Grey's Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff on directing her first episode
EW asked Grey’s Anatomy executive producer Krista Vernoff to share her thoughts about directing her first episode, “Anybody Have a Map?” But first, a SPOILER ALERT! Don’t read if you haven’t watched Thursday’s episode of the ABC drama.
So I know, we were all “Season of Love!” and then we put you through episode 1507. We were all, “Grey’s is a romantic comedy again!” and then we put you through dark and twisty drama. But sometimes, a little darkness is necessary in order to appreciate the light. Also, not for nothing, this is my directorial debut and drama is just plain easier to direct than comedy!
This episode was designed as a study of a family in crisis. And they’re all in their own private crises at this point — unaware of their mutual pain and of the diagnosis that will pull them all together or break them apart.
Let’s start with Richard. I know a thing or two about alcoholism, having been raised in the wake of it and having some personal experience with it myself. Alcoholism is fed by alcohol, and it is best treated by giving up alcohol and working a spiritual program of recovery. When you give up alcohol, the steps, the fellowship, the sponsorship of AA alleviate not the only the craving but the brooding and the anger and the self-obsession of alcoholism. This middle-ground thing that Richard’s been doing — not drinking but not making meetings, hanging out in bars after work while his wife’s out of town — it’s a slippery slope. It makes Richard what folks in the recovery community would deem a “dry drunk.” It’s a dangerous state of mind. Walking in to that bar tonight — I’m not sure even Richard knows what he went in there to do. Walking in to that bar, sliding his coin to the bartender, watching him pour that vodka — that’s not what folks in the recovery community would call “sober behavior.”
Thank God he didn’t drink. Thank God he didn’t hit the bartender with the bat. And personally, I thank God that as a first-time director, I had the brilliant Jim Pickens to play that scene. That scene was a beast for any director. That scene involved hundreds of breakaway bottles (meaning they are made of sugar rather than glass), and breakaway bottles are expensive — which means that once Jim started swinging that bat, I got ONE TAKE. We didn’t have enough bottles to reset the scene if it went wrong. So I ran the lines a few times with Jim backstage. We talked about his motivation — where he was coming from, what he had just been through — and then, with three cameras set strategically around the bar, I called ACTION and Jim… Jim Pickens SWUNG THAT BAT. I mean that literally and in every metaphorical way I could mean it. That actor CAME TO PLAY that day, and I sat behind the monitors and held my breath while he did the hell out of his job. One take at a stunt sequence is frightening for any director, but for a first-time director? This was the scariest scene. And maybe as a result, this is my favorite scene in the show. Jim’s performance is stunning. For fans who’ve been watching for 15 years, fans who still refer to Richard as The Chief — this was just a devastating moment. To see him in this much pain, to see him this enraged, to see him this dangerous — it was shocking. It was an extraordinary thing to witness on set, and when the take was over I cheered. But when I finally got the cut from our incredible editor Vanessa Delgado, that’s when I burst into tears. Because the tension building up to that moment took my breath away. And because Jim’s performance? And that song? And those words written by Elisabeth Finch? When it was all put together, it just wrecked me. I hope it wrecked you too. I hope if you’re sober, it sent you to a meeting. I hope if you need to get sober, it sent you to a meeting. Either way, I hope you cheered when he took that coin out of that bowl and hit those shot glasses with that bat. I did. Arms-over-my-head cheered. There are pictures to prove it.
Also? That bar exists in Los Angeles. There’s a bar where they give shots for chips. When I heard about it, I wanted to take a baseball bat to the place. So I got to live vicariously through Richard in this episode, which is one of the real perks of the job.
And since we’re talking about actors who delivered in bars in this episode, we need to talk about Debbie Allen. When Catherine sits at that upscale crystal-clad bar and talks about the fear she’s felt since the moment she saw that tumor snaking down her spine? I got chills. Because I love Debbie Allen, who is a force of tremendous good on this planet and in my life. And because I love Catherine Avery. And because I love writer Elisabeth Finch, who several years ago was diagnosed with that very same tumor in her lower spine. My God, Finchie was brave to write this story for us. And Debbie was so incredibly, so beautifully restrained in delivering that speech, and then asking for one more drink. I felt her pain and fear, and I felt the pain and fear and empathy brought by the supremely talented Ellen Pompeo and Greg Germann, and I revisited my own pain and fear as I have watched friends walk through these diagnoses and I have felt powerless and lost and bewildered and afraid to talk about it.
“Why do we do that?” Catherine asks, speaking on behalf of Finchie who is speaking on behalf people with cancer everywhere. “Why do we refuse to talk about it?” I hope if that storyline inspires one thing, it’s that someone who watched it will pick up the phone today and call a friend who is struggling through an illness and ask how they’re doing today. Because, for someone sick, it changes every day, and sometimes those big questions are simply too hard to answer. How’s your health today? How are you feeling today? You would be shocked how rarely people ask that question of people living with cancer. We are afraid and so we talk about almost anything else. Call. Ask.
So Richard is going through an alcoholic crisis and Catherine is going through a health crisis, while Jackson is struggling through a crisis of faith (“What I used to know but don’t feel like I know anymore”) and now, a relationship crisis. It’s hard when a belief system you’ve leaned on your whole life shifts. It changes you. It breaks you open. And sometimes it prompts you to revisit who you were in your old belief system. Sometimes you have to look backward in order to walk forward. And you need to be able to talk about all of it.
Maggie is willing to listen. She is always willing to listen. Like she says, she’s an incredible support system. But she never learned how to share of herself, and that is what Jackson needs right now. He’s a raw nerve, and “it’s easier to open up to people who open up to you.”
(That’s a huge part of how 12-step programs work, by the way. You sit in rooms with other people who have been where you are, and there is comfort in that. You tell your stories and people laugh in recognition of them. You admit the worst of you and people go, “Oh yeah, I get it, me too.”) When people are telling their own deep truths, sharing of themselves, you don’t feel judged when you talk about your deep truth. And this is what Jackson is getting at when he turns the tables on Maggie with, “You don’t talk to me.”
Maggie was a child genius, a prodigy. She never walked among her actual peers as a young person. They say that those formative years in grade school and middle school and high school — the friends and the frenemies and the enemies, the social dynamics of first friendships and first loves — these are essential for learning how to relate. How to fight. How to stick with a fight, how to get through a fight, how to trust that there is an end to the fight and that there is another side to it. Sometimes a fight can deepen the relationship. Sometimes walking through intense truth and bewildering pain can bring you closer. But Maggie never learned how to do any of that. She manages to articulate that to Jackson — which is a huge step forward. She manages to share that truth with him, which is part of what makes him feel safe to try to share with her his deeper struggle. He admits that he is grieving the end of his marriage even though he is also in love with her. Sometimes being in a new love story prompts you to revisit and grieve an old one. Life is not black and white. Endings and beginnings are not always clean. We wish they were, life would be easier if there were no messy shades of gray. When marriages end, there is often so much anger that it can take years to access grief for what was good. Often by the time people access that grief, they have moved on to a new love. It’s messy and it’s hard to talk about.
I don’t believe that Maggie walks out that door because she can’t handle what he actually said. I believe she walks out for all the reasons she just articulated — she never learned how to fight and the depth and the complexity of the feelings his admission stirs in her are deeply uncomfortable for her. “I never learned how to really love or fight or let someone in without it feeling like the end of the world,” she says. And then she texts Meredith that this feels like the end of the world.
I believe Maggie can rise to the occasion, but it’s going to take her a minute. She has to walk through those big feelings and dig deep and find the other side. I believe Jackson genuinely loves Maggie. I believe that loving her and the support she has offered is part of what is helping him find his way through his struggle. And yes, he has been sharing with other women who have been through what he’s going through. He didn’t cheat. He isn’t cheating. But Jackson has to rise to this occasion too. Relationships are complicated. He has to show up for the one he’s in and trust her to meet him where he is.
I believe they can get through this because I have seen people in real life walk through this and more. Life is complicated and I hope that this character study — this great big brave messy fight actualized by these two incredible actors — might help one of you out there walk through yours. It doesn’t have to be over just because someone walked out the door.
In terms of behind the scenes, Kelly McCreary and Jesse Williams are a director’s dream come true. We spent a day at a table rehearsing those scenes like they were a play, which is a luxury you rarely get in television. They are smart, deep, thoughtful, prepared, kind, and generous actors. What a privilege.
And since we’re talking about incredible actors, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Stacey Oristano, who played Nurse Frankie with such beauty and wit that, alongside Richard, I might never fully get over that loss. (She is also, coincidentally, one of the first people to ever call Finchie while she was sick and ask: “How are you feeling today?”) And her village of nurses. I love these actors, and I love nurses in real life, who have always been the ones to carry me through hospital visits of any sort, and who don’t get their proper due on our show because it’s a show that focuses on the surgeons. When my dad died, his ICU nurses showed up at his funeral. I have never forgotten that. It was nice to spend this time with our nurses. To depict all that love and warmth and care.
It’s hard for me to find the words to express the gratitude I feel to the artists with whom I collaborated on this episode. I want to name them all and praise them all, but there are hundreds of them and I have a word limit. Television is a collaborative art form. The director sits in the chair and yells “action” and “cut,” but without the crew, without the cast, without lights and sets and cameras, without editors and musicians and writers and artists and artisans, the director is just a voice in the wind. And without the fans, we are all lost. So thank you for watching.
Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.