How This Longtime 'Grey's Anatomy' Fan Learned to Love Alex Karev’s Exit
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Season 16, Episode 16 of Grey's Anatomy, "Leave a Light On."]
As a fan of Grey’s Anatomy since day one—and a longtime recapper of the show—I’ve watched more than a dozen docs leave the hospital now known as Grey Sloan Memorial. Not one of those character departures was more fascinating to me than Alex Karev’s exit in last night’s Season 16 installment, “Leave the Light On.”
No, not the shocking demise of George O’Malley in Season 5, though the “007” reveal still gives me goosebumps. Not Cristina Yang’s move to Switzerland in Season 10, though that remains the series’ most graceful departure to date. Not Derek’s sudden death in Season 11, though I still support Shonda Rhimes’ logic in killing him. And not April Kepner and Arizona Robbins’ swan songs in Season 14, though both ended in surprise romantic reunions.
And here’s the thing: Like many fans, I resented Alex’s departure for much of Season 16. We were kept in the dark for so long, and for so long we were desperate for answers. I even resented Alex’s departure for much of last night’s episode. I thought it was all wrong at first.
By the end of the hour, though, my opinion had done a 180. Grey’s showrunner Krista Vernoff, writer Elisabeth Finch, and director Debbie Allen had won me over as they have so many times before.
Cue up Ingrid Michaelson’s “Turn to Stone” and hear me out, fellow Grey’s fans…
“Leave the Light On” revealed that Alex had reconnected with Izzie, whom Katherine Heigl played until her own abrupt departure 10 years ago. Alex had contacted Izzie to get her to write a letter in Meredith’s (Ellen Pompeo) defense when her medical license was in jeopardy, and he discovered that she was a mother to twins—his twins. She had used the embryos she had frozen so many seasons ago.
We may never know why Justin Chambers left the show so suddenly. But it’s clear this is not the ending Shonda, Krista & Co. imagined for Alex. After so much heartbreak and romantic frustration on Alex’s part, he and Jo (Camilla Luddington) were certainly endgame. So much so that the two of them and Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) often talked about Alex’s exes Izzie and Ava/Rebecca being on his “list of crazy women.”
As Patrick Dempsey and Sara Ramirez’s abrupt departures proved, though, real life laughs in the face of the Grey’s writers’ best-laid plans. At some point midway through Season 16, it seems, the writers realized they’d have to write Alex out. And for whatever reason, Chambers couldn’t or wouldn’t appear onscreen for Alex’s farewell episode.
So the writers had to get creative—and we got, in effect, an hour-long “Dear John” letter in which Alex wrote his goodbyes to the Grey Sloan docs who meant the most to him.
At many times in “Leave the Light On,” we viewers saw the seams. The episode was effectively a clip show, for example, and ABC Studios must have loved the savings in production cost. In the new footage, it was obvious that body doubles played the parts of Alex and Izzie, despite the clever camerawork. And Alex’s frustrating decision to say goodbye to his Seattle family through letters seemed to be a direct result of Chambers’ unavailability.
Given all of that, though, the episode made more sense than I was initially willing to admit. It’s understandable that Alex, who had fractured relationships with his parents, wanted to be the father he never had himself. Plus, his love story with Izzie was jarringly cut off 10 seasons ago without any sense of closure. And whether or not the writers knew about Alex’s imminent exit when they scripted Meredith’s trial, it provided the perfect opportunity for Alex to reconnect with his first wife. We had spent 10 years wondering if Izzie would ever return… and wondering what became of those eggs she had fertilized back in Season 5.
As with the best plot twists, Alex’s decision to stay with Izzie feels both surprising and inevitable. Who would have guessed that Izzie would return to the Grey’s Anatomy fold to turn everything upside-down after a decade-long exile? And yet, haven’t we all been waiting for that shoe to drop?
Grey’s has been capitalizing on nostalgia for years now—resurrecting years-old storylines, reuniting with old patients, reenlisting former surgeons—to formidable success. Sure, last night’s episode would have been even more successful had Chambers and Heigl actually returned to close out their storylines, but there are some tricks that even the magicians on the Grey's writing staff can’t pull off.
Last night’s episode, however, proved to me that Shonda, Krista & Co. can still surprise us fans after all these years. Just when we’re wondering “Where Does the Good Go,” the good comes rushing back.
As a fan of last night’s episode, I may very well be in the minority of Grey’s fans. But I’ve watched the show’s writers come back swinging after pundits thought Derek’s death spelled the end of the show. It didn’t, of course, and by the following season, the conversation had shifted from “Grey’s is over” to “The Grey’s renaissance is upon us.”
Given that external forces left them no choice, the Grey's writers found a stunning way to write Alex out. He didn’t die. He didn’t fade into the background. He made a decision that was both upsetting and understandable, one that polarizes Grey’s fans but electrifies the story and kickstarts Jo’s next chapter. For this fan, the writers stuck an impressive and improbable landing after Alex’s fate was left twisting in the wind for so long.
Grey's Anatomy, Thursdays, 9/8c, ABC