Grey's Anatomy boss on how season 16's early finale affects certain stories
Warning: This article contains spoilers from the season 16 finale of Grey's Anatomy.
Although it wasn't originally the plan, episode 21 of Grey's Anatomy's 16th season served as its season finale, and in the episode, the mystery surrounding Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) was solved: The former chief was suffering from cobalt poisoning, and by episode's end, he was doing much better. However, the same can't be said for Teddy (Kim Raver), who ended the hour with a canceled wedding after Owen (Kevin McKidd) listened to a voicemail that she accidentally recorded while having sex with Tom (Greg Germann).
EW spoke with showrunner Krista Vernoff about the hour's many twists and how the finale shift with affect stories next season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the cobalt poisoning story come about?
KRISTA VERNOFF: I had heard about cobalt poisoning and it felt like a really exciting story for Jim Pickens. He is an incredible actor, and for a lot of years on this show he's had to be a very steady center. It felt like the actor had earned the right to play a story line this juicy. It's been really hard on the fans who feel like, "Oh God, not uncle Richard!" But for the actor, it's been a really exciting season. He's loved it and we've loved writing this story for him, and I actually feel like this story might help a lot of human beings who might be demonstrating these kinds of symptoms and cobalt poisoning maybe didn't occur to their doctors. We loved it for all of those reasons. What's amazing about the character of Richard is not only do the fans go, "Oh my God, no, not Richard!" but every character in the show goes, "Oh my God, no, not Richard!" It gives everybody something exciting to do.
It was so painful to watch Richard, of all characters, lose his mental capacity.
Watching him lose his mental capacity, watching him lose his physical capacity, watching him lose his joy, the combination of symptoms that cobalt poisoning creates — the depression, the tremors, the hallucinations — it was like, "Wow, we can really watch Richard look like he's got Parkinson's, look like he's got Alzheimer's, and then bring him all the way back to his former self with this diagnosis." That was really exciting to us too, because we were talking early in our meetings about bringing in a master diagnostician and having DeLuca [Giacomo Gianniotti] learn from this master diagnostician and maybe have a gift in that area, so this felt like an amazing confluence — the diagnosis that is so difficult and that actually once you've diagnosed it, you can reverse all of the symptoms felt perfect for this season.
Why was it important to have DeLuca figure it out and not, say, Meredith [Ellen Pompeo]?
It felt like a beautiful thing to say that a person can be struggling with mental health and mental illness and still be a productive, proactive member of society. You don't see that represented a lot on TV, and we loved that spin.
Obviously, this wasn't originally your finale, but it almost felt like it was written that way. What was your reaction when you realized this episode would be the end of your season?
We got so lucky. What was wild is that from the minute the writers pitched this episode to me and then wrote it, I kept saying, "You guys, this reads like a season finale, what are we doing after this?" We literally had conversations about pushing this episode later in the season, but we didn't want to put the fans through any more episodes of Richard without a diagnosis. And then it became the season finale. Not that we're lucky that we didn't get to do our last four episodes, because we had great stories in those episodes as well, but we're so lucky that where we shut down happened to be a perfect season finale.
You had four more episodes written, so do you keep those for next season or do you have to reset?
I do think we have to reset, I don't know to what degree. We certainly can't just shoot what was going to be [episode] 22 and make it the premiere because it wasn't designed as a premiere. It was a relatively mild episode that followed an episode that was huge. So for sure we're going to have to reconsider a lot of things. A lot of things that we had planned to do in the last four episodes are going to change, but I don't have a real answer until I get the writers in a room. I don't know how it's going to change or what it's going to be, and I won't until we actually sit down. I can tell you that we have been having text conversations where we're having brainstorms because we've had downtime and we've had rest where we're like, "Oh my God, here's what's going to happen with that character," which is completely different than what we had planned in 23 and 24, so for sure stories are going to change, just because we're home with time to think.
Just please tell me we'll get more Jo [Camilla Luddington] and Schmitt [Jake Borelli]. I love that dynamic!
I enjoy their friendship so much too, and we had shot two thirds of episode 22 and they were so delightful in that episode — I imagine we'll end up keeping a fair amount of particularly the stuff we've already shot and some of the stories we'd already broken, and yes, we love that friendship.
You guys also delved a lot more into Koracick this season…
He is a complicated character. He is arrogant and he is often disrespectful and he is entitled and he is a lot of things that we societally don't like, but he is also brilliant and generous and has been through so much powerful loss in his life that it's hard not to feel sympathy for him. What I love about that character is that we're saying "yes, and." Like, yes he's all of these awful qualities, and he's all of these wonderful qualities, and they're all in one human being, so from week to week you get to decide how you feel about him because it all coexists.
The big cliffhanger now is the Teddy-Owen wedding. In the past we saw Owen struggle to choose between Teddy and another woman; what was the motivation behind flipping the script on that relationship?
It has been my experience as a human being that I often get to live the flip side of a dynamic. If I have felt like the victim in a certain dynamic, in my next relationship I end up experiencing what maybe my partner in the old relationship was going through. Anytime I judge anyone too aggressively for their behavior, I end up having to live some version of it that gives some level of empathy and understanding. I feel like Teddy and Owen, it was a perfect way to flip a whole bunch of paradigms and to look at Teddy through new lenses and to give her a new lived experience that gives her new understanding of the experiences that she's been through. That is the story that I'm most disappointed that we didn't get to complete this season because everyone's so mad at Teddy right now and it feels like it's going to be a long summer for Kim Raver. [Laughs] But listen, men cheat all the time on television and those characters are redeemed, and it's really rare that women cheat and then are redeemed. You just don't see it. Culturally, if a woman cheats, she's written off as a whore permanently. That's what happens in our culture and that's what happens on television, and I think that this is a beautiful opportunity to shake that up.
Meredith. Alex. Bailey. The doctors are definitely in on Shonda Rhimes' hospital melodrama.