SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Out of Control” and No Time for Despair,” the Dec. 17 episodes of “Station 19” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” respectively.
As 2020 has brought upon more issues than seem possibly manageable — from the unprecedented health crisis amid the pandemic to the murder of George Floyd — the midseason crossover finale event for Shondaland’s ABC drama “Station 19” and “Grey’s Anatomy” mirrored the state of the world, shining a light on the Black Lives Matters movement, sex trafficking and the spiking surge in COVID-19 cases flooding hospitals across the U.S.
It started on “Station 19,” in an episode title “Out of Control” that saw two teenage Black girls abducted and kept captive in a white man’s home.
A team of white, male police officers were called to the scene, but they refused to enter the home, saying they showed up because they received a call from the man complaining about a woman causing a disturbance. This led off-duty firefighters to construct a plan to break into the home, where they found the teenagers unconscious and hidden in the basement. Those girls had come up with a plan of their own: to start a fire in the home so they could be rescued by the firefighters they heard outside of the house.
But, when the police officer overheard one of the 13-year-old girls talking about starting the fire, the kidnapper claimed he was the target of arson and a break-in and therefore the victim in the situation. One of the girl’s mothers ended up getting arrested on the scene when the police officer said she assaulted him. Additionally, two Black, male firefighters were also arrested after they jumped in to defend the mother. From those actions, it seemed clear the show had a lot to say about systemic racism and unconscious bias when it comes to police, but the doctors at Grey Sloan Memorial were much more sympathetic and in-tune with the real victims.
Owen (Kevin McKidd) called the kidnapper a “scumbag” when he arrives for care, lamenting, “They burned down my house and I got arrested.” The doctor also told him he deserves to spend his life behind bars.
As the two girls were treated in the hospital, including by Dr. Jackson Avery, played by Jesse Williams, who has used his platform off-screen for racial justice, including condemning police brutality when making a speech at the BET Awards this past summer. It is while they were in Grey Sloan that the doctors realized the girls were linked to the sex trafficking ring showcased in Season 16 — a significant storyline that was cut short when production on “Grey’s Anatomy” halted last spring, due to the industry-wide pandemic-forced shutdown.
“Kidnapping teenagers during a pandemic? Don’t even get me started on the people who are partying without masks,” one of the doctors said in a brief moment, illuminating the dizzying influx of issues happening in the world.
At one particularly poignant part of the episode, Maggie (Kelly McCreary) delivered an impromptu monologue about her outrage over the racial disparity of the pandemic and the victimization of Black girls, peeling back yet more crucial layers of the coronavirus crisis highlighting the nuanced, and significant, conversations happening in the country.
“I want outrage for the fact that we are seen as disposable and rarely seen as victims — that Black girls are less likely to be seen as innocent as white girls,” she said. “Meanwhile, we are being physically and sexually abused at horrific rates, and not just by sex traffickers. And now, there is a plague that is killing Black people at a rate that should make everyone outraged. If COVID were killing white people at the rate that it is killing Black people, you better believe that everyone would be wearing masks because it would be the damn law.”
A brief bright spot of the midseason finale was when Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) woke up at the beginning of the episode, after being unresponsive from COVID-19 for the past few episodes. Unfotunately, though, it was only a momentary reprieve, as after getting out of her hospital bed to resuscitate another patient, Meredith became unresponsive again. The episode ended as she was being put on a ventilator.
Here, showrunner Krista Vernoff and writer Felicia Pride, who penned the “Grey’s Anatomy” midseason finale, talk with Variety about the powerful crossover episodes, plus Meredith Grey’s future.
The sex trafficking arc was one that you wanted to bring back after Season 16 was cut short, right?
Vernoff: Yes, we were shooting an episode that focused on the sex trafficking story when we shut the show down, but then we ended up using many of those scenes in our premiere this season. So, this was a new follow-through. This was a new idea and a new way to carry that story forward.
Why was it important to include a sex trafficking storyline?
Vernoff: It felt like an unfinished story for DeLuca. For me, the story always starts from character. We don’t start with a political hot topic or a social issue that we want to shine a light on. The social issues tend to evolve from the character. So, the sex trafficking pitch was one of the ideas that we came into the season excited about, and to not let it be over when we thought it was over last season.
Pride: It also gave us an opportunity to shine a light on the prevalent amount of the Black girls who are trafficked, as well as the reasons why Black girls are more vulnerable to being trafficked. We got to dive even deeper on that side of the issue.
There was a significant line in “Station 19” where statistics are rattled off: 70,000 Black girls are missing in the country, 40% of all sex trafficking victims are Black girls and 50% of Black girls experience come type of sexual exploitation before they’re 18-years-old. And then later on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Maggie is talking to Amelia about how Black and brown communities are more vulnerable to the pandemic. Why was it important to include this specific dialogue?
Vernoff: I want to give Felicia some credit here because I had a slightly different take on that scene and on that story, and Felicia came forward advocating for the point of view that you ended up seeing on screen, which was so much more powerful and so important.
Pride: It’s a nuanced take, right? Maggie is feeling the horror of these Black girls and these mothers going through this situation, and she also knows though that there are so many things that lead up to this that are ignored and how Black girls in general can seem invisible and seem to be discarded. She is frustrated by the fact that those things tend to be ignored, and she wants the same outrage for the actual sex trafficking also to be for the things that lead up to the sex trafficking, so we wanted to really dive in and connect the dots for the audience of the many reasons why Black girls can be more vulnerable to trafficking, in the first place, so that we can start to prevent it.
Before the two teenage girls are brought into the hospital on “Grey’s” and we realize that they are part of the sex trafficking ring, “Station 19” delved into police brutality and corruption. Was this storyline inspired by this summer’s protests after George Floyd’s killing?
Vernoff: Yes. There had been a big push from the actors on “Station 19,” since the beginning of the show, to take a look at the relationship between firefighters and police and the fact that the Black firefighters would have a different experience and relationship than white firefighters. For a long time, the show favored a different kind of storytelling. This year, it felt imperative to honor the truth and to honor the lived experiences that the actors were so eager to explore and the writers were also eager to explore. It just felt really important. A lot of our conversations in the writers’ room this year happened in the summer when we were taking days off to protest. I feel that what is so very powerful about the hour of “Station 19” is that it starts like any other episode — joyful and playful and familial and communal and funny and easy — and then the day turns to horror.
I’d imagine the arrests made at the end of “Station 19” have to be resolved, so is it fair to say you will you be delving more into issues of police brutality on the show?
Vernoff: Yes, we’re absolutely following through on the story in dramatic and powerful ways. The shows are set in the middle of 2020, and the hope lives inside the pandemic and the hope lives inside that fact that were finally talking about the racial divide in this country, and the humor and the joy and the silver linings all live inside of that. We’re looking at these issues, and also finding joy in the shows.
How do you balance showcasing these important issues while also maintaining the purpose of entertainment of a scripted show?
Vernoff: I never look at this show in terms of issues. I always think about the show in terms of character arcs, and particularly right now, it feels issue-laden because we’re telling the story that our health care workers are going through right now. We’re telling the story of COVID, and the story is that Black and brown people are wildly more susceptible to it. So, is that showing an issue? Or is that just the truth that we’re living in, and we’re telling the story through the lens of these characters who are health care workers? We are still seeing a lot of people in this country not wearing masks and maybe not even believing that this pandemic exists, so while we are living in this COVID world, giving a little window into what it might be like in hospitals right now feels important.
Pride: I think that by showing the lives of healthcare workers from a really holistic standpoint, we’re able to dive into so many issues. It’s just really ripe for story and emotion and truth.
Is the rest of “Grey’s Anatomy” Season 17 going to be set in this COVID-19 world?
Vernoff: Yes, because we’re not doing any major jump-forward in time. And, we don’t know what the world is going to look like after COVID. We don’t know what medicine and what hospital protocols are going to be in a post-pandemic world. This is the world we’re living in.
Do you have plans to infuse the vaccine into the story?
Vernoff: Not right now, but we’ll see what happens. I think it will take a long time for us all to get that vaccine, and for masks and social distancing to go away. It’s going to take longer than people wish that it would.
Since “Grey’s Anatomy” is set within this COVID-19 world, have you had to do a lot of re-writing to mirror the real world, given that the pandemic has not slowed down at all in the U.S.?
Vernoff: Maybe because we had so many doctors and epidemiologists in the writers’ room, I don’t think any of us imagined the pandemic would be over by now.
Pride: No. The stories we were hearing from doctors were horrifying and it felt very long-lasting.
What can you tease about Meredith? Will she wake up again?
Pride: She still has a long road ahead of her. We’re really trying to be accurate around people with COVID and the fact that, in the time period we’re in the show, there are still so many unknowns. There are still so many things that doctors are figuring out. But Dr. Grey has definitely defied the odds in many ways, so I think it will be a mixture of those two.
“Station 19” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. and “Grey’s Anatomy” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.