Jenna Bans on "Tainted Obligation"...
Original Airdate: 10-8-09
So I’m a large nerd. I like my parents. A lot. I like to hang out with them, I talk to them almost every day on the phone. I was the person in high school who was like, nah, I don’t think I’m going to that party, I’ll probably just chill with the ole’ parental unit. We’ll order a pizza, play a few board games – it’s gonna be a blast if you want to stop by…yep, I was that girl. (I know you’re wondering and yes, shockingly, I still had a few friends my own age.) Even now, I get a three day weekend and I’m usually off to Minneapolis to hang with the parents. Now I recognize that that’s super weird and slightly creepy to most people, including my husband. He’s all, ew nerd, stop being so obsessed with your parents. But I am. I just like ‘em. They’re good peeps. And they gave me a very happy and stable childhood – which I took for granted until I moved to Los Angeles and started working in television – because amongst creative types, I’m figuring out the normal upbringing is quite the rarity.
My point being, it was REALLY easy for me to understand Lexie in this episode – ‘cause that’s how I imagine she grew up with Susan and Thatcher. There was taco night, and movie night, and if she had homework issues, one of them was always around to help. So now that her Dad needs some of her liver, recovering alcoholic or not, she’s gonna do it. She’s not even thinking about the Chief’s upcoming merger – and the fact that recovering from a major surgery will put her on the bench, out of the game, for at least a month. Lexie doesn’t blink, because family isn’t an obligation to her like it is for a lot of people - it’s a gift. But Meredith, as we all know, did not have such a charmed childhood. So you can hardly blame her for shutting down emotionally the second Thatcher shows up and pukes blood on her shoes. Hell, anyone would draw the line at puking on the shoes, right? (Hey, fun fact – that wasn’t Ellen Pompeo’s feet, that was her stand-in’s feet that got thrown up on ‘cause Ellen was all pregnant and we got her off her feet whenever it was possible.)
What’s interesting about this storyline was that I thought I wrote a reconciliation story – between Mer and her father. I thought I wrote the episode that was going to put all the bad blood behind them for good. And it did, in a way – Mer tells Thatcher the door is open, which is pretty huge. And though it was incredibly hard for her to work up the courage to say that to him, she knew it was the only thing that would let him – or alleviate his guilt enough - to allow her to save his life. But something happened in this story during the shooting process. It changed – subtly, but substantially. Here’s how it started -- Ellen Pompeo came to me on the first day of shooting and wanting to change that speech she gives to Thatcher. She wanted to add a simple line, to have Mer say “I want you to do this for her.” Because for Ellen, this story wasn’t a Mer/Thatcher reconciliation story – it was a Mer/Lexie story. It was a story about these two women, who have done this awkward dance around each other for two seasons now, finally becoming sisters. Ellen insisted that her main reason for doing what she does, for being completely vulnerable in front of the man who has hurt her in more ways than we can count at this point, was Lexie. She was doing it for Lexie. And the more I thought about that, the more I became convinced she was absolutely right. And when that became clear to me, everything sort of fell into place. That last scene when Derek’s watching Mer wake up, Lexie at her side, having slept with her all night, was even more emotional. It wasn’t just about Lexie being grateful – that was there for sure – but now it was about Lexie unconditionally loving her sister. And Mer actually loving her back. Now I don’t think they’ll be having slumber parties and pillow fights with each other any time soon, but still. From strangers two seasons ago to actual sisters is pretty amazing progress – especially for someone who’s ambivalent to the very idea of family ala Meredith Grey.
And though it seemed that Derek had a small part in Meredith’s story tonight, what he did for her was as important as if he had talked her face off for six scenes – he let her have space. It’s funny, ‘cause in the writers’ room he DID have six scenes of talking her face off – he was originally going to point out all the pros and cons of donating the liver, he was going to be sort of a sounding board for her as she worked it out. But then we came to something better, the idea of visually showing Mer struggle while Derek watches, knowing he can’t help her with this. Knowing to stop Cristina from going to her because she can’t help Mer either. He knows his wife well enough to realize this was a huge, huge decision that she had to come to herself – and simply waited, ready to support her, whatever she should decide.
So get this – the story that was probably most emotional for me to write? Irving gets a new penis. And not because standards & practices gave me hell about it. (Which they did - in the most gentle, polite way possible. In fact, if you read the emails that went from ABC to our prop master, Angela, to me and Shonda Rhimes, you would laugh very heartily. Because there was waaaay too much discussion about the penis. The number of times we used the word, the ways we used the word, the actual shape of the apparatus… It was a very fun and incredibly absurd process to witness.) I loved this story because I hate the idea that once you’re old, your life is over. I hate when people treat their aging parents like old furniture they want to get rid of but have to find a place for so they stick ‘em in the corner and forget about them. I suppose because watching their parents age is too painful, so they just…put them away. But the thing is, the truth is, the truth that actually inspired a lot of the writing, is something my Grandma always said. She used to say that even though she was eighty, with horrible arthritis, she still looked in the mirror every morning and didn’t recognize herself. ‘Cause inside, she still felt the same way she did when she was twenty. That’s what I thought about while writing Irving– this guy just has no idea where all the time went. And what I loved about the actors who played this story is that they made it so real – the son and daughter-in-law weren’t evil, just overly concerned about their Dad. (Okay, maybe just a bit condescending too…) And the amazing Ralph Waite (did anyone recognize him as Pa Walton from ‘The Waltons?’) played Irving so truthfully, without leaning too heavily on the comedy, he made us believe he NEEDED this surgery. That it was truly the key to enjoying his golden years – that it would give him his “tomorrow.” And how great was Eric Dane defending Irving’s right to a sex life? I wanted to cheer when he finally told the son and daughter-in-law what was what.
Cristina, on the other hand, didn’t have so much fun with Irving’s penis. (I believe that was mention #3, Standards & Practices.) Poor Cristina. She’s really struggling and lost these days. Without a cardio god to mentor her, she’s adrift. So much so that she turns a simple tick removal into a major surgery. So much so that she says to the Chief, who has had a helluva crappy day himself– cut me from the program. It’s clear at this point Cristina’s willing to do just about anything to get her surgical groove back. And I can promise you, it’s going to be an interesting journey this season to see just how far she will go.
And Izzie. Poor Izzie. The girl’s living with cancer, lost her best friend, impulsively got married and dragged her husband away to live in the woods. That takes a lot out of a person. I need to seriously recover on the couch for an hour after I go to the grocery store – I can’t imagine the emotional and physical fatigue Izzie must be feeling right now. I think by the end of this episode, after Owen tells her that channeling her experience as a patient at Seattle Grace is undermining her strength as a doctor at Seattle Grace – she’s wondering if she made a mistake. She’s wondering if Alex and Derek and now Owen might be right – that she came back to work too soon. That she’s not emotionally ready to be cutting into people yet. Because I think every doctor wants to believe all their terminal patients can be Izzie – but the odds tell another story. And I would imagine there’s a very careful dance doctors have to do between acting like a scientist and acting like a patient advocate and what Owen says to her at the end sticks with her – now that she’s been through this transformative experience – cancer - she has to decide who she’s going to be at the hospital. She’s going to have to re-invent herself as a surgeon.
Lots of good stuff coming your way in season six, lots of BIG stuff. It might be my favorite season so far – although I tend to say that a lot, about every episode, and no one in the writers’ room believes me anymore. So I’ll just leave you with this little nugget. When you’re shooting an episode of television, there’s this thing called the “call sheet.” It’s basically a notice sent to all cast and crew, telling them what time to be on set the next morning, the order scenes will be shot in, make-up and hair requirements for characters, special effects needed, things like that. It’s a handy little document. And this is what our call sheet said the night before we shot the opening scene with Alex: DUE TO THE PRESENCE OF A BEAR ON SET, BREAKFAST WILL NOT BE SERVED. PLEASE EAT BREAKFAST BEFORE YOU ARRIVE AND DO NOT BRING ANY FOOD ITEMS ONTO THE SET. I read that, laughed for about ten minutes straight at the absurdity, then got kind of scared for the crew and Justin Chambers (it’s a supposedly trained “Hollywood” bear but you can’t have a granola bar around in case it goes all “me bear, me hungry” and eats you?) And then it suddenly hit me – how is this my work? How is it work to go to the woods and watch a huge grizzly bear scare the crap out of Alex Karev? How is it my work to read funny emails about the overuse of the word penis? (#4.) I came to the conclusion that I don’t say it nearly enough - I love my job. I love the people I work with. I loved every minute of writing and shooting this episode. And I love all of you for being such loyal, amazing fans of the show. I hope you loved watching it. Or at least liked it. Or at least laughed once or twice while checking email and paying bills.