Home World ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Season 20 Finale to End on ‘Existential Cliffhangers’

‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Season 20 Finale to End on ‘Existential Cliffhangers’

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[This story contains spoilers from the May 23 episode of Grey’s Anatomy, “I Carry Your Heart.”]

Caterina Scorsone and Kevin McKidd may not have been part of the original cast of Grey’s Anatomy. But in the last 15 years, between Grey’s and its two spinoffs, Private Practice and Station 19, Scorsone and McKidd have both logged enough hours in the O.R. to become two of the longest-lasting actors of the venerable ABC medical drama, which was recently renewed for a record-extending 21st season. (In the Grey’s universe, McKidd has played Dr. Owen Hunt in over 350 episodes; Scorsone has played Dr. Amelia Shepherd in over 280.)

At this point, the characters and the fictional world they live in feel as real to the audience as the actors who play them. While Grey’s began as a soapy romantic drama that followed the lives of surgeons at a Seattle teaching hospital, the show has indubitably become a cultural touchstone — and, in turn, a clear sign of the changing times.

“The relationship to the show now is more, I want to say, like this ubiquitous thing. It’s not about a particular plot. It’s about, ‘Where are we, people? Where are we as a culture right now?’ So you can come in at any point and talk about what’s happening in the news right now,” Scorsone tells The Hollywood Reporter in a joint interview with McKidd. “I think a lot of the audience can step away and then come back when they want to check in on something.”

Audiences who chose to check back into Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital for the penultimate episode of season 20, which was directed by McKidd, found that, in classic Grey’s fashion, the surgeons were dealing with matters of the heart — both literally and metaphorically speaking. Former cardio chief Maggie (Kelly McCreary), who left for a job in Chicago last season, returns to Seattle and teams up with her soon-to-be-ex-husband Winston (Anthony Hill) on a complicated domino procedure involving two transplant recipients. But the spark between the two former lovers is short-lived, with Winston finally signing and returning their divorce papers.

While almost all of the other romantic couples and entanglements — of which there are many — hit another bump in the road, the big driver of the hour came in the form of a major breakthrough in Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Amelia’s Alzheimer’s research, which new Chief of Surgery Teddy Altman (Kim Raver) funded with discretionary funds behind Catherine’s (Debbie Allen) back. After Amelia catches Catherine snooping around her research lab at Grey-Sloan, Amelia packs up all of her data and jets off to Boston, where she and Meredith begin working around the clock to expedite the publication of their research before Catherine can shut it down for good. But the thought of betraying Catherine a second time is enough to give Amelia pause.

“If we are right about this, it makes [Derek’s] work obsolete. No one is gonna read it. No one is gonna reference it ever again,” Amelia tells Meredith in a heated conversation. “I’m not saying it’s rational, but it doesn’t change the fact that when we do this, we are burying my brother deeper in the ground, and I would think that you, of all people, would understand that.”

Amelia is reluctant to further jeopardize her professional relationship with Catherine and the Fox Foundation. But after she and Meredith discover a strong correlation between the gut microbiome and Alzheimer’s, Amelia decides that the best way to honor the legacies of Derek (Patrick Dempsey) and Meredith’s mother, Ellis (Kate Burton), would be to publish their findings. They will, however, face a serious complication; by the end of the episode, Teddy comes clean to Catherine and loses her job as a result.

Below, McKidd and Scorsone reflect on the evolution of their respective characters, why they believe there is still tremendous value in telling stories on Grey’s, and the one storyline that longtime fans of the show always want to talk to them about.

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In this shortened season of Grey’s, Owen finds a way to reconnect with Teddy after her near-death experience, while Amelia teams up with Meredith to do their groundbreaking Alzheimer’s research behind Catherine’s back. What are some of your biggest takeaways from your respective character arcs this season?

KEVIN MCKIDD I feel like Owen’s matured quite a lot. In his younger seasons, he was always quite hotheaded and had this tempestuous way of conducting himself. He was a little short-tempered and passionate but certainly made some rash decisions, and that’s starting to change. He wants to really have communication with Teddy. The younger version of Owen would have simmered on this disconnect that he and Teddy have this season, and [he’d] go off and act out in some way, and we’re seeing him finally try and use his words, which I think is growth for Owen. (Laughs.) So I’m proud of him that he’s now finally starting to go, “Hey, I feel like we’re not talking; we need to talk about the fact that we’re not talking.”

CATERINA SCORSONE I think Amelia really showed up with something to prove and was very focused on Derek — both as this person that she had professional competition with, but also [he] was her main attachment figure. The tragedy that happened where their dad was killed in front of them left both of them deeply traumatized and trauma-bonded, and he became a father figure for her, and then they both pursued neurosurgery. So I think she really had something to prove and never felt independent and autonomous, but there was an adolescence about her when she first came to the [Grey’s] world. I think over the course of the series — and with Derek’s death and her coming into her field and becoming quite masterful in that field — she’s really reached a level now of psychological, emotional independence and autonomy. 

In this season, with the Alzheimer’s trial, the research is now fundamentally shifting away from what Derek was doing. She’s surpassed his research professionally in a way that I think is very emotional for her because she’s become the adult in her life and realizing that she is actually her [own] primary attachment figure, right? And that’s the maturity of this journey of adulthood. It’s letting go of this idea that the adults are going to come and save you, or the adults are going to come and validate you, and it’s coming into your own power and realizing that you are the adult and you can have a community of peers. There’s interdependence, but it’s not this kind of childlike dependence on an external validator.

Kevin, you made your directorial debut on Grey’s with the season seven episode “Don’t Deceive Me (Please Don’t Go),” and you have now gone on to helm 40 episodes of this show. How do you go about balancing the performing and directing sides of your brain?

MCKIDD This episode was my 41st episode. So [with] the next episode I direct next season, I’ll have directed the most episodes of all directors on the show, which is unthinkable to me. [Rob Corn, one of the show’s original producers who departed in 2016, has directed 41 episodes. Debbie Allen, who plays Dr. Catherine Fox and also serves as executive producer, has directed 39.]

SCORSONE Wow!

MCKIDD I don’t know quite how that happens, and yet here we are! I love the fact that I get to exercise these very two distinct parts of my brain. I think for all of us, when you’re acting, you just have to be completely inside the head of your character as much as you can. Yeah, you can have a little bit of a sense of what the director needs and what the story needs, but you have to be true to your character and stick to your lane.

With directing, you have to have a broad sense of what the whole arc of the show is, what the message of that episode is, how you’re delivering that, the tone in which you’re delivering that. You also have to do it efficiently, on time, and under budget, so it’s artistic but also quite mathematical and practical. Whereas acting I find as a much more emotional, subjective exercise. I feel like one thing, for me, feeds the other. I don’t get too bored with one of the tasks; I get to keep changing what I’m doing. So it really invigorates me and keeps playing Owen feel really fresh and directing feel really fresh.

SCORSONE Kevin is definitely one of our very favorite directors. There’s not a person on set who finds out that it’s a Kevin episode and is not thrilled. We know it’s going to be a solid episode, we’re going to get home on time because he is very efficient, but he’s also kind to everyone and has a deep respect for every single crew member and all of the roles that they’re playing. I think he understands more intimately than a lot of people what every single person’s job is and how vital they all are to this thing coming together. Because he has such an inside track on what the acting process is, he’s very respectful and patient, but he knows where to push and give you a little bit of challenge in your performance. He can level with you, and you trust him because you know that he knows what you’re doing. We feel so held when Kevin is directing. 

MCKIDD (Smiling) Thanks, Cat.

In the penultimate episode, Amelia tells Meredith she feels like their research is erasing the contributions that Derek made to the field of neuroscience. It’s a poignant conversation between the sisters-in-law, especially when you consider that Meredith once saw Amelia as a hopeless screw-up, and now they are on more level terms. Caterina, how would you describe the evolution of their relationship? A lot of it always seems to boil down to their love for Derek.

SCORSONE Yeah. Derek is family of origin for Amelia and then chosen family for Meredith, but for both of them, he’s a core attachment figure, of course, in different ways. One is this family of origin and one is this romantic attachment, but their identities are so linked to his legacy. So I think you’re right.

I love reading about neuroscience. It’s an area of great interest to me, so I was so excited about the storyline that we’re doing and all of the new research into Alzheimer’s. My daughter [Pippa] is in a population that has a high incidence of Alzheimer’s because she has Down syndrome, so this new research is going to be game-changing for so many people’s lives, including my own kid.

[The scene] is like, Oh no, this is erasing Derek’s research. But I think the way I was able to find a way in was kind of what we were talking about. It’s not erasing Derek. We had to check off those boxes that he researched. What it’s erasing is Amelia’s need for Derek, right? It’s like when you realize that your parents don’t know everything and that they might actually learn a bit from you at a certain point. So I think it’s this final moment of closure in her thinking that she could never be a complete surgeon without Derek’s input and influence. She doesn’t need any of the research that he did anymore. It’s not relevant anymore. So it’s feeling the loss of that closure for her where she’s actually complete without him. She says, “We’re burying him deeper in the ground,” and she’s talking about the medical community, but I think for her, the emotion is coming from “I want to still need him. I think I’m now the adult, and that’s hard.”

And Derek has been gone for nine years now. It’s not necessarily a fresh loss, but I think it still looms over her as if she just lost him. 

SCORSONE Yeah, it’s deep in her psyche.

MCKIDD I got the privilege to direct that scene, and you performed it beautifully. I read this thing about when we really die. OK, we die physically, but then when the last person that remembers us dies, that is the time we really die as humans. I think that’s a very primal thing that that scene unconsciously taps into for Amelia.

Ellen Pompeo as Meredith in the Grey’s Anatomy‘s penultimate episode, “I Carry Your Heart.”

Disney/Anne Marie Fox

Kevin, Owen has gone through his fair share of turmoil over the years. His journey has really ebbed and flowed, in the sense that he has felt stuck at certain times — and this season felt like one of those times. What new layers are you still able to find in the character, even after all these years of playing him?

MCKIDD I think he’s a fascinating, quite polarizing character, and he’s not a character who was designed by Jackie Strause Shonda [Rhimes] to be liked. He turns up and almost instantly strangles [Sandra Oh’s] Cristina Yang. So the conception of the character was this protagonist-slash-antagonist role; he can ebb and flow between having an almost antagonistic role in the show, and I love that he’s able to dance on that knife’s edge.

The last few seasons, there’s been so much dramatics — Teddy hides her pregnancy and then ends up cheating on Owen with [Greg Germann’s] Koracick, and he finds out on the wedding day. Teddy almost dies at the end of last season and she survives, and he gets a moment to catch his breath and go, “Where am I in my life? And is my career fulfilling me?” I think he’s just been surviving all these dramatic situations that have been going on in his life, so it’s been nice to play a man questioning where he is in his world, his life story, and the next chapter for him when the dust has settled a little bit on the really explosive parts of his life. It’s been really nice to tap into that more subtle journey. 

The penultimate episode ends on a boatload of cliffhangers — Teddy has been fired by Catherine for misappropriating the funds for Meredith and Amelia’s research, Meredith and Nick are on ice again, Adams (Niko Terho) is considering working at Maggie’s hospital in Chicago. What can you preview about the finale?

MCKIDD What I’ll say is that a lot of characters end up kind of on —

SCORSONE Tenterhooks!

MCKIDD A lot of us very much end up on a career precipice, if you will, at the end of the finale.

SCORSONE Certainly, it’s like an existential cliffhanger year. (Laughs.)

While many of your co-stars have left to seek out different opportunities, you have both chosen to stay on Grey’s, which has lasted longer than anyone could have expected. How long do you both plan to stay on Grey’s, and how long do you think this show can continue to generate fresh stories?

SCORSONE The thing that’s so unusual and compelling about Grey’s is that it is almost like the show and the hospital have become a character in the lives of television audiences. It’s such a long-running show, it’s so international, and it somehow spans so many demos in terms of age. Kids start watching it in middle school, and they’re watching it with their grandmas who are, like, 96 years old. With the doctors but also all of the patient cases coming in, I think so many of the stories touch people in all different walks of life at all different times, so the reach is super broad.

The relationship to the show now is more, I want to say, like this ubiquitous thing. It’s not about a particular plot. It’s about, “Where are we, people? Where are we as a culture right now?” So you can come in at any point and talk about what’s happening in the news right now. What’s happening in medical science right now? What’s happening in politics right now? Who have we not included? Who is not being represented? Let’s bring them in. So it’s this very mercurial, evolving constellation in Grey’s. I think a lot of the audience can step away and then come back when they want to check in on something.

I think [actors] sometimes get burnt out on a long-running show because they’re like, “Well, I’ve done the story.” But if the story you’ve hooked yourself into is the story of a human being navigating constantly changing circumstances, that story is never going to be old. That’s fresh, every single new circumstance you’re thrown into. So as long as we can stay committed and interested enough to actually be discovering that fresh moment, we can be here as long as they can be here. 

MCKIDD I agree with everything you just said. The show has become this touchstone of American culture, and world culture at some points. We’re not the canary in the coal mine, but we’re certainly this reference point for people.

SCORSONE It’s almost like a scrapbook. You can look back and be like, “Oh, remember when we didn’t understand that social issue? Remember when our language around it was so limited?” We are a “pop” art form. These are not avant-garde, small theater houses. This is a pop art form that is accessible and affordable to everyone. It’s in everyone’s living room. How are we engaging in conversations about what’s happening? 

MCKIDD Also, the thing about doctors in this high-pressure life that they’ve professionally chosen to live in is they’re just trying to get better each day; you see these people trying to show up professionally and in their personal dealings a little bit better each day. I just think that aspiration has a very global and eternal meaning for people, and that’s why it seems to not get old. It’s very sustainable because it’s very relatable. I mean, if you’re a good human being or trying to be a good human being, we’re all just trying to show up and be a little bit better and a little bit more evolved, each day we get to wake up on this planet.

SCORSONE And sometimes, the best way you can be of service on a show is to show a flaw, and it allows people to recognize that flaw in themselves or others and also see that the flaw resides within a person who has a lot of beauty as well. So perhaps they’re able to forgive it in themselves a little bit or forgive it in somebody that they love because they’ve been given the other parts of the story that are easy to empathize with or connect to. 

MCKIDD Yeah, it’s about how you recover from mistakes and how you heal, because all these doctors make mistakes all the time. We see them fail and survive — and that’s part of the human condition. I think that is what makes it very relatable for people. 

Kim Raver as Teddy with Kevin McKidd as Owen in Grey’s Anatomy.

Disney/Anne Marie Fox

Looking back, is there a storyline that you find people always wanting to talk to you about when they meet you on the street?

SCORSONE People always bring up the scene, Kev, with you and me on that back porch when Derek died [in season 11].

MCKIDD I was going to say that — [they talk about] that whole storyline that we had.

SCORSONE That was so fun.

MCKIDD When I came back from the war, and you were about to take the oxy again.

SCORSONE I was going to take the oxy, but I think the lead-up to almost taking the oxy was that she’s heard that Derek’s dead, but she’s not able to handle it psychologically [or] emotionally, so she’s making inappropriate jokes and she’s acting out and [doing] anything to avoid the pain of grief. And then the final stage of that is, of course, maybe doing drugs. Owen basically shows up and is like, “Are you going to feel it or not going to feel it?” And then Owen creates a safe enough place.

MCKIDD He holds that space for her to do that —

SCORSONE So she can be safe enough to feel the unthinkable, unsayable, ungrievable grief of losing, again, her core attachment figure. And having moved through it with this safe container with Owen, she’s able to kind of move on and heal, but you can’t heal until you’ve felt it. 

MCKIDD Yeah, I was going to say exactly that same moment for our characters. It was very much these two damaged, raw people coming together to create some healing. 

It’s easy to forget that Owen and Amelia were married at one point, but they seem to have reached a really good place that most exes would normally shy away from. They’ve come a long way since their tumor-induced marriage.

SCORSONE (Laughs.) I think we have the quintessentially perfect ex relationship where our characters were married, so all of the question marks are gone because you’re like, “Been there, done that!”

MCKIDD Mm-hmm, yeah.

SCORSONE But all of the witnessing of each other’s lives, knowing each other’s deep motivations and characters, and actually trusting that the other person is a good human being is all there, so it is like family. I think we feel like we came through the fire of a marriage and now we’re like brother and sister. (Laughs.)

MCKIDD Absolutely. Yeah, it is weird, but the friendship that Owen and Amelia have now is really enviable. One of the best highlights for me this season is getting to play that really core, historical friendship between them. 

SCORSONE We’ve seen each other’s worst; we’ve seen each other’s best. We’ve gone away angry, and then we’ve been like, “Yeah, all things considered, I love you!” So there’s just an ease there.

Kevin, you mentioned earlier that Owen is quite a polarizing character. How attuned are you to what fans — but especially younger fans — are saying about your characters and the show on platforms like TikTok?

MCKIDD I’m not that aware of it because I’m not on TikTok — and maybe I should be, I don’t know. I just resist it a little bit, so I think my daughter, Iona, maybe just doesn’t tell me what’s going on. (Laughs.) I’ll ask her! I’m going to ask her this exact question. 

SCORSONE I think one of the nice things about TikTok is sometimes, if you haven’t had time to watch the episode, they do these really short compilations.

MCKIDD The recaps!

SCORSONE And you’re like, “Oh, yeah, they looked good!” But also, in season 18, when that storyline between [E.R. Fightmaster’s] Kai and Amelia happened, I think queer TikTok really took to that story. It became such an important storyline for queer TikTok because we had this nonbinary doctor in a relationship with Amelia. So I think that was when I first became very aware of the whole TikTok of it all, and I think it’s beautiful.

Especially with a show like ours where there are specific relationships that are creating representation for people who don’t have enough representation or who are being discriminated against, there’s a community aspect to finding the relationships and characters that you resonate with on TikTok. Those “ships” or those fanbases become their own thing. It’s like a water cooler community where people can actually create real-life relationships and feel support, and it all starts because of a compelling romance or storyline.

Ellen Pompeo recently spoke about how she has been rewatching and reliving Grey’s with her eldest daughter, Stella. Do either of you also have children who have binged the show on streaming platforms? What do they think of the work you’ve done?

SCORSONE My kids haven’t watched it yet. Now, the older [children] are aware just because when you’re walking around in the world, people have a pretty profound connection to the show, so sometimes, there’s very emotional people that will come up to us. So they’re aware of the impact of the show, but they haven’t watched it themselves. But Kev, I bet your kids have.

MCKIDD My son, Joseph, not so much, but my daughter, Iona, really got into it a few years ago. Actually, I’m going to see her next week; we’re going to meet for a vacation. I’m going to ask her how far she got. I think she got to season 13. She did that Netflix binge thing, and she loved it, but she found my character annoying. She was like, “Why is he like that? He’s annoying, sometimes!” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s the point!” But she was really obsessed with it for a time, and I think it’s one of these shows that you can go back to. I’ve heard of people that have watched it all and then gone back to the beginning and watched it all again.

SCORSONE Like, five times!

MCKIDD It’s amazing.

SCORSONE But I feel like there’s something about this show where it becomes like the soundtrack to your whole life because it’s been on for 20 years. It’s become comfort food for a lot of people. [My comfort show] is Fleabag. But for a lot of people, even just to have it on in the room when you’re stressed, it almost feels like they’ve got their friends over, or your aunt is in the next room with your cousins, and somehow, you’re feeling accompanied through hard times. It serves so many different functions at this point.

Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9/8c on ABC. Episodes stream the next day on Hulu.

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