Grey’s Anatomy, It’s Time to Grow Up

After 20 seasons of tumultuous relationships and couples that never last, it's time for the medical drama to focus on some solid, stable romance

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Grey’s Anatomy, It’s Time to Grow Up

“Pick me. Choose me. Love me.” 

Back in the second season of Grey’s Anatomy, this plea felt epic. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) seemed fated to be together, if only the stars would align in their favor. Eventually, after an agonizing wait and far too many hurdles, they did! And ‘shippers around the world rejoiced. 

Now, though, that sort of love story—or any love story, really—is much harder to root for on Grey’s Anatomy. Not because the current crop of Grey-Sloane surgeons lack chemistry, or because the romantic storylines are necessarily weak, but because over the past 20 seasons of the show, viewers have learned one important lesson about rooting for romance on Grey’s Anatomy

It. Never. Lasts.

Since the early days of ABC’s juggernaut medical melodrama, Grey’s Anatomy‘s episodes have always been filled with nearly as many sweeping love stories, grand romantic gestures, and sizzling elevator encounters as they have groundbreaking surgeries. But over time, a pattern has emerged. No matter how well-matched a couple may seem in the early days of their relationship, no matter how committed they are to each other, no matter how in love they seem to be, no pairing is ever permanent. 

Alex (Justin Chambers) and Izzie (Katherine Heigl) got married, then promptly divorced. Burke  (Isaiah Washington) left Cristina (Sandra Oh) at the altar; later, her impulsive marriage to Owen (Kevin McKidd) fizzled due to Owen’s untreated PTSD and their failure to consider each other’s long-term plans when making their commitment to one another. Mark (Eric Dane) and Lexie (Chyler Leigh) broke up, then died. Callie (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) were driven apart by trauma (and the world’s worst marriage counselor). Jackson (Jesse Williams) and April (Sarah Drew) couldn’t recover after losing their child. 

Even Meredith and Derek, the show’s foundational couple, eventually started to crumble as Derek struggled to balance a job on the East coast with a family on the West coast. He wound up dying before the relationship fully fell apart, but plenty of cracks had already formed well before Derek got hit by that truck.  

Obviously, not all relationships are built to last. None of the reasons for the breakups in Grey’s Anatomy are, on their own, implausible or unrealistic. Job loss, trauma, grief, illness, and death are all valid reasons why romantic relationships can and do come to an end. But while about half of real-life marriages end in divorce, it feels closer to 100% on Grey’s Anatomy, creating an environment in which rooting for any romantic pairing to succeed long-term feels incredibly naive. After all, we know they’re inevitably doomed. 

Most recently, it’s been Winston (Anthony Hill) and Maggie (Kelly McCreary) on the chopping block. Not long after their defiantly optimistic beach wedding at the end of the COVID-centric Season 17, the couple hit their first rough patch—centering around Winston’s desire to prioritize their relationship over his career, and Maggie’s inclination to do exactly the opposite—and divorce papers have since been served. 

Which brings us to the other issue plaguing the romantic pairings on Grey’s Anatomy: they all deal with conflict like petulant teenagers. 

In the early seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, when Meredith’s intern class was still in their residency and most of the main characters were supposedly in their late twenties or early thirties (the average age of a first-year surgical resident in the United States is between 24-30), it was easier to excuse their lack of relational maturity. Although they were fully grown adults, a little bit of stunted emotional growth felt reasonable, since these characters had spent their entire adult lives, up to that point, as students. It made sense that they would deal with their relationships and conflicts like kids, since they hadn’t really gotten much of a chance to be grown-ups yet.

But now they’re in their forties and fifties and still giving each other the silent treatment, being passive aggressive at work, hanging up in the middle of calls, issuing ultimatums, and refusing to compromise or even consider perspectives and actions outside of their own. When it comes to disagreement, most characters on Grey’s Anatomy tend to give the same consideration to their romantic partners as they would an internet troll: most common strategies are block, mute, unfriend, or insult. As a result, relationships that once burned bright tend to shrivel up and die at the first significant bump in the road. 

Maybe this could be circumvented if there were any decent therapists in the world of Grey’s Anatomy, but in the Grey-Sloan version of Seattle, mental health professionals seem to exist only to give terrible relationship advice (Callie and Arizona), date the friends of their patients (Andrew Perkins, played by James Tupper), and serve as a brief barrier to surgery when the doctors go through a traumatic event (see: post-shooting, post-plane crash, post-near-death-experiences, etc.). In those instances, therapy rarely lasts for longer than a session or two, the therapist remains mostly silent, and practically none of the patients ever seem to engage in more than the barest whiff of introspection. No wonder no one knows how to work out their issues. 

Currently, the only successful long-term romantic pairings on Grey’s Anatomy are Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) and Ben Warren (Jason George), and Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) and Catherine Fox (Debbie Allen). It’s worth noting that both of these pairings involve one original cast member and one guest star who has deeper ties to the larger Grey’s Anatomy universe (George is a series regular on the spinoff Station 19, while Allen is a frequent director on Grey’s Anatomy). Perhaps that’s why the couples have lasted as long as they have; because one partner only drops in as needed but is easy to keep on hand, the other is able to have storylines that center around things outside of their marriage. 

Not that it would be impossible to have a married couple of series regulars on the show that didn’t eventually fall victim to seemingly irreconcilable differences, but in nearly twenty years of Grey’s Anatomy, the series has yet to figure that out. Plenty of interesting and dramatic storylines are possible within a healthy marriage—as evidenced by successful shows such as Parenthood, This Is Us, and Friday Night Lights—but no one on Grey’s Anatomy seems to have figured that out. The second most of its couples hit a rough patch, we know they’re living on borrowed time.

The cumulative result is that it’s difficult to invest in any new pairings, since we’ve been burned so many times before. Link (Chris Carmack) and Jo (Camilla Luddington) are cute and seem well-matched, but, of course, that’s what we thought about Alex and Jo, too, right up until he ended their marriage in a Dear John letter. We were excited when Nick Marsh (Scott Speedman) returned to the series as a suitor for Meredith, banking on their one episode of chemistry back in Season 14 to finally give Meredith a partner who could fill Derek’s shoes… only to have long distance and abysmal communication throw them on the rocks practically as soon as they made their relationship official. The interns are, as always, hooking up left and right, but we’ve heard that tune so many times we have it memorized. And Teddy (Kim Raver) and Owen’s relationship has already thrown up enough red flags to encircle the Earth, so pardon if we’re not placing bets on their longevity. 

As Grey’s Anatomy wraps up its twentieth season and looks ahead to Season 21, something needs to change if the show wants us to root for its romances with the same fervency as the early seasons. It’s not younger or prettier doctors, it’s not steamier hookups, and it’s not chemistry. Those elements have never been in short supply on Grey’s Anatomy

Rather, it’s time for the series to finally show us that it’s possible for a relationship between two Grey-Sloan surgeons to weather the storms life throws their way without completely melting down. It’s time for some of these characters to start approaching their romantic conflicts like grown-ups, with communication, compromise, and introspection. Sure, there will always be characters who are immature, selfish, and impulsive, but with a cast as large as Grey’s Anatomy‘s, that should still leave plenty of room for other characters to take a more measured approach, and possibly even prioritize their partner’s needs on occasion without it being a major source of drama. 

Until then, we’re not placing bets on any of Grey’s Anatomy’s couples. Not when the race feels rigged for everyone to lose. But if we can finally see some of them stumble, dust themselves off, and keep going, if we see that it’s possible for some of them to actually win… well, that might just make things interesting again, and remind us why we cared so much in the first place. 

Lauren Thoman is a Nashville-based freelance pop culture writer whose writing has appeared in numerous online outlets including Parade, Vulture, and Collider. She is also the author of the novel I’ll Stop the WorldFind her at her website, or on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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