‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Season 16 Finale: Showrunner Krista Vernoff On Justin Chambers Exit, Storylines Were Left In Limbo & More

SPOILER ALERT: The story includes details about the season-finale episode of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. While it wasn’t the planned ending, tonight’s Season 16 finale of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, written by Mark Driscoll and Tameson Duffy and directed by Deborah Pratt, was fitting. Indeed, this season was cut short due to the halting of production in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can’t be the longest-running medical drama on television without overcoming some challenges, and Grey’s already has proved its ability to pivot when the unexpected happens. The production shutdown was is the second major curveball for the show this season after original cast member Justin Chambers’ abrupt exit. No word on whether the four unproduced episodes from Season 16 will roll over to the next season. But this episode, titled “Put on a Happy Face,” had enough to tide us over until Season 17.

Let’s start on a positive highlight. After Richard (James Pickens Jr.) experienced hallucinations as well as a very intense and very public breakdown, fans feared that they might be losing another veteran Grey/Sloane surgeon. Determined not to accept his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Andrew DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) worked around the clock to pinpoint the problem, with DeLuca coming through with a game-changing discovery: His dementia was a result of cobalt poisoning from a hip replacement surgery.

Not a hard fix. Dr. Link (Chris Carmack) was brought in to remove the cobalt, and it appears that Webber is on the road to recovery with his health. However, his marriage to Catherine is not out of the danger zone. Turns out the hallucinations had nothing to do with his marital discord. “Did you stand by me while I was being fired? You buy my hospital to humiliate me, or is that my mind playing tricks, too,” Webber contends before sternly kicking Catherine out of the room.

Meanwhile, DeLuca, who has been exhibiting erratic behavior and angry outbursts all season, isn’t able to bask in his incredible catch. Instead, has a breakdown of his own — signaling that it might be time to address his bipolar disorder-like symptoms, which are similar to his father’s.

DeLuca and Grey have become quite the medical duo this season but still couldn’t figure out how to make their romantic relationship work. It’s unclear where that will land next season as a new contender entered midseason — and he goes by the name of Dr. Cormac Hayes (Richard Flood). The two seem to have a connection, though it appears to be on a friendly level at this point (Hayes was a present sent to Meredith by “her person” Cristina Yang). Could this be the next Grey’s love triangle?

Elsewhere, Amelia Shepherd (Caterina Scorsone) finally had her baby! And she opted not to have an epidural because she’s an addict, and the epidural has fentanyl in it. While baby daddy Link wasn’t able to be present during the birth (he was performing the surgery on Webber), she had fellow “pregnancy club” sister Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) by her side. The two share a tender moment when Bailey hops on the bed to support Amelia as she is giving birth, calling back to the time when late George O’Malley (T. R. Knight) did the same for Bailey during her labor back in Season 2.

Alas, not everyone got a happy ending. Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd) and Teddy Altman (Kim Raver) were set to walk down the aisle, but Teddy needed her one last go-round with Tom Koracick (Greg Germann). Unbeknownst to her, she somehow recorded it and sent it to Owen, who had to endure the embarrassment of hearing it while in the OR surrounded by his colleagues. The wedding eventually is postponed, with Owen giving the excuse that he was pulled into surgery last-minute. In typical Grey’s fashion, there is never a wedding without drama.

Deadline spoke with Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff, who unpacked the final episode, hinted at what’s to come next season and revealed what storylines she wished they were able to air this season. She also weighed in on the fan reactions to Alex Karev’s controversial exit.

DEADLINE: The Season 16 ender wasn’t what was expected, but like you said in your tweet, it was very satisfying, and a fitting Grey’s ending. How do you plan on carrying over the storyline to next season, or is there a plan to carry over the storyline from the last four episodes to next season?

KRISTA VERNOFF: I have not formulated that plan yet. In about four weeks, I’m going to get in a room with the writers, and we’re going to talk about all of it. I know that a lot us are having brainstorms since we have so much time at home. A lot of us are texting each other, and going, “Oh, what if we did this? What if we do that?” So I have a feeling that their stories are going to change some, from what we had planned, and that we’ll repurpose some of what we had written and use it in the early episodes of Season 17.

DEADLINE: The production shut down was the second major curveball for the show, after Justin Chambers’ exit. What were your thoughts on the reaction to his exit?

VERNOFF: Well, you know, I haven’t been commenting on this much, but I just did an Instagram Live where I said that, so, I’ll say it to you too. I believe that there would’ve been at least as big an outcry if we had killed that character off-camera, and those were our choices. It was kill the character off-camera, or come up with some believable way that he gets his happily ever after, and some of the fans have posited, ‘well he could have just been off-screen in Seattle like April Kepner, but then you’ve got an actress on the show who doesn’t get to do any of the fun, sexy, playful thrill that we’re known for, then you penalize the actors who are staying on the show by limiting what you could do creatively with them. So I was really proud of that episode. I think Elisabeth Finch did an extraordinary job with a nearly impossible task.

That episode made me cry. It made me laugh. I felt really deeply. I felt satisfaction, and I will say that I have received a great many comments from fans who felt the same way, but the angry people are always the loudest ones.

I wasn’t surprised by the fan reaction, but I know it would’ve been equally angry if I had killed him — so it was like, these are your choices, and I felt really happy with what we chose.

Raymond Liu/ABC

DEADLINE: The fact that you didn’t kill the character off also leaves the door open that we might see them in the future. So is there any chance of [Justin Chambers] or Katherine Heigl, ever coming back?

VERNOFF: When I left the show in Season 7, people asked me if there was any chance of me ever coming back, and I was smart enough to say, “Never say never.” Here I am, so who knows?

DEADLINE: Jo was able to accept Alex’s decision in a short amount of time and come to terms with everything. Did that have anything to do with her character’s stint in the psychiatric hospital, at the beginning of the season?

VERNOFF: Yes. Jo had had such a dramatic, emotional, painful arc, the second half of Season 15. None of the writers, frankly, none of us wanted to see her go back down into a hole. One of the things about the way the character was written off is that she had a lot of time to wonder, and to fear the worst, and I have found in life that when you have a lot of time to wonder and fear the worst, then when you get an answer, even if it’s terrible news, it feels better than not knowing. And it helps you move on, more quickly.

DEADLINE: I want to just touch on Richard’s illness. Is it safe to say that he’s out of the danger zone? Also, did his illness contribute to anything that had to do with his relationship with Catherine? And what can we expect from that couple in the future?

We’ll start with the illness — is he in the safe zone now that they’ve caught it early and treated it?

VERNOFF: Yes, and I thought that that was one of the most amazing things about this diagnosis was that the cobalt poisoning thing is real and it really can cause all of those symptoms. It can cause dementia-like symptoms. It can cause Parkinson’s-like symptoms —  tremors, hallucinations — and the amazing thing about it is that once you diagnose it, and you get the leaky hip out of your body, you can recover, totally. That felt, just as the storyteller, an amazing thing because it let us give Jim Pickens this really rich, rich material, without us having to permanently disable his character. I think that that was an amazing ride for the fans, because the outcry of we’re showing symptoms that don’t feel like they have cures.

There’s not really a cure for Parkinson’s. There’s not a cure for Alzheimer’s. So I know everyone was in a panic, and so, we got to tell this really satisfying story, and we got to let people know that sometimes, there’s another diagnosis for those symptoms, which we found fascinating, as a group of writers who write medicine, that it’s so rare to see something this satisfying.

DEADLINE: Did the symptoms from the cobalt poisoning have anything to do with his attitude toward Catherine? What’s in store for them? Can we still hold out hope for that couple?

VERNOFF: I think you can always hold out hope for any couple on Grey’s Anatomy. You never know where it’s going, and I think that the way we designed this was that the fracture, the real fracture in Catherine and Richard’s relationship predated the cobalt poisoning.

So the way we imagined it was that, with the depression, everyone thought it was related to his divorce, and it was actually a symptom of cobalt poisoning. And then the tremors were a symptom of cobalt poisoning, and then the hallucinations, so that when he forgave her, he forgave her in a hallucination. And when he was well, he remembered the actual events from his life, for which he has not yet forgiven her. The reason that I hold out most for that couple is that Catherine rediscovered her deep and profound love for Richard when she almost lost him. I think that that may enable her to apologize in the way that Richard will need to hear.

DEADLINE: Speaking of forgiveness, in true Grey’s fashion, there’s never a wedding without any drama, as we saw with Teddy and Owen. We’ve seen their relationship woes throughout the series, and this season felt like they were going to finally get it together and find each other and have their happy ending. Why haven’t they quite found that happy ending, and can Owen forgive Teddy?

VERNOFF: I think that those are questions that we will have to explore in Season 17. I will say that of all the storylines that were left hanging, that is the one that I was the most disappointed about. Actually, there were two: I’m disappointed that I cannot give Teddy — we had an episode coming up where we were able to better articulate and better understand what’s prompting Teddy’s behavior, and we don’t get to air it. Who knows, maybe it’s going to change between now and when we’ll actually shoot it for Season 17, but I feel for Kim Raver. The amount of standing is high, and we’ve left her in a strange place. It’s compelling, and why? Your question is big. Why? Why would she sabotage — why, when she was finally getting her happy ending, did she sabotage it? I think it’s the super-rich area personally.

And then the other story that I was really disappointed that we couldn’t complete — and I will tell you that I haven’t told this to anyone else, but we did a story where there as a victim of human trafficking, like two episodes ago, and DeLuca we got recognized it but he was in such a mentally compromised, manic state that nobody listened to him and the girl left. We had an episode where she comes back, and I am really sad that we can’t air that episode this season because it felt important to offer that kind of hope to people who are living that experience. I may still complete that story next season.

DEADLINE: I want to touch on DeLuca, who has gone through this really rocky journey with Meredith this season. Although they haven’t really been able to figure out their personal relationship, they’ve proven to be a great medical team. What can you tease about this couple? Last season, we talked about Meredith being ready for love. What can we tease about this couple in the future? Is somebody else going to throw a wrench in everything? Somebody by the name of Hayes?

VERNOFF: There is hope for Meredith and DeLuca, and I think that there is hope for Meredith and Hayes. I will be fascinated to see how that storytelling emerges in season 17 because this story played in a way that I didn’t picture. You know, you write a thing, and then the actors play it, and then it gets all put together, and then you know what the story is. You don’t know how it’s going to play when you write it. It’s been amazing for me to watch this story this season. I feel like Giacomo has been so compelling, and DeLuca has risen so much, and simultaneously, Hayes has been really compelling and feels very much like Meredith’s equal. At this point, I’, not even sure which couple I’m rooting for, and that’s always an exciting thing.

DEADLINE: Yeah. We love our love triangles on Grey’s.

VERNOFF: Yeah. Yeah.

DEADLINE: One couple might have found their happy ending, it seems, is Amelia and Link. The birth of the baby was such a nice ending to a season full of ups and downs. Was that one thing you were excited about? To see Amelia who had her complications with her first pregnancy, and this one turned out fine.

VERNOFF: Yeah. I love that story and I am so grateful that … we got to air it this season. It would’ve been really a bummer if we hadn’t made it there, this season. So, that was just luck and I’m grateful that it was in that episode. I love that scene where Bailey gets in the bed with Amelia, and we call back to when George got in the bed with Bailey and it’s just so beautiful. It was pitched by Meg Mooney, who’s been with the show for 15 years. It made me cry when she pitched it, and it makes me cry every time I watch it. I, like everyone else, at this point really am loving Link and Amelia, and I was so happy. That ending for them felt so hard won this season.

DEADLINE: Is the next season being envisioned as the final season since it’s the second of the two-year pickup, or are you guys having conversations about potentially more seasons?

VERNOFF: You know, what I always say to this question, is my answer again today, and that is: I will not start planning the end of Grey’s Anatomy until Shonda [Rhimes] and Ellen and ABC all sit down together, tell me that this really the end this time. The truth is those conversations might be being had if we weren’t dealing with a global pandemic, but everyone’s gone home, and I suspect we’ll start talking about that in a month, or two.

DEADLINE: Speaking of this global pandemic, obviously Grey’s is known for taking things that are happening in the world, and incorporating it into the series. Are there any plans to reflect on this current pandemic on the show for next season?

VERNOFF: I haven’t had a minute yet to sit with the writers and talk about it. So, we’re all at home, and we’re on hiatus, but in about four weeks, we’ll gather, and we’ll talk about it. I have a hard time imagining that we don’t have to acknowledge this massive thing that we’ve all gone through, in our fictional world, too, but I have no idea how. I don’t know what it’s going to look like.

DEADLINE: Station 19 — we still have more episodes coming with that series. Are we going to see any of the Grey’s characters in the final couple of episodes?

VERNOFF: Yes. Happily, yes, you are. The Grey’s characters are all over the last two episodes of Station 19. So, that is a really nice treat for the fans, too. Many of our Grey’s characters are in Episodes 15 or 16 on Station 19.