Joan Rater is "Wishin' and Hopin'"
Original Airdate: 2-1-07
So … Tony, my writing partner who also happens to be my husband had brain surgery last year. He’s fine. Totally fine. But it was brain surgery and there was a chance that he wasn’t going to be fine. And Tony has a good brain. The kind of brain that remembers everything. And I mean, everything – names, dates, entire casts of television shows from the 70’s. His whole family is scary smart, trivia contest winning smart, and even they acknowledge the superiority of Tony’s Brain. So, when Tony was about to have his head cut open we were all worried about Tony’s Brain. What if it isn’t the same? Who is he if he isn’t the guy who knows everything?
During this time, I discovered something about my brain. Stress - especially the stress of having a husband about to have a craniotomy - makes me forgetful. The name of my kid’s teacher would suddenly elude me. The lyrics to a song. I’d go upstairs to get something but forget what I was there for. There was one day, a few days before his surgery, where I was standing at an ATM unable to remember my PIN number. The PIN number I’ve had for 10 years, the one I punch in without thinking everyday. I needed money for parking but my secret code eluded me. So I had to call a friend to bring me money. I knew it was just the stress of the surgery, but still, while I waited on a street corner for my friend, I felt frustrated and embarrassed.
I tell you these things about Tony’s surgery and my stressed out brain because those scary, frustrated feelings were on my mind a lot when I was writing this episode. This episode was obviously about a lot of things, but for me, it was really about Alzheimer’s disease. How devastating it is to families, how it turns spouses and children into caretakers, how it robs people of their memory, their identity.
The concept of someone with this disease having a lucid day is real. The disease varies for everyone, but experts we talked to said that patients have bad days and good days and then sometimes they have great days where it seems like they are their old selves. Maybe it’s a moment, maybe an hour, for some a whole afternoon, but we were fascinated with the idea of getting this time, this gift, and knowing that it’s only temporary. What would you do with that one day? And what would it mean for Meredith?
The words “ELLIS HAS A LUCID DAY” have been up on the board in the writers’ room since last season. We knew it was a cool idea - what it would mean for Mer and Ellis to be able to connect again – but we never really knew what to do with it. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve tried to put it in episodes but it never felt quite right. If you’re going to give Meredith her mother back and then take her away again, you’d better have a pretty good reason. Last season Meredith had her hands full with the Derek/Finn of it all. The beginning of this season was so much about the aftermath of Denny. But now it feels to me like the interns are entering a new period, a period that is really about identity. Who are they as surgeons? Can they have a life and a career? Can they be happy? Meredith is … or at least she should be. She and Derek are together and she finally has a chance at happiness. Perfect time for her mother to show up.
I really mean that. Not because the writers love to torture poor Meredith, but seriously, if Meredith is ever going to be happy she’s got to deal with the fact that she had a really terrible childhood.
On the set, when we were shooting the scene where Ellis Meredith what happened to her -- and tells her how disappointing it is that Meredith turned out so ordinary -- after the first take when the amazing Kate Burton really just went all Ellis Grey on Meredith, there was this silence. It was so awful and raw and ugly, these terrible things Ellis was saying. And the silence was broken by someone on the crew who said, “Oh, now I get all the drinking and the sex with inappropriate men.” And it was cathartic to be on the set when Meredith finally stood up to her and said, “You want to know why I’m so ordinary? What happened to me? You. You happened to me.” I think Ellen’s work in this episode, especially in that scene, is exceptional.
And then finally, Ellis and Richard. With him she lets her guard down and we see her be vulnerable. And when she tells Richard that she wishes she could do things differently, she made so many mistakes, if she could do it all over, she’d be fine with being happy, like Meredith says she’s happy, that she’d be satisfied to just be ordinary … Shonda took the final pass on that scene, and the actors did a remarkable job with it. It gets me everytime I watch it.
Because that’s really what it’s all about. We have to cherish the time that we have here, and love the people who surround and support us, even if they make us crazy. Because things happen. Brain surgery, and Alzheimer’s and weddings. And the worst thing is to come to the end of your life and realize, like Ellis, that you should have tried harder.
I know this isn’t an ordinary blog – there’s so much that happened in this episode that I didn’t talk about. But this wasn’t an ordinary episode. And I just wanted to give you a little window into what I was thinking about when I wrote it.