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The Latest Grey’s Anatomy Teaches Empathy In Unlikely Places

Attention Blogosphere, I have an announcement. I have good internet now. That’s right, yesterday a strapping young man arrived at my cottage in the woods and tapped in to the *very* end of their service line, and I’ve been jacked in. It’s amazing. Today, Edward and I were both streaming on our own laptops, and no one was buffering. Such luxury, I never knew! Winter is making its last stand with a cold breeze carrying some flurries over the garden bed that I prepped yesterday, which made today an excellent day for some crafting while catching up on everything that Hulu has to offer.

After watching the three latest episodes of Big Sky (Denise is the mastermind!) I tuned in for last week’s Grey’s Anatomy. Up until 2020, I have had a system for watching Grey’s Anatomy. Every three years or so, I binge the whole damn thing from the beginning (occasionally simultaneously streaming Private Practice for continuity) and catch up, before forgetting about Grey’s for another three years. Something about this last year has kept me tuned in and current though, maybe it’s just the overwhelming amounts of time on my hands.

My mom is a fellow Grey’s addict, and as she’s the only other person I know who keeps up with it, I’m always texting her about the latest episodes. She’s usually a couple weeks behind, because she has more of a life than I do (I’m not ashamed to admit it, that woman works hard!) Recently I was telling her how bored I’ve been with this season and she said “oh I know, it’s just way too much Covid for me.” To which I replied “I’ll take Covid over that god damned beach!” I hate the beach. I think it’s weird, and I don’t love blatant lip service to the fandom. It feels like it’s too close to breaking the fourth wall, with the writers saying “we’re doing this for YOU fans, because we know you’ll love it!” which reminds me that I’m watching a show and breaks the illusion that I’m creepily peering into the lives of these frisky doctors. I’m over the fucking beach. Enough is enough.

I don’t find the show to be too much Covid, though that’s probably because I’ve spent this pandemic ensconced in my cottage in the woods, slowly losing my mind while it’s been safe to hide from the rest of the world for a year. I am the first to admit that I’ve been living in privilege, I am not part of an at risk group. I’ve been keeping my ass home to protect those that are. I need Grey’s Anatomy to remind me of the scale that this pandemic operates on. That there are people wearing PPE around the clock, risking their lives to help a country that’s half resisting them.

Grey’s has been pushing the envelope of social conversation for a long time now. They are not afraid to tackle issues like the failing healthcare system, social injustices, and now a pandemic. Somehow, they’ve managed to go for an entire season and only had one sexual storyline. They’re classing up this joint in the covid era. After spending the better part of this season on that god forsaken beach (while putting out all these teaser episodes about how Meredith might die and this may be the last season – which I’m officially calling a publicity stunt. They’re trying to keep us on edge so that we don’t stop watching the most boring beach in the world. Thus ends the longest parenthesis ever) Grey’s has taken a swing in a new direction – addressing the racial injustice protests during a pandemic.

Somehow, in 45 minutes, they were able to showcase a broad scope of the dangers that people, mostly black people, have been facing in these protests. There were protestors hit with rubber bullets, which the show reveals are metal bullets encased in rubber (something that I didn’t know), another hit with a tear gas canister, and Maggie’s new fiancé, Winston, gets pulled over for being black.

Maggie is on the phone with him until the officers make Winston hang up. She and the viewers are left on edge for several scenes until Winston can be reached again. The camera is tight on his face before it pans out, showing all of his belongings (he was moving cross country) scattered on the side of the highway. Winston tells Maggie that they made him pull everything out of his car and unpack it so that their dog could sniff his things. His entire life was packed in that car, and the officers made him put it on display before leaving him to clean up the mess. As he’s describing the experience to Maggie, I could feel his anxiety, his rage and shame. In that moment, Grey’s helped me understand that experience on an intimate level.

While I will never know what it is like to be pulled over for being black, I know what it is like to be frozen in a moment that I cannot escape. One in which my life is not in my own hands. I have been in dangerous situations with men, ones that I can’t escape from unless I play my cards very, very carefully, and even then my life is not guaranteed. My life is in their hands, at any moment I can be overpowered and my existence could be snuffed without my consent. As Winston was shaking, I felt myself shake countless times in the past. I felt all of them at once and in that moment I felt overwhelming empathy, understanding what it’s like to live a lifetime in twenty minutes, wondering if I will come out on the other side, if anything will exist of me past this interaction.

I am grateful to Grey’s. People, especially where I live (the mountains are not a pop culture addict hotbed), tend to talk smack on the show. Everything they say is true, it’s a lot of drama, it’s a bit soapy. But it’s also amazing. It also teaches me new ways to see the world, it helps me understand a man I may otherwise say I had nothing in common with. I think Shonda made Grey’s for a lot of people. She made it for people of color, pushing the boundaries of representation (at the time it was created). But I think that she also made it for people like me. For the basic white women who love drama, she gave that to us with a side of social education, one that we desperately need. Krista Vernhoff, who took over from Shonda as showrunner, has carried on that legacy. I’ve spent a lot of the last year fighting with white women, trying (and mostly failing) to make them understand how dangerous systemic racism truly is, and in one episode Grey’s was able to put us all in a black man’s shoes as he’s being pulled over. I’ll keep taking my drama with a side of uncomfortable lessons, please. It’s the only thing that will satisfy me.

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