told Sloan, "but I really think I know what I'm doing now, so I'm good." In a way, it signaled a passing of the baton, from Sloan to Avery.

For such a randy, hanky-panky lothario of a guy, Sloan's moment of death was handled with so much dignity—it was refreshing. Granted, leading up to the exact moment, there was tons of Sloan flavor, though, as each act of the episode featured one or two "home videos" from years in the past. We saw Sloan with Derek on his best friend's wedding day, to Addison (Kate Walsh); Sloan attempting to make a sex tape with then-girlfriend Callie; Sloan in surgery with Avery; Sloan telling everyone that his greatest love was Lexie Grey; Sloan with baby Sofia; and Sloan with his baby mamas Callie and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw). The videos so well helped to illustrate what a great guy Sloan ultimately was, because it seems that people mostly just remember all his skirt-chasing and general pig-headedness. The fact is that last night's episode was celebrating a great man, who was a father, a mentor, a friend, and a great doctor.

Seattle Grace says goodbye to McSteamy

So, it was nice, then, that when Richard Webber did pull the plug on Sloan, he did so with so much care. "As indicated in his living will, Dr. Sloan asked that if life-sustaining procedures would only prolong the moment of death that these procedures be discontinued," Webber said, as he stopped the life support. "Dr. Sloan asked that if he was unable to make his own medical decisions, that his directive be honored by his chosen proxy. His final request was that only comfort care be given to him in his final moments. Once the port is removed, he may only hold on for a few minutes. Or the process could take hours. I'm turning the ventilator off." The song that played as Sloan passed away was killer. "How's my heart supposed to be?" the lyrics went. "How's my heart supposed to be without you?" So killer, and so fitting.

At first, I was mad at the Grey's Anatomy writers, for killing off yet another beloved character. Honestly, the finale saw Lexie (Chyler Leigh) go, and now her one true love? In some weird, twisted way, though, there was something oddly symphonic and operatic about him going right after her, though, both via injuries from the same plane crash. It's not the same, but in a way, it has the trappings of Romeo & Juliet. At least they're together in the afterlife? I wouldn't have chosen such a route for Sloan, but as viewers of this show, we all know that no character is safe from a sad end.

Despite seeming otherwise, a few other notable things happened last night. The highlights begin with Bailey continuing her torrid romance with Dr. Ben Warren, who surprised her by showing up unexpectedly. Just as we learned that Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) was becoming something of the new "Nazi"—Bailey's old nickname—we learned that Bailey has been slugged with a new nickname: BCB, or "Booty Call Bailey." Yes, "Booty Call Bailey"! That detail, delivered by Karev as he marched out of Seattle Grace Mercy West for what he thought was the last time, also provided a little levity and hilarity to an otherwise heavy hour.

Speaking of Karev and his exit, that never happened. Which wasn't shocking. Has there been a scrap of news about Justin Chambers leaving the show? Meredith cried to him, and he came running back, meeting up with her at the airport, a location Grey's really loves these days. The other thing that kept him, of course, was when he found out that his orphan program was going to be moved to a new hospital by Seattle Grace's new head of pediatrics.

Where's Yang? And Arizona? The scoop…

Yang (Sandra Oh), meanwhile, was literally elsewhere—in Minnesota, serving as an attending at her new hospital. Unshockingly, she didn't get along well with the folks in the Midwest, who were portrayed as all extremely nice and unable to deal well with her direct, competitive nature. The two doctors she came up against—Rex from Desperate Housewives and Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World—weren't big fans. She directly targeted old Mr. Feeny, saying at one point: "Everyone in the frozen tundra is too polite to say, Hey retire old man, before you kill someone with your brittle, bony hand!" By the end of the episode, Rex was telling her to take some time off. "It's mandatory, Yang, starting now!" The question is: How long before she's back in Seattle permanently? I'd guess by mid-season she'll be back with Meredith.

Also soon to be back in Seattle: Kepner, who Chief Hunt was convincing to get back to Seattle. "I want you to come back and work at the hospital," Hunt told Kepner, who was working on her family farm looking like a ridiculous milkmaid. "Nothing is the same over there. It's all…I keep trying to think of ways I could have done things differently. I keep looking for the do-overs. I should never have taken your job from you. You don't belong out here on a farm. You belong in Seattle, saving lives. Now come home!" She no doubt will, which will lessen the alterna-Grey's vibe.

The other big reveal from the episode was something that was teased throughout the episode but will surely have a great impact on the future. I'm talking about what happened to Arizona, who was largely MIA during the episode. At first, I thought she was dead, mostly because Callie was being weird about her and taking apologies from folks like the new head of pediatrics who told the constantly crying Callie, "I'm sorry about your wife." That reads dead to me. But as it turned out, Arizona was alive and well—and just missing one leg, as a result of the plane crash. The lost limb, of course, had sent Arizona into a depression, which Callie wanted her to snap out of. "How am I supposed to snap out of this when you cut off my leg?" she screamed at Callie, near the end of the episode when she finally turned up.

More than anything, this episode set up what will be a great season—or possibly just a great second episode. I have no doubt that next week will give us all the answers we viewers are seeking: What led to Mark's death? Why was Arizona's leg cut off? What happened to everyone else out there? How did Kepner end up back on her parents' farm? Will Cristina be headed back to Seattle Grace? The effects of the May finale, it seems, will be largely reminiscent of the shooting finale from a couple of seasons back, which seemed to reverberate for months.

Despite everything, though, the episode was a tribute to Mark Sloan, as Meredith punctuated with her final voice-over at the end of the episode. "You never really stop feeling the loss," she told us. "It's what makes things so bittersweet. We leave little bits of ourselves behind. Little reminders, a lifetime of memories, photos, trinkets. Things to remember us by, even when we're gone." And then we saw a flash on the screen, simply: Mark Sloan, 1968–2012.

What'd you think of the episode, Grey's Anatomy watchers? Satisfied with Sloan's goodbye? Dying to know what happened to Arizona? Wondering whether Kepner will come back? Sound off if you've got thoughts in the comments below.

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

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