William Harper on "It's a Long Way Back"...
Original Airdate: 4-28-11
This episode spanned almost three months. From the time Shonda conceived the Musical Event (and the car crash that set it in motion), we knew we wanted the episode that followed to cover a long period of time, so we could realistically show Callie’s journey from the awful image of her bleeding on the hood of that car, to her triumphant exit from the hospital with her new family. Also, to let tiny, tiny, tiny Sofia grow to a healthy weight. So three months it was.
I was excited and a little daunted. Episodes that span long periods of time are tricky, it’s harder to sustain suspense across a commercial break, harder to keep track of time, harder to keep momentum going… On the other hand, a long time span allows you to tell a character’s story in a different way, play characters’ changes more gradually -- you get to watch them grow. (Especially if you’re watching a fragile little premature baby – micropreemies, they’re called -- grow into a crazy-adorable, healthy 12-week-old.) And though this episode was about recovery, as Meredith points out, “recovery” is a misnomer. Instead of “coming back” from a trauma, more often than not, you find it has changed you forever.
So this episode was about change and growth as much as anything. And, honestly, after I wrote it and we shot it, as I watched it, what I couldn’t stop thinking about was how much these Seattle Grace doctors have changed and grown in the seven years we’ve known them. They’ve come a long, long way.
First of all, Callie. Doctors do make the worst patients, in my experience, that’s true. They take shortcuts, they cut time off their recovery, they don’t take the advice – or the meds -- they prescribe for others. So Callie’s pushing herself too far too fast. I would expect nothing less from Callie when we first met her. The Callie who first flirted with George, the bone-busting, badass orthopod of season two, would not have had the time nor the patience for these injuries. But, the Callie we know now has a different drive to get well. She’s known love and loss, been married and divorced, acknowledged a whole new part of herself and fought for it to be recognized by her family, and she’s found true love. She’s grown up. Responsible. And she’s a mother now. She’s not trying to rush her own recovery -- she’s rushing to be there for her little girl. I maintain she is still and will always be a badass, but now that she has a child, her motivations have changed in ways she’s not even aware of yet.
The idea of being pregnant and happy one second, then waking up, being told you’d delivered your baby, that she’s clinging to life, and not be able to see, to touch, smell, or talk to that baby for days on end, is an agonizing prospect. Sara played that desperation beautifully. Her selflessness fuels everything she does in the episode.
And Alex. “Evil Spawn is now Mother Theresa,” Cristina says. I don’t think he’s all the way there yet, but yeah, Alex does make maybe the biggest transformation in the episode. And it’s part of a slow, slow transformation he’s been making over seven seasons. One thing I always liked about Alex – and I mean as a fan, watching the show -- was how gradually we’ve learned about him over the years. His history came out in a hint here and a half a line there… until finally, we know his drug addict father, his crazy mother, that there’s a whole litany of crap that made him angry and guarded and… evil. And that armor has been slowly chipped away at. Here, his motivation for starting this African Surgery program is vintage Karev: it’s an act of desperate self-preservation. Stark doesn’t believe he can do it. His fellow residents don’t either. Really, even Alex doesn’t believe he can do it. Weeks later, when we find him putting the plan together, we know he’s just trying to position himself to become Chief Resident. It’s only in the final “chapter” of this three-month story that we realize something inside him, something he won’t even admit to himself, is driving him to make this happen for these kids. Even if it means his own financial ruin. What Alex has revealed so slowly over all these seasons is that there’s a good guy in there, rising up through a lifetime of brutal crap and getting closer and closer to the surface. For me, it’s there in that smile on his face as he helps those little kids into off the medical transport at the end. It’s surprisingly open, fulfilled…happy. And it’s a long way from the perpetual scowl he wore in season one.
And Meredith. When I watch the scene where Adele mistakes Mer for her mother, (And Loretta Devine’s perfectly heartbreaking performance in it) and we see on Meredith’s face as she realizes the damage her mother did to this woman and her marriage, the scene I kept remembering was when Mer found the Chief at Ellis’s nursing home in Season Two. From that moment she and Richard have shared this uneasy connection – one she has fought so stubbornly against. Now, she seems ready to put the past behind her and to acknowledge that she is tied to Richard, tied to what happens to him, and Adele as well. She takes responsibility for her mother, and performs an act of generosity that has the strong possibility of blowing up in her face. She acts rashly, but she’s always had this impulse. She’s the girl who sticks her hand in a bomb-filled chest cavity before thinking. But where she and the Chief are concerned, I think it’s a sign of serious growth.
When Shonda promotes an assistant to writer, she often says proudly, “Look, the babies are all growing up now.” Looking at this episode, I realized how much her Seattle babies are growing up, too. Growing up, taking responsibility, making adult decisions, using their educations. The interns who struggled to figure out how to tube a patient are now sure-handedly performing surgeries, helping rewrite medical history with clinical trials. And Shonda raised them right -- no matter how dark and twisty they’re lives have been, they seem to be coming through it. They’re growing into good people. Flawed, and rash, maybe…but good.
And don’t get me wrong, they’re not done growing, not by a long shot. They’ve still got a lot of choices to make, a lot to learn, for a long while to come. And especially for the rest of this season: Callie and Arizona have mentioned wedding bells and you won’t be disappointed. And as for Meredith, well, rash actions have consequences, no matter what the intentions behind them. So as we move toward the end of season seven, I hope you like roller coasters. It’s going to be a wild ride.