”Grey’s Anatomy”: A visit from Mom
It was the best of Grey’s, it was the worst of Grey’s.
The best in last night’s episode included Kate Burton’s performance as Ellis, Meredith’s Alzheimer’s-addled mother. In a fantastic conceit, her character snapped back into full consciousness; that is, she could remember everything again, except for — okay — stuff that happened in the past five years. The scenario created such a compelling tension in the episode, because suddenly Ellis was alive, but not wholly so. She was there but not there. And it really was like a visit from a ghost. A nasty yet slightly appealing ghost, sort of like Slimer from Ghostbusters. ”So tell me about yourself,” she said early on to Meredith. ”I’m really happy now,” replied Meredith, mentioning a man in there somewhere. ”You’ve gone soft!” barked Mom. ”Anyone can be in love and be blindly happy, but not everyone can pick up a scalpel and save a life….What happened to you?” How much of this was the old crackerjack Ellis Grey, and how much of it was still the ramblings of a senile woman? That was the tension.
Either way, be grateful to this episode for finding a way to bring back the old Ellis. We’d heard so much about how this raving taskmaster actually used to possess killer instincts, plus a pointy intelligence, and it was a pleasure to actually see the old Ellis, and not just deduce all those traits out of the dark corners of Ellis’ dementia. Loved that early scene where she drew a bead on Cristina and instantly saw that she was friends with Meredith, because she noticed Cristina was afraid to look at her, ”as if I’ll ask you a personal question and you’ll accidentally slip.” And it was delicious and fitting, later, to watch the old Ellis roll her eyes when Cristina asked her if it was possible to have a life and a career — there was something so flip and unforgiving about Ellis’ eye roll, even if she caved and gave Cristina the answer she wanted. (Of course you can have both: It’s TV!)
All this Ellis stuff was also a blessing because it drew more sensational acting out of Ellen Pompeo, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First I have to talk about the worst of Grey’s.
A raging neurotoxin? One that a patient who mixed her herbal supplement with ”chemo chemicals” was exuding, dropping doctors like they were played by Lillian Gish in a silent melodrama out of 1924? Didn’t we cover the plague back in episode 1 of this season, and wasn’t that silly enough? We had to go here? In the dumbest Grey’s scene in maybe ever, the three lady interns had to take turns donning a mask and running into the OR to do something doctor-y to the infected lady on the cutting table, which they gamely attempted till they got woozy and had to run back to tag-team out. (All this was after Burke and Derek passed out in the OR in their Outbreak suits and bicycle helmets. Not even Cristina, watching from the observation tower right before the dramatic commercial break, took this seriously.) Honestly, the whole thing reminded me of that occasional EW feature in the TV section where the producers of one popular show write the script for an episode of another, and here, it was as if the people behind Survivor had decided it would be cool on Grey’s if Izzie, Meredith, and Cristina, rather than running out in bikinis one by one into the South Pacific to dig up some underwater puzzle pieces hooked on an anchor 10 feet under and 50 yards out, instead had to don surgical masks and race into the OR and take turns applying an inflatable tarp onto some unconscious toxic girl’s guts. (In my head at the end, I saw Probst throw his arms up and yell, ”Meredith wins reward!”)
So that part was lame. Other parts not yet mentioned were not lame. Following his proposal last week, George and Callie got married in Vegas. ”Dude,” said Karev in one of the funniest lines ever written on this show, ”she’s Callie O’Malley!” Shortly after they announced their union, of course, George caught the plague, and that created all sorts of false drama because Callie guessed it was the thought of being married to her, and all the disapproval from his ”weird and judge-y” friends, that made him sick. (Neurotoxin = dumb!) But a few other moments in this shotgun-wedding story line did click, totally. First was when George told Meredith about his marriage, and they stared at each other a little long, a little hard, just enough to mean something to all of us who’ve been following these two since the very beginning. And then the subplot ended nicely last night with George defending his new bride in front of those ”weird and judge-y” friends in the locker room. Be nice to her, he insisted, because ”if she’s gone, I’m gone.” He even revealed to everyone Callie’s middle name, which is Iphigenia. At that news (which is not so embarrassing; Mrs. Doubtfire, you’ll recall, was named Iphigenia too), we got three separate incredulous reaction shots from the gals, with Sandra Oh narrowly beating out Pompeo and Katherine Heigl in the funny smirk-off contest.
Now back to Pompeo. I don’t know how many times I have to write how great she is; it’s beyond self-evident to me. Yet every week, and everywhere, there are haters. This is to them: You weren’t in the bathroom, or refilling your bowl of mustard pretzels, were you, when Meredith answered her mother’s hard dis that she’s weak (recounted above) with an amazing monologue marked by the way that Pompeo kept cracking her throaty voice for a fuller effect than she’s ever achieved before in a breakdown scene? ”You wanna know why I’m so unfocused, so ordinary?” Meredith howled. ”You wanna know what happened to me? You! You happened to me.” Ellis angrily wanted Meredith to let her pass on an important heart surgery she needed for something-or-other, and Meredith said no, insisted no. ”Why not?” Ellis demanded. ”Because killing my mother,” replied Meredith, as — right then, timed to a slight pause — a tear fell down her cheek, ”is not going to be another thing that happens to me.” Did that teardrop strike anybody else as amazing? You’re working sweatshop-hour days to give the world an hour of drama a week, starring you, and one afternoon you have to show up and drop a real tear right in the middle of a ”killing my mother” cue? I don’t know, Grey’s fans: It’s not chain-gang work, or brain surgery, but that still sounds like a tough day at the office to me. And Pompeo aced it. What will it take for this actress to get some respect? If her name were Helen Mirren, she’d have another Golden Globe or two thrown at her by now.
And on top of that, this scene was only a lead-up to the best scene of the episode, which was also the last scene of the episode. Meredith — having survived the plague and the revelation of Callie’s absolutely shocking middle name — burst in on her mother and the Chief, and (not pausing at the Chief’s foreshadowy ”Meredith!”) laid into a heartfelt bit about how she wants Mom to have the MacGuffin heart surgery because what if there’s an Alzheimer’s breakthrough in the next couple of years? Then they could start over. ”You’ll have another chance to get to know me,” said Meredith, ”to see I’m not even remotely ordinary.” And to that, Ellis stared at her with a blankness not seen up till now in the episode and said, ”You remind me of my daughter.” And Pompeo used her wet and tired eyes exquisitely, landing them eventually in the direction of the Chief, who explained that Ellis had reverted back to la-la land about an hour before. It was a near-shattering, surprising, emotion-tugging ending the likes of which Grey’s had not delivered to us for the past couple of weeks straight, and it made everything about the episode all right. It, too, was best of Grey’s.
What about Addison and Karev? How in hell, given she was rubbing her teeth at Karev for most of the night, did she end up in a naked clinch with Mark by episode’s end? Don’t look at me: I gotta save it for another week, because, in deference to the grumpy, literacy-averse message posters who bitch that this TV Watch is always too long, I’m cutting out! (Gonna use the time to watch tonight’s 30 Rock on DVR instead.) See you next week for the first of an apparent three-parter about imperiled greater Seattle.
Until then, what did you think of this episode? Is Ellen excellent or what? Are you happy that Cristina, in her own weird way and in her own sweet time, finally accepted Burke’s wedding proposal? And are you amazed that Izzie blew her $8 million on a free clinic? Were you not surprised that the clinic’s first patient turned out to have a problem that was more TV dramatic than not knowing how to insert a tampon, but aren’t you glad it gave the wonderful Chandra Wilson another chance to light up the screen?