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‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Returns: 15 Best Episodes Ever
February 19, 2023
The very best installments of Shonda Rhimes’ long-running hit.
In March 2005, ABC premiered a medical procedural as a midseason replacement for “Boston Legal.” It featured no huge names and wasn’t helmed by an auteur writer: “Grey’s Anatomy” came out of nowhere to become a primetime phenomenon. The series about a group of surgical interns learning their craft, falling in and out of love, and working at a hospital that is a hotbed for large-scale crises has been on the air for 19 seasons and is the longest-running drama series ABC has ever aired.
“Grey’s Anatomy” was applauded for its “blind-casting” which generated an organically diverse cast. Whether you loved Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), a hyper-competitive surgeon with no stomach for bullshit; Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), the original class bully with a soft interior; Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl), a former lingerie model who feels she has something to prove; George O’Malley (T.R. Knight), the lovable pushover with a heart of gold but lacking the steel nerves needed for the job; or the titular Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), a surgical savant with a shitty family life, the original “Grey’s Anatomy” cast was full of fun, imaginative characters who had believable drama simply by existing in the same space together.
Creator Shonda Rhimes’s writing was immediately approachable with a vernacular that transcended the show: “McDreamy” became a way to refer to an ideal lover, calling your bestie your “person” is now commonplace, and “pick me, choose me, love me” is a go-to meme on today’s Internet. But the series wasn’t necessarily always grounded in reality. To love “Grey’s Anatomy” is to suspend all disbelief—a theme that will prevail throughout the maelstrom of catastrophes, dangerous situations, and personal tragedies that the cast endures (seriously, there’s been a ferry crash, a train derailment, a plane crash, an active shooter, and a bomb to name a few). Meredith and her friends live through an entire life’s worth of trauma in just the first three seasons alone; it’s why Cristina later quips about renaming the hospital to “Seattle Grace Mercy Death Hospital.”
But it’s a bonafide hit, which regularly brought in upwards of 20 million live viewers on Thursday nights in the early seasons and thrust stars Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey, and Oh into national fame when the series began, and made a household name out of Rhimes. The show earned the lead-out spot from the Super Bowl in 2006 and Rhimes went on to sign a huge first-look deal with Netflix. In 2018, Pompeo became the highest paid actress on TV for her lead role.
“Grey’s Anatomy” is one of the last remaining vestiges of successful network television, and the show is facing a major shake-up when Pompeo exits at the end of the current season. Over the course of 19 seasons, the cast has expanded with new interns, residents, love interests, and even children and long-lost siblings. The hospital itself has changed its name at least three times. Well-known stars like Debbie Allen and Denzel Washington appeared in front of and behind the camera while actors like Jesse Williams and Sara Ramirez became big names after their stints on the series. But Pompeo’s presence has been steadfast, with Meredith’s narration calmly guiding us through each week, and through tragedies both on the show and in real life. When she exits at season’s end, “Grey’s Anatomy” will have to reinvent itself on a scale it’s never had to before.
While the show’s near-two-decade run isn’t perfect (we’ll never forget the musical episode or forgive the awful farewell to Alex Karev), the series has produced some of the most memorable and exciting episodes of television. Before we say goodbye to Dr. Meredith Grey, here are 15 of the show’s best installments.
15. “Be Still My Soul” (Season 13, Episode 18) Speeding up the pace of time, “Be Still My Soul” is a somewhat unconventional episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” The case of the week is also the emotional anchor of the episode as Maggie’s (Kelly McCreary) mom is treated for cancer, entered into a medical trial, and dies in the course of a single episode. Alongside Maggie’s grief is Meredith’s ongoing journey to acceptance of her own mother’s life and death, which is a cruel juxtaposition when placed next to Maggie’s loving adoptive mom. Maggie is vicious in the wake of her mom’s death, slinging harsh criticisms in Meredith’s direction about her relationship with Ellis Grey. But Meredith’s humanity prevails, forgiving her half-sister without a song-and-dance. While McCreary turned in some of her best work, it’s LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Maggie’s mom Diane who fills the episode with so much warmth that you feel Maggie’s loss immediately.
14. “She’s Gone” (Season 8, Episode 2) You could call “Grey’s Anatomy” a lot of things, but it’s never been shy. In Season 8, the medical show finally tackled abortion by allowing Cristina to choose her career over an unplanned pregnancy. After a little fuss from husband Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd), Cristina goes through with the procedure with little fanfare. It’s not the first time the show has flirted with the idea of an abortion (Cristina contemplates this in Season 2 with Burke before being saved by an ectopic pregnancy), but it’s one of the first times a network drama presented the option so clearly and without shame attached to the decision.
13. “White Wedding” (Season 7, Episode 20)
Callie (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) are the show’s sunshine manifested, but their wedding day is anything but perfect. Bogged down by Arizona’s military father who won’t allow a moment of silence for her late brother and Callie’s religious mom who can’t accept that her daughter is a lesbian who won’t be married in a church, the couple almost throws in the towel on getting married at all. That is, until Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) steps in and reminds them that the day should be a celebration of their love and that there is still a point in basking in those feelings. They don’t need a church to get married, Bailey reminds them, because God is everywhere—and the church and Callie’s mom just “haven’t caught up to God yet.” “White Wedding,” like so many “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes, tackles a common issue in our society (here, the acceptance of gay marriage) and finds a common ground that humanizes everyone involved without alienating certain viewpoints.
12. “Bring the Pain” (Season 2, Episode 5) Early seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy” didn’t hold back from showing the demands of a surgical intern’s life—not only did the characters work never-ending shifts, they were expected to be an encyclopedia the moment they stepped into the hospital. Add the fact that they had to be ready to do surgery anywhere, and the stress levels are rising. In “Bring the Pain,” Alex and George get stuck in an elevator with a patient, and George has to perform open heart surgery with Dr. Burke’s (Isaiah Washington) guidance through the crack in the elevator doors. It’s a great showcase for T.R. Knight as the often-nervous George, and is one of the first cracks in Alex’s hard facade. This episode also features the iconic Meredith line, “pick me, choose me, love me,” as she pleads with Derek (Patrick Dempsey) to choose her over going back to his unfaithful wife Addison (Kate Walsh).
11. “Fear (Of The Unknown)” (Season 10, Episode 24)
Saying goodbye to anyone from the original cast always stings a little extra, even if it’s as beautiful as this send-off for Cristina. Earlier in the season she accepts a new position in Switzerland, taking over the cardiothoracic department from her former flame Dr. Burke. It’s a huge step for her career and a needed push to leave the comfort of Seattle Grace. “Fear (Of The Unknown)” is a respectful way to close out Cristina’s chapter on the show. Her farewell tour lasts the entire episode, finding significant moments with everyone, even in the smallest of ways. She hugs Derek goodbye in a hallway, accepts an offer from her intern (recurring star Gaius Charles) to follow her to Europe, shares a meaningful look with ex-husband Owen from the OR gallery, and of course dances it out with bestie Meredith in an on-call room. Before she parts, she gives “her person” a final morsel of wisdom that springs Meredith into action against Derek’s proposed cross-country move: “he is very dreamy, but he is not the sun. You are.” The show was never quite the same after Oh’s departure, and this episode was a beautiful tribute to a one-of-a-kind character.
10. “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?” (Season 3, Episode 25)
Romance is at the heart of “Grey’s Anatomy,” which means heartbreak isn’t far behind. Cristina and her mentor Preston Burke begin sleeping with each other in Season 2, and up the ante to a proposal and a wedding by the end of the third season. But it’s not a happy ending for the cardiothoracic surgeons—due to Washington’s behavior on set, Burke is written out of the show by leaving Cristina at the altar. Meredith is there to pick up the pieces of a hyperventilating Cristina by physically cutting her best friend out of her wedding dress. “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?” is masterful in the buildup to the heartbreaking final moments, writing the guidebook on how to have a character swiftly and believably exit stage left without sacrificing the emotional center.
9. “A Hard Day’s Night” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Shonda Rhimes’s pilot episode is the perfect entry into Seattle via Meredith Grey’s eyes. When we meet Meredith, she’s waking up next to an attractive older man after a one-night stand before her first day of work. Of course, he’s Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd, who happens to be a neurosurgeon at the same hospital she’s interning at. Thus begins the show’s central will-they-won’t-they that is initially anchored by Derek’s pursuit of Meredith. “A Hard Day’s Night” also lays the groundwork for Meredith’s relationship with her mom, a world-renowned surgeon who is now suffering from Alzheimer’s, and introduces the main cast of characters who quickly become Meredith’s family.
Rhimes’s writing often subverts the expected in the show’s first episode, whether it’s while introducing the show’s initial “villain” in Dr. Bailey, whom the interns refer to as “The Nazi,” or in the dynamic between Derek and Meredith. Her characters are memorable and believable, and while many of us do not work in the medical field, the sentiment of feeling lost in your first job is relatable. It sets the tone for the series: sex-positive, whip-smart, and fearless.
8. “Silent All These Years” (Season 15, Episode 19) Dr. Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington) was conceived as a love interest for Alex, with their troubled childhoods used as a bonding agent. In “Silent All These Years,” Jo gets her moment in the spotlight when she tracks down her birth mom and learns the trauma of her mother’s pregnancy, and helps a patient who has been sexually assaulted and possibly raped report her case. Her empathy is on full display—despite being angry with her mom for fueling her abandonment issues, Jo listens and absorbs her mother’s story; when her patient resists surgery because she sees her rapist in every man’s face, Jo orchestrates a safer hallway lined with supportive women. In a smaller C-plot, Bailey’s son gets not only a sex talk, but a consent talk, which parents can and should take notes from. Luddington is perfect in calibrating her performance to meet each serious moment, the writing is on par with what we expect from “Grey’s Anatomy’s” best episodes, and the single image of the wall of women is one of the most powerful things the show has produced.
7. “Into You Like a Train” (Season 2, Episode 6) In Season 2, the Meredith/Derek/Addison love triangle is in full force. While Meredith waits for Derek to pick between his two loves, she is pulled into a surgery dealing with the aftermath of a train crash in which two passengers are impaled on a metal pole. The surgery required is a risky one, which will more than likely be a death sentence for one or both of the patients. Tom, the older man impaled on the pole, offers his life in favor of Bonnie, the other unfortunate soul on the other end of the pole, as she has more life left to live. The doctors, however, deem Bonnie’s injuries to be worse and elect her to have the riskier part of the procedure, which results in her death. The episode’s romantic arcs are paralleled in the medical case in a neat bit of writing, as Meredith asks the powers that be to not abandon her, on behalf of both herself and Bonnie.
6. “Now or Never” (Season 5, Episode 24) It takes five seasons, but in “Now or Never,” Meredith and Derek finally get married—sort of. Derek initially tries to postpone their city hall wedding because of everything happening in their lives: Izzie’s cancer and short-term memory loss after surgery, George enlisting in the army, and a John Doe on the operating table within inches of death. But Meredith, in full carpe diem mode, decides that there actually is no time like today because everyday will have its own set of excuses. So the central couple sits down and writes their vows on a post-it note, which becomes an iconic emblem of their relationship.
The final moments reveal that Meredith’s John Doe patient is actually George, who heroically stepped in front of a bus to save a woman standing nearby. In her palm he writes “007,” a callback to the nickname he gets in the pilot after almost botching a surgery. George’s departure wasn’t exactly shocking due to reports at the time about Knight wanting to be written off of the show, but the way in which he goes is the kicker. “Grey’s Anatomy” succeeds in a clever bait-and-switch that still feels like it honored the core of who George was.
5. “Sanctuary” (Season 6, Episode 23) In one of the most traumatic episodes in “Grey’s Anatomy” history, a disgruntled and grieving widower opens fire in the hospital. Alex is shot and countless others are killed as the shooter searches for Derek, whom he feels is responsible for the death of his wife, a former patient at Seattle Grace. The episode ends with Meredith, who has just found out that she’s pregnant, witnessing Derek being shot. “Grey’s Anatomy” takes the time to delve into the psychology of the killer—not necessarily absolving him from his actions, but trying to find a morsel of understanding in what would drive someone to that point. The episode aired in 2010 and is unfortunately just as, if not more, prescient in our society 13 years later.
4. “Fight the Power” (Season 17, Episode 5) As COVID-19 enveloped our real lives in 2020, the doctors at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital battled the pandemic on our TVs. There were very few shows that “did the pandemic right,” so to speak, but “Grey’s Anatomy” was one of them, handling the serious nature of the illness with respect and gravity, and acknowledging its own role as a public medium in which the lives lost to the virus could be honored. Season 17’s “Fight the Power” centers not on Meredith—who is in a virus-induced coma, one step into the afterlife’s beach with her lost loved ones—but rather on Bailey, going through a loss of her own. Bailey’s mom contracts the illness from her assisted living home, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital to live out her final days in isolation. When she finally passes, Bailey is both sad and angry. She’s sad about the things left unsaid, but she’s also angry that her mother’s death may go down as just another statistic in the ravaging pandemic.
The episode ends with Bailey’s voiceover paying tribute to all of the lives lost, remembering them as people with families and futures, before the screen fills with names of real people lost to the virus. Airing in the thick of it in December 2020, it’s one of the most timely and moving episodes “Grey’s Anatomy” has ever done.
3. “Losing My Religion” (Season 2, Episode 27) When you think of iconic “Grey’s Anatomy” scenes, an image of Alex carrying a distraught Izzie in a pink prom dress might spring to mind. The stretch of episodes at the end of the second season taught all of us what an LVAD wire is via Izzie’s romance with the terminally ill heart transplant patient Denny Duquette. Featuring an excellent guest-starring stint from Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Denny charmed not only audiences at home but also his doctor, making her fall in love with him despite his diagnosis.
In “Losing My Religion,” Izzie finally accepts Denny’s marriage proposal after a seemingly successful heart transplant. But things deteriorate quickly and a blood clot causes a stroke, and Denny dies unexpectedly alone in his room. News of his death spreads, and a grieving Izzie climbs into bed with him in a perfect pink prom gown (oh yeah, there was a prom in the hospital cafeteria) before Alex picks her up and carries her away. Admitting to illegally cutting his LVAD wire, Izzie quits the internship program in this season finale. Heigl’s performance is a highlight—it’s full of heart without veering into melodramatic territory and manages to keep the character somewhat grounded despite her dangerous actions.
2. “It’s The End of the World” (Season 2, Episode 16)
For a while, “Grey’s Anatomy” was event television, and they made the most of a coveted lead-out spot after the Super Bowl. In the first of a two-part episode arc, a patient who accidentally shot himself with a bazooka arrives at Seattle Grace with a rookie paramedic (guest star Christina Ricci) attached to him—literally, as her hand is inside his body keeping him from bleeding out. Alex, who is caring for the man’s shocked wife, deduces that the ammunition never left the body, meaning there’s a live bomb in the patient. “Code Black” is called and the paramedic caves under the pressure, removing her hand and running out of the room. Everyone ducks, expecting an explosion, only to find Meredith with her hand inside the explosive cavity before the credits roll.
When we first meet Meredith she’s not exactly chipper, but this is the first episode that really shows her signature “dark and twisty” attitude about life. While she’s not praying for death, she’s willing to put herself in its path when she feels like she has nothing to live for. Meredith has a bit of a savior complex in this way, subconsciously volunteering herself as the sacrificial lamb and later nonchalantly stating her brush with death. But it also shows Meredith as someone with deep compassion and empathy and a genuine love for her friends, even if it manifests in dangerous decision-making.
1. “As We Know It” (Season 2, Episode 17)
As much as it pains me to put an episode in which Kyle Chandler blows up as the number one entry on this list, the second part of the bomb storyline is the perfect culmination of what “Grey’s Anatomy” does best. Meredith is coached on removing the explosive, handing the bomb to the bomb squad leader (guest star Kyle Chandler). As he retreats with the secured device in-hand, soundtracked to “2 A.M.” by Anna Nalick, the music suddenly cuts out and he’s all “pink mist”—the bomb explodes, killing Chandler’s character and knocking Meredith out.
While it’s colloquially known as “the bomb episode” finale, “As We Know It” is pitch perfect in its supporting storylines as well. Bailey is halfway into labor, waiting for her husband to arrive before proceeding and not knowing that he met with a car accident on the way to the hospital. Derek operates on him while the unlikely hero of George coaxes Bailey to carry on with her delivery. Meredith’s near-death experience crystallizes something for Derek, and his visit to her house at the end of the episode is both heartbreaking and hopeful. It’s expertly paced with significant, interconnected stories happening in each portion of the hour. Quite simply, it’s the best episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” ever made.
“Grey’s Anatomy” returns Thursday, February 23 on ABC.