The most controversial Grey’s Anatomy episode ever

Grey’s Anatomy fans know the show is no stranger to controversy; the procedural medical drama regularly tackles difficult topics like religion, gun violence, and domestic abuse. In fact, fans have likely come to expect controversial moments from the show. At this point, we’ve seen the titular Meredith Grey survive a mass shooting and plane crash, former-intern Jo Wilson face her abuser and learn she was born from sexual violence, and ortho-God Callie Torres comes out to her uber-religious family. Like we said: no stranger to controversy. 

The show tackles these issues well and is generally applauded for shining a light on difficult subjects. While the above tragedies and storylines fuel conversations on real-world issues, and are among the show’s most controversial, they’re not the show’s most hotly contested and outrageous storylines. That honor goes to the episode “How To Save A Life” and the death of Derek “McDreamy” Shephard.

Over the course of 11 seasons, fans fell in love with Derek Shephard

The very first scene of Grey’s Anatomy features a frantic Meredith Grey kicking Derek Shephard out of her home, revealing the show would center on the up-and-down-and-up-again love story between Seattle Grace’s new intern and the Chief of Neurosurgery. From that moment, and for 11 seasons thereafter, fans fell in love with (and became invested in) their relationship. 

To say Derek’s death was unexpected would be a massive understatement. For a decade, the show featured a strong ensemble cast with Meredith and Derek at the center of it all, and while the couple had their fair share of relationship hiccups, fans always expected them to pull through. 

Behind the scenes, Patrick Dempsey had just signed a new two-year deal that should have seen him through the 12th season (via Entertainment Weekly). So, even though season 11 was one of the rockiest in Meredith and Derek’s history, fans were confident they’d figure it out and reunite, and they did. 

Just prior to Derek’s death, he and Meredith shared a sweet moment reaffirming their love for each other and deciding to prioritize their relationship over their competing careers. The future looked bright until that rug was pulled out from under all of us.

Derek's exit from Grey's Anatomy didn't really make sense

Grey’s Anatomy is famous for killing off important characters, so while Derek’s death shocked fans, it wasn’t entirely out of line with the show’s precedent (via Bustle). What was wrong, however, was how it was executed. 

Prior to Derek’s death, fans watched Mark Sloan, Lexie Grey, Christina Yang, and others get exits fitting with their impact on the show. But with Derek, that all changed. 

While driving on a dangerous road, Derek witnessed a deadly car accident and stopped to help the victims. In these moments, it was established the area had no cell service.

After seeing the victims off in an ambulance, Derek returns to his car, hears his phone ring — even though there’s no cell service — and begins fishing for it. While digging around for his phone, Derek is struck by a semi-truck, but that doesn’t seal his fate. 

The above events, while unbelievable and a little shoe-horned in their own right, could be forgiven — if Derek’s treatment in the ill-equipped hospital he was taken to was handled better. Instead, though, a series of mistakes by his care team leave him brain dead, and Meredith is left with the responsibility of turning off his life support. Which she does do, without notifying any of their friends, or even Derek’s family. Absolutely unforgivable.

Understandably so, critics poked holes in the episode’s execution (via SpoilerTV) and fans, in their complete and utter shock, felt the show did a disservice to such an important character. But Shonda Rhimes had to have her reasons, right?

Shonda Rhimes felt like there was no other way for Derek to leave

Shonda Rhimes talked to E! News extensively about Derek’s exit, revealing, “Like yeah, Patrick wants to leave. It’s been 11 seasons for god’s sake, let the man go!” Despite rumors of a rift between Dempsey and Rhimes, by all accounts, the exit was mutual, albeit devastating for fans. But even if Dempsey wanted to leave, why did he have to die, completely eliminating any opportunity for a later return? 

Luckily, for fans, Rhimes explained this to E! News, too, saying “I really couldn’t have the idea that he just turned out to be a bad guy who walked out on his wife and kids be a true story. To me, it felt like that was the only way to make Meredith and Derek’s magic remain true and forever frozen in time.”

In all honesty, that’s a fair argument. While fans were heartbroken by Derek’s death and the episode is one of the series’ lowest-rated on IMDB, it would have been an even bigger disservice to just have him walk out on Meredith. 

Fans’ outrage and heartbreak are completely understandable and warranted, but the silver lining here, if there ever was one, is that it could have been much worse.

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