Being a TV writer means rolling with the punches—especially when cast drama leads to swift departures in real life. “Some of those things radically changed the story plans,” Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff says in Variety’s new cover story. “When word comes down that an actor is leaving the show, and what you’ve got scripted is a wedding…”
Vernoff—who was the head writer on Grey’s for the first seven seasons and returned in season 14 to take over for Shonda Rhimes as showrunner—opens up in the interview about the high-profile exits of series regulars Isaiah Washington, T.R. Knight, and Katherine Heigl, who played Burke, George, and Izzie, respectively.
Katie’s departure changed the course of the Alex-Izzie love story quite abruptly. One of the things about working in television and being a TV writer is you have to be able to pivot. You don’t have to love pivoting, but you’d better be willing to throw everything out and work through the night on a completely different story at the 11th hour. That’s the truth; that was the job. There was a lot of drama. There was a lot of drama on screen and drama off screen, and young people navigating intense stardom for the first time in their lives. I think that a lot of those actors, if they could go back in time and talk to their younger selves, it would be a different thing. Everybody’s grown and changed and evolved — but it was an intense time. My job was to do my very best to make it look like good storytelling that was intentional.
The interview then turns focus to the abrupt departure of Justin Chambers earlier this year. “It’s just not my story to tell,” Vernoff says of why the actor (who played Alex Karev since season one) was written off the show so suddenly. But, while she wasn’t willing do discuss the behind-the-scenes drama, she speaks at length about not wanting to put Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Jo (Camilla Ludington) through another loss.
[Jo] had just gotten through it! And the actress had had to play so much grief. And Ellen [Pompeo] in her lifetime on the show, has had to play so much grief. Grief is really, really, really hard on actors. I get that it’s their job. But when you have to play sustained grief for episode after episode after episode — I’ve never met an actor who didn’t go into their own personal depression, because they have to run those chemicals through their system. In addition to not wanting to put the actors through sustained grief, I didn’t want to put the characters through another sustained grief. And that was probably the more significant thing. I don’t want Meredith Grey to lose Alex Karev to death. I don’t want to see it! I can’t take it! And I didn’t want the audience to go through it. That character was so sacred. He was so sacred. And the collective grief in this world and in this country right now is pretty f—ing intense. And so how do you write this character off? Well, the fabric was all sewn in — they were a part of the story. Jo had found [out about the embryos] — it had been a big fear. And Izzie had disappeared when Alex was very much in love with her. And yes, he had said, “I deserve better than you,” but that was rooted in his pain. And it was something that we had to write pretty abruptly back in the day that hadn’t quite felt true. So it was, like, “Oh, wait a minute — there’s a way to bring all of this full circle.”
Vernoff acknowledges that many fans were upset to lose Jo and Alex as a couple—and she shares in the feeling.
For us, what had driven Alex Karev as a character his whole life was a desire for an intact family. A desire for sanity was a desire for pancake breakfasts — like, he wanted a childhood that nothing in his life had ever given him. And yes, he had Jo now. And yes, that was a beautiful love story. And yes, for many years writing them, I had thought they were endgame. And so I understood why to some people this felt like a betrayal of that character development. But also if you look back at Episode 16.01, Alex almost didn’t go get Jo from the mental institution she had checked herself into. He almost didn’t go get her! Women with mental health crises have been the bane of his existence for his whole life. For him to go and discover that Izzie had these gorgeous, gorgeous children that were his, and that she was stable now, and here was this farm and these kids and this joy and this thing that he never ever, ever in his life imagined that he would have — that felt like a happy ending for that character, even though it caused him to cause Jo tremendous pain. Even though it caused this abrupt and shocking rupture. And one of the things that I have known and believed and experienced in my life is that sometimes a person comes into your life to help you heal. And then once you’re healed, you two no longer resonate together. Alex and Jo carried each other through so much. She went and she got inpatient treatment, and she got coping skills that she’d never had before. They healed each other! Then Alex went and discovered this other thing, and he couldn’t leave. And that felt true. And it felt fair. And it felt OK to our writers, who also grew up with these characters. These people are real to us, too.
It’s not just the characters she helps create about that Vernoff feels are real—don’t get her started on Friends. Check out Variety’s full cover story for more from Vernoff and more Grey’s talent.
ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy is set to return for season 17 on Nov. 12