Lynette Rice
May 02, 2008 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Derek (Patrick Dempsey) have just finished working on a patient’s inoperable brain tumor (read: a cow’s well-preserved gray matter). But alas, the guy on the table didn’t survive. The Grey’s Anatomy doctors leave the OR and begin their familiar trek down one of Seattle Grace’s drab hallways, and a few seconds later, they clasp hands. Great, just what we need — another tentative flirtation with commitment after three and a half seasons of tentative flirtations with commitment. But then something titillating happens: Derek slowly massages the top of Meredith’s hand; the motion becomes more vigorous until he’s practically rubbing off her skin. (In a seductive way, of course.) That’s when Pompeo completely loses her cool and steps out of character. Giggling, she makes a beeline to the director and holds up her hand. ”Are we really going to have thumb sex?” she asks.

Hey, at least they’re having some kind of sex.

Since Grey’s first debuted on ABC in 2005, creator Shonda Rhimes has teased (some might say tortured) fans with Mer-Der’s will-they-or-won’t-they relationship — a beloved but bedeviling coupling that culminated last fall with an absurd breakup. Now — after some soul-searching prompted by the writers’ strike — Rhimes will finally unite the Heathcliff and Catherine of TV for good in the two-hour May 22 finale. ”Before it was, ‘Can we do this and make it work?’ ” she explains. ”Now it’s ‘We can do it and make it work.’ But watch what happens when we do. It’s going to be incredibly interesting.” The actors, no surprise, were thrilled by the news. ”I think it’s terrific,” says Dempsey, who has been vocal to the press and Rhimes about his weariness with the wishy-washy romance. ”It’s nice to see all these relationships moving forward. And the characters are making fun of themselves in a good way. We’re getting back to the sense of humor, getting away from all that shark-jumping, unbelievable stuff.” Adds his onscreen girlfriend: ”Chemistry wins above everything else. When you have chemistry with someone, you can’t stay away from them, no matter how dysfunctional the relationship is.”

NEXT PAGE: ”Everyone says having two [series] is exponentially harder than having one, and it is. Suddenly, you have 20 actors and two writing staffs that need your attention. But I don’t feel like Grey’s suffered when my time was spread thin.”

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