TV Critic Ellie Reed reflects on the somewhat spiritual re-introduction of the much-loved character Derek ‘McDreamy’ Shepherd in Grey’s Anatomy

Written by Ellie Reed
Last updated
Images by Joyce McCown

The recent premiere of the 17th season of Grey’s Anatomy has certainly astonished us all; not only does this season deal with the trials and tribulations of the current global pandemic, with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) being the pre-eminent character to suffer with COVID-19, but Derek ‘McDreamy’ Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) has officially made a physical reappearance in the show. Wait, isn’t he dead? Yes, much to our dismay. But now he is back, as he has a key role in visiting Meredith in her COVID dreams – his nickname truly could not be more fitting at this stage.

I think it is fair to say that Derek’s death at the end of season 11 left us all completely heartbroken, and frankly, we are still not over it even today. For some, it perhaps came as a surprise at the time; Derek did previously survive both a fatal mass shooting and catastrophic plane crash, even with severe injuries, so the car crash really was third time unlucky if anything. Although, a tragic death is nothing far from the usual in Grey’s Anatomy, so much so that the show has become renowned for its proclivity to kill-off several beloved characters, with Derek standing as a stark example. As upsetting as some of the other deaths were, like that of Mark (Eric Dane), Lexie (Chyler Leigh) and George (T.R. Knight), McDreamy’s just did hit differently.

Meredith and Derek’s spellbinding chemistry

But why is it that we were so traumatised by Derek’s demise in particular? I mean, at this point, were we to expect anything less than a heart-rending ordeal? Ultimately, I think it comes down to Meredith and Derek’s spellbinding chemistry, something which Pompeo and Dempsey portray beautifully on screen. The ‘MerDer’ relationship in essence serves as the foundation of the show; although they endured many challenges and obstacles throughout their relationship, ranging from trivial break-ups to several near-death experiences, it is nonetheless a relationship we all love and aspire to have. And with all the complications comes a seemingly admirable simplicity, such as the iconic post-it note wedding scene (let’s just ignore any pressures that may have subsequently brought). Even though it is just television, there is no denying that the many emotional events in Grey’s Anatomy resonate with us all, and, at times, it is easy to forget that it is all just fictional.

So now that Derek has returned, how does this affect the show, and more specifically, Meredith? So far, it is something we are unsure of. Derek’s death has since had a radical impact on both Meredith’s personal and professional life, yet, if anyone had to sustain such a calamity, and still manage to end up somehow alright, Meredith Grey is the epitome, and she has certainly proved this notion on more than one occasion. But, is bringing Derek back into the picture going to ruin what she has had to spend so long rebuilding? In addition to her confrontation with COVID-19, will digging up the past cause Meredith to ultimately reach her limit? Is the vision of Derek maybe an insight into Meredith’s impending afterlife? Or, conversely, will Derek be the saviour and perhaps provide the proper closure she has needed the whole time? Kevin McKidd, who has played the character of Owen Hunt for 12 seasons, and also co-directed a number of the show’s episodes, has stated that the timing of Derek’s return ‘is perfect for real closure’; is this perhaps insinuating a conclusion to the show as a whole? Yet, as we are all aware – when it comes to Grey’s Anatomy, anything is possible and events can go either way.

We can only hope that we are given some form of happy ending either way.

It goes without saying then that fans were even more delighted when Pompeo and Dempsey each shared heart-warming photos posing together on Instagram, especially since there have been rumours that the actors were no longer friends after Dempsey’s departure from the show in 2015. Regardless, the two looked perfectly content together in the photos, and efficiently rekindled their characters’ romance. Since the release of the first episode of season 17, Pompeo and Dempsey have both explained that part of the motivation behind reuniting Meredith and Derek was to somewhat provide an escapism for viewers in light of the pandemic’s difficulties. The show-runner Krista Vernoff has explicated similar objectives, and revealed that there was the need ‘to come up with creative ways to allow [our] show to still be fun and romantic and provide some escapism. Enter Patrick Dempsey . . . Derek’s return provided pure joy for [us], Meredith, and for the fans.’ I for one must agree with this logic.


Accordingly, all this just goes to show that there really is not anything Grey’s Anatomy cannot facilitate, and like all other seasons, I am sure that this season will also prove successful. Whilst there is no doubt that we will be taken on the usual emotional rollercoaster this season, and it is certainly exciting for fans to see the adored character of Derek on screen again, I can only assume that there will be additional adversity due to the harrowing and intense nature of the pandemic. We should perhaps additionally consider that Derek’s presence may be short-lived, as what will happen if Meredith recovers from COVID? Will he still visit her in her normal dreams? Or, if there is a tragic turn of events on Meredith’s part, will the ‘MerDer’ unification be maintained in some form of afterlife? Who knows. We can only hope that we are given some form of happy ending either way.

And on another note, I firmly believe that if this pandemic is going to be conquered, then the doctors at Grey Sloan Memorial are going to be the first to do it!

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