Meredith Will Pick Up the Pieces on Grey’s Anatomy, With or Without a Man

Shawna Malcom
Ellen Pompeo
Jim Wright for TV Guide Magazine

Fall TV Preview 2015After Dr. Derek Shepherd was killed off Grey’s Anatomy last spring, loyal fans reacted to the shocking plot twist with a vocal mix of grief and outrage. At the time, the woman who created the iconic character played by Patrick Dempsey remained largely silent. Now, as the medical drama prepares to launch Season 12, executive producer Shonda Rhimes makes it clear that viewers weren’t the only ones who found it difficult to say goodbye to Meredith’s McDreamy husband. “It was devastating,” Rhimes admits. “It was never something that I had pictured happening. It was really, for me, unprecedented. I sat there and thought, ‘Well, he is the great love. We’ve spent the entire show with that as our premise. How can we ever possibly go in any other direction?’”

And yet Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) will indeed forge a new path—one that, with time, Rhimes has grown genuinely excited about. “Ellen said it best: ‘Shonda, Derek leaving is going to create the most amazing thing for you because you’re going to come up with a million stories,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t think so,’” Rhimes remembers. “And then, of course, I was like, ‘I have all these stories now!’”

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Like Rhimes, Meredith also returns in a less dark-and-stormy place. “We’re making a concerted effort to make Season 12 a lot lighter and happier,” Pompeo says. “I can’t take crying anymore!” Immediately after Derek’s death, the show jumped ahead a year to give Meredith time to grieve, and the season premiere will pick up three months after the events of the finale. “I said, ‘Can we do widowhood and make it humorous?’” Rhimes reports. The verdict? “We can, and there’s a charm to it.”

Part of that charm comes from Meredith moving back into her mother’s former house, where she lives with half-sister Maggie (Kelly McCreary) and sister-in-law Amelia (Caterina Scorsone), both of whom will help Mer with her three kids. “She’s got Derek’s sister, who she can’t get rid of because it’s Derek’s sister,” Rhimes says with a laugh, “and she’s got Maggie [with] this world of stuff happening around her. They’re a little bit crazy! And [Meredith’s] trapped in the middle, which I love.”

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While Grey’s has revived itself before after losing original cast members—Sandra Oh and Katherine Heigl among them—Dempsey was the hospital drama’s leading man, and it remains to be seen whether fans will continue to check in without him. At this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, ABC president Paul Lee said he saw the show continuing “for many years to come,” and Pompeo calls it “sexist” to think differently. “This is not meant as disrespectful to Patrick Dempsey, but to say that the show can’t go on without the man is absurd—and it’s exactly what’s wrong with Hollywood and the world,” she says. “The show has been called Grey’s Anatomy since the first episode. It’s always been my show.

“No one [asked], ‘Can the show go on?’ when Sandra left, and I questioned whether it could,” Pompeo continues. “Patrick didn’t really have that much storyline. His impact was great, and his character was amazing, and listen, the guy’s a Hollywood icon. I’m not taking anything away from him…but nobody [asked] that when Sandra left. Why is that?”

According to Rhimes, the series was always less about Meredith’s romance with Derek and more about her sisterhood with Cristina. “That was her real love interest, and that was her real scene partner,” Rhimes says. “So to me, the loss of Sandra was much more like, can the show go on? Derek—really it’s not the same. It’s not equal screen time. It just wasn’t.”

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Grey's AnatomyOf course, there are plenty of other relationships to focus on. Alex (Justin Chambers) and Jo (Camilla Luddington) are living together in a new loft; exes Callie (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) will each date new women; Owen (Kevin McKidd) and Amelia will continue to hook up; and a back-from-the Army April (Sarah Drew) will refuse to give up on her marriage to Jackson (Jesse Williams). “There’s lots and lots of romance,” Rhimes says, “and too many people having sex!”

Even Meredith may one day love again—though Rhimes insists it’s a mistake to assume that Martin Henderson, who joins the cast later in the season, will be the guy to fix the doc’s broken heart. “We brought in Martin because I think he’s interesting and because we need some more testosterone,” Rhimes says. “But everybody needs to stop assuming that in order for Meredith to exist, she has to have a man.”

Grey’s Anatomy Returns Thursday, Sept. 24, 8/7c, ABC