SPOILER ALERT: The story includes details about the Dec. 3 episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Once again this season, Grey’s Anatomy mixed tragedy and joy in tonight’s episode as the staff at Grey Sloan Memorial continues to grapple with the grim reality of the coronavirus pandemic in its early days. It is killing way too many patients and is now threatening to take away one of their own, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo). Yet, through her illness, Meredith’s Covid dreams have provided light as, walking on a beach, she gets to meet some of her favorite people.
The beach motif kicked off in the season premiere with the jaw-dropping return of Grey’s original male lead Patrick Dempsey as Meredith’s late husband Derek Shepherd, who has appeared in her dreams ever since. Tonight, someone else was waiting for her by the ocean, George O’Malley (T.R. Knight), who died after he threw himself in front a bus to save a woman’s life in Season 5.
With Meredith’s condition taking a turn for the worse in her Covid battle, she spent most of her time in the episode sleeping, which led to multiple dream strolls and conversations with George, in which they discussed his death and funeral. George spoke of what he misses about being alive and Meredith told him how much he meant to her.
“You changed my life George,” she said.
Meanwhile at the hospital, Tom Koracick (Greg Germann) self-isolated at home after testing positive for Covid-19. By the end of the episode, he was showing symptoms and looking very sick. Richard (James Pickens Jr.) was struggling to make a decision whether to enroll Meredith in a clinical trial for an experimental Covid drug. With some guidance from Bailey (Chandra Wilson), he eventually got Meredith into the trial. As Richard and Bailey were looking over Meredith in the hospital room, they were transported to the beach where they sat with Meredith and George in a reunion of four original Grey’s cast members. Outside of work, Jo and Jackson firmly settled into “friends with benefits” territory.
In an interview with Deadline, Knight and Grey’s executive producer/showrunner Krista Vernoff talk about George’s return, that final scene, Meredith’s Covid prognosis, Tom’s fate and more.
DEADLINE: Let’s start with the final scene of T.R. joined by the three remaining Grey’s original cast members on the beach. Was that a coincidence or a nod to fans, a throwback to the show’s early years?
VERNOFF: Well, it certainly wasn’t just a coincidence. It was a beautiful pitch from Meg Marinis and Andy Reaser, who are my number two’s at Grey’s Anatomy. I had written the George-on-the-beach scene. Some of the writers this season didn’t even know who the special guest stars were, so I wrote all the beach scenes, and when Meg and Andy read them they came to me, and it was Meg who said, there is an opportunity here because Bailey and Richard are talking over Meredith’s bed, to have them appear on the beach, and to have this, what I think is, an instantly iconic moment of the four of them together again, and I was like, yes, please. That’s why you hire smart people. It’s so good.
DEADLINE: T.R., did it feel iconic for you, that scene?
KNIGHT: Even though we filmed this in the middle of October, I’m still trying to put into words how profound the experience was for me, so just hearing that made my eyes leak saltwater a little bit. When Krista first gave me the pages, Bailey was not in it yet, I think Richard was. And then I got the second round. It’s just hard for me to put into words, still, how meaningful it was.
VERNOFF: I choked up saying that, too, T.R. It is emotional for me, too.
KNIGHT: It was incredible, it was just an overwhelming feeling of love in that moment. We were apart from everybody quite a bit because that was a drone shot, and so it was just the four of us, and the sun was setting, and this big fly buzzing around our heads, and it filled me with just a lot of joy.
VERNOFF: I want to say this to you, Nellie. The amazing thing about the writers not knowing was the evolution, the unfolding. Julie Wong, who wrote this tremendously powerful hour of TV that you watched, learned after writing her first or second writer’s draft, I can’t remember. I actually think it’s not just that she learned, it’s that I decided that she was getting George, that the George scenes were happening in that episode. So we had to clear out some space, and I said to her, I want to do one more. We have time on the day. I want everything I can with T.R., I want one more scene. Julie has been a fan of the show, and it was like the crazy all caps OH MY GOD. I GET GEORGE? And then she went, and she re-watched the first five seasons, because she felt the pressure to write one more George scene, and she wrote that exquisite scene at the end where Meredith says, ‘You changed my life, George’. That scene that just makes you weep was Julie, and I think it was the biggest moment.
When people are fans and then they get to work on the show and it all comes together in this kind of magic, where you get to write for George O’Malley in Season 17, it was pretty amazing.
DEADLINE: T.R., when you were sitting together, the four of you, what did you four talk about between takes?
KNIGHT: I already was too emotional before about it, so I’ll tell something funny about it because there was the drone and so much noise on the ocean, and you hear a faint bullhorn giving direction but you can’t really hear it because there’s the waves, and so at one point, I thought I heard, ‘OK look at Chandra’, who’s sitting next to me, and so I look at her. She’s looking out at the water, and all of a sudden, she slowly looks over at me. She doesn’t move her mouth, and her eyes are just saying, should you be looking at me? why are you looking at me? That made me burst out laughing because that’s what I thought I heard, and who knows if that was true.
VERNOFF: We were directing from a microphone, Nellie. We were like 100 yards away with an ocean, and the tide coming in, and the sun setting. I mean, that shot is at magic hour, which means you’ve got like three minutes, and we’re going [makes muffled sound as if talking into a microphone].
KNIGHT: It sounds like that a little bit. I hope I didn’t ruin a moment. They’re all looking, why the heck is he looking at Chandra?
VERNOFF: No, we were, in fact, telling you to look at Chandra. The first version that we shot, they were all just staring out at the ocean, and it was so perfect. It felt too perfect. It didn’t feel like, hey, old friends, and so we were yelling with the microphone, like do something else. T.R., look at Chandra, and it just came to life in the way that you did that.
KNIGHT: Oh, good. Oh, good.
DEADLINE: George is the second beloved Grey’s character after Derek to be brought back in the beach motif. How did T.R.’s return come about?
VERNOFF: Well, George was my first idea. When this imagining came to me I was walking on the beach, as I’ve told you Nellie. I had found a way where there was no one there and I felt like I could take my mask off and just walk with my feet in the water, and the imagining came to me of Meredith walking with her feet in the water with George. That was the first image that came to me, and the joy that filled me up when it came, I believe, is translated on screen and I believe we have given many millions of fans that moment of pure joy. Right now in our lives, in this pandemic pure joy is rare, and so I’m so grateful to T.R. for coming and playing, and offering that to everyone, because I think it’s meaningful.
When I called Ellen and said, I have this idea to have you having these dreams on the beach, and I want to get someone amazing, like T.R,. Ellen was like, yes, get T.R., and also Patrick. That was the evolution of that. Ellen and T.R. are close, and George and T.R. were both always favorites of mine, and so he was my first idea of, as a fan, who do I want to see again? I wanted to see George, so that’s where it started. And then which episode he went, I don’t know how to explain the evolution of scripts under me, but sometimes you get eleventh-hour evolution. I wrote the scenes, and didn’t know where they were going to go. We hadn’t shot them yet, I think, and then decided.
DEADLINE: T.R., who called you and what was your first reaction?
KNIGHT: Ellen hinted at it first, but then Krista called, and we talked for an hour. Probably her ears were bleeding a little bit afterward, hopefully not too bad, but it was incredible. What was interesting is Krista, I hope you don’t mind me sharing this. Krista said at one point during our long conversation she thought that this might, if this might offer closure, and I was like oh, I think that’s already happened. What was interesting is something my husband, who is much smarter than me, and okay, granted that’s a low bar, said. We were talking about that idea of closure and he was saying that sometimes closure’s shutting a door, and sometimes it’s revisiting a familiar room, and finding what brought you joy. And it just hit me.
Going to the set that day, because we shot on the beach and it was an early call, so I’m driving in the dark because you want to be early. You don’t want to go back and be late. Driving up that windy road in the dark, and people are just starting to arrive, and to see Laura Petticord, she’s our second assistant director. She handles the base camp and corrals all of us, and does that momentous job, and she is someone who’s been with the show, I think, from the very beginning, or at least from that first season. She is like kindness in human form, so seeing her, and then all of a sudden seeing Shawn Hanley, who is now the first assistant director, and then Norman Leavitt, who came back out of semiretirement to try to make this (points to his face) look like something not hideous. It was just wave upon wave of happiness, of joy. Krista was there the entire day. Linda Klein, she was there all day too.
VERNOFF: She’s a medical producer and there was no medicine [in the beach scenes].
KNIGHT: And then to have Ellen, and Chandra, and Jim, of course, and all the other familiar faces that were there, too, because there were quite a bit of crew that were there still. To have all of that, it was just unlike any other experience I’ve ever had in my entire life, in my 47 years.
To act with Ellen, it’s one of those things you wish it always happened but then it wouldn’t be special when it did, to act with someone who you just know that it’s like, okay, what are you going to give me there. Okay, now I’m going to try to match that, and then it’s this game. It’s this rollercoaster that you’re on together. To be able to experience that again with Ellen, and to know that every take is going to be different, there’s going to be a sense of play, a sense of challenge. It’s the best kind of acting, if that makes sense.
DEADLINE: There were some emotions involved in your departure from the show. Did the decade-plus away from Grey’s give you some perspective? Did you miss the show?
KNIGHT: I mean the people, yeah; it’s the people and it’s George. Acting, I feel, is interpretive, you take what’s given to you. It was hard for my brain to try to figure out who George would be now, or what he would be, and then to get Krista’s pages, even the first round. I only got two, but I mean it was just…oh yeah. I don’t know how to describe it other than it’s like, yeah, there he is. It’s that luck of having excellent writers give you so much. It’s kind of like, this is a bad metaphor, if acting is climbing a mountain and then when you have excellent writing that supports you, it’s like a gondola that lifts you all the way up. It drops you off not at the top, because you’ve still got to do a lot of work yourself, but close to the top and it makes the climb so much easier, and I’ll stop that terrible metaphor right now.
What I loved about what Krista did with George was, because Meredith is having this vision, for lack of a better word, of who George would be. George is a very complicated person and that’s what made him such an amazing pleasure to play, but Meredith is seeing the best of George: she’s seeing his humor, his kindness, his generosity, and in this brief moment that you get to see him, it’s such a great way to remember him.
We all know George also had his faults. He stumbled a lot. Literally and metaphorically, he was a little passive-aggressive, had some anger, held a grudge a little too long, but that’s what made him such a brilliant character to play, so to be able to get back into that world was… Like I said, there’s a better word than profound, and I’ll get there someday.
DEADLINE: Did you go through the same elaborate security procedures to keep T.R.’s return a secret as you did with Patrick’s, or did he attend the virtual table read this time?
VERNOFF: No. George was called Thatcher in the script that we read at the table. It was all the same. Nobody saw any dailies. I think there are members of the cast who still don’t know this is happening. I actually think, sincerely, most of the cast doesn’t know this is happening. We’ve been really, really, Ellen and I, joyfully Scorpio secretive.
KNIGHT: And only my husband knows. Only Patrick knows. I’m going to have a lot of angry friends, but that’s…they’ll understand.
VERNOFF: Yeah, my kids don’t know.
KNIGHT: Your kids don’t know? Oh my God.
VERNOFF: You can’t tell the teenagers. Actually, they would get mad. They’re pretty good at keeping secrets, but yeah. I really want to say this, Nellie, about T.R. as an artist. You hear his artistry in his every answer, and the joy for me, in watching him at work and at play again, was amazing. Even watching it on the day and then watching the cuts, as I worked with the editors. Like the thing that I noticed this last time that I watched it is that he’s talking about dancing and the joys of life, and his feet are dancing; he’s sitting on the beach but there’s this restlessness. There’s just always a next level, with T.R., of work and thought, and there’s so much joy and artistry that goes in. He never phones anything in. He never did, and that was really profound. I don’t think there’s a better word.
DEADLINE: How did the joke about George’s changed appearance come about? Was it improvised?
KNIGHT: That’s all Krista.
VERNOFF: It was in the script. And what’s funny is I wrote it assuming that T.R. actually would look older, and as you can see, he doesn’t.
KNIGHT: Oh, that’s baloney. That’s baloney. I have mirrors, I know.
VERNOFF: I would argue that one of the reasons that that felt like a line of improv is how much joy came out of Ellen in working with T.R. again. It feels so alive, and yeah. The artistry they brought in each other, it was magic.
DEADLINE: Because of Meredith’s physical state, she spent a lot more time on the beach in this episode and had several meaningful conversations with George about life, death and both got to say to the other what they couldn’t because of George’s sudden death. Was this a final, proper goodbye for the character or could he be back for more? It did put a nice bow on his story.
VERNOFF: I’ll say this. I thought this was a beautiful bow, and never say never. I mean, who knows. Now there’s magic possible.
DEADLINE: T.R., are you open to revisiting the character again, or was this it for you, the ending you were hoping for?
KNIGHT: It was the ending I never expected and couldn’t possibly have expected, in so many ways. It’s such an awkward position to be put in to be asked that, to be honest, with all due respect, so I will just say in Krista’s hands I feel safe, I feel energized. It’s like when you mentioned about that line that seemed like improv. I’m not going to take credit for that. I give credit to Ellen and I give credit to Krista because to write something that can seem like improv, that’s in the writing, too. And that is just a joy to get to interpret.
DEADLINE: Krista, can you say who is coming to the beach next?
VERNOFF: Well, Nellie, now you’ve seen that sometimes when people sit in Meredith’s room and talk, they appear to her on the beach, so the beach throughout the season exists not just with very special guest stars.
DEADLINE: With Meredith in a clinical trial, is she is turning the corner on Covid?
VERNOFF: What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen? I don’t know. You have to tune in.
DEADLINE: Patrick Dempsey mentioned in an interview that he would be appearing throughout the season. Will Derek and Meredith get closer like Meredith and George and have longer conversations?
VERNOFF: Yes, eventually. Eventually, they’ll get to have deeper, richer conversations as Meredith and George did. We worked with Patrick for two days. We had two days to capture four episodes, and so that’s why you’re not getting the full meal in one episode, that you got with T.R. where we had a whole day to do his scenes in one episode, and that is just about production realities and how many days we’re budgeted to be out on that beach, and now that the days are shorter, going to the beach, we get five hours of daylight. There are so many moving parts. You want more, tune in. It’s like you had a little taste before dinner and come back for dessert.
KNIGHT: I think that makes George the soup.
VERNOFF: I had thought I would save George until later in the season, but once I was…
KNIGHT: Oh, I love the soup course.
VERNOFF: … Once I was on the phone with T.R. and the scenes were written, it was like, we need George now.
DEADLINE: A question about another development in the episode. Is Tom in danger? He didn’t look good in the final scene at home.
VERNOFF: He did not look good in that final scene. Tom has Covid and he’s symptomatic now, and Covid is a dangerous disease, and I hope he’s okay.
DEADLINE: What about the behind-the-scenes aspect of the show? How is it filming during this extraordinary surge of infections in L.A.?
VERNOFF: Our protocols are so strict and strident. Because of how well budgeted the entertainment industry is, it’s been said to me by an epidemiologist the safest place to be is on a set in Los Angeles right now. We’re testing multiple times a week, and we’re maintaining distance, and we’re wearing masks, and we’re wearing visors, and I think that the surge in the L.A. is making everyone personally be even more careful. We shut down for longer after Thanksgiving. We tested more times. We’re taking it very seriously, so where I think it gets harder is if you want to go out on location. That’s not really a problem on Grey’s because we don’t do a lot of days out. Most of our sets are interior, or on our lot. (Spinoff) Station 19 is a little harder, because we’ve got more extras and crowds to control.
UPDATE: Following the end of the episode, Knight posted on Instagram a photo of him and Pompeo on the beach with a note praising her for being “the kind of actor I’m endlessly grateful to act with”.
“George and Meredith love each other, for sure, but I don’t think he can hold a candle to love I have for Ellen,” he wrote.