When Grey’s Anatomy premiered in March 2005, it quickly became known as the show with the sexy doctors. The characters, all undeniably beautiful, were ambitious surgeons who couldn’t stop making out in stairwells and silently lusting after one another in elevators. No on-call room was free from hookups. The New York Times called the show “Sex and the City Hospital.” A 2006 Grey’s-centric episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show heavily featured the show’s makeouts and flirtations, and Oprah herself was eager to know when the show’s primary couple — Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) — would finally have makeup sex after getting back together.
But in 2018, which saw the end of Grey’s Anatomy’s 14th season and the beginning of its 15th, things have changed. Slowly, over the years, Grey’s Anatomy’s sex and covert yearning glances have taken a backseat to death, trauma, and long-term storylines about what it means to be a survivor. The show killed off Derek, its romantic leading man, in Season 11, and Meredith became a widowed mother of three. The series’ main characters have been through plane crashes, mass shootings, multiple disastrous storms, numerous brain tumors, fires, random beatings, C-sections without pain meds, and a whole lot more. Everyone is very, very tired — especially Meredith. As Grey’s has shown us over the past decade or so, tired people spend a lot less time embroiled in lurid affairs than those who are more wide-eyed, nimble, and unscarred.
After years of relatively tempered libidos, however, the show finally found its way back to its roots in 2018. Grey’s Anatomy is horny again. Hallelujah.
Meredith Grey has always been a masterfully well-rounded character, never defined entirely by her love life or career but rather by how she deals with the medley of traumas, joys, and complications she’s faced on the show. She’s a neglected daughter, devoted friend, talented surgeon, and, at times, even a moving portrayal of suicidal ideation. Romance has been baked into Meredith’s storyline from the beginning, though, and the series has used sex and love as ways to crack Meredith open while titillating audiences at the same time. The entire series opened with a postcoital scene, after all. In the first moments of Grey’s, we find Derek lying naked on Meredith’s floor after what she assumes was a one-night stand. She later finds out he’s her boss, but she still kisses him in fits of passion and hooks up with him at parties. Their flirtation makes up a significant portion of the conflict in Season 1 — then they fall in love, and their back-and-forth over whether to actually commit to each other fuels conflict for at least four more seasons after that.
During her off-periods with Derek, Meredith also sleeps with other men — strangers in bars, close friends, and veterinarians. There are references throughout the first four seasons to Meredith’s habit of “[screwing] boys like whores on tequila,” a pastime she shares with Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) and several other doctors on the show. It was a crass way of saying that Meredith — and by extension the show that bears her name — is unabashedly sexual in a way that is undeniable and, frankly, fun. Sex and flirtation have long provided Grey’s Anatomy with comic relief, emotion, and the chance to ogle its incredibly attractive cast. Romance — and the comedy and drama that come with it — is a big part of what made Grey’s Anatomy a success story in the first place.
But Meredith, much like Grey’s itself, has always had a “dark and twisty” inner life. That darkness became even more prominent as the show went on, especially after a mass shooting in Season 6 and a plane crash in Season 8 left most of the main characters with a myriad of traumas to sift through. When Derek dies in Season 11, Meredith — already known for being emotionally hesitant to the point of dysfunction — retreats back into herself. While she’s close with people platonically and familially, Meredith resists all newcomers, and for a while romance couldn’t have been further from her mind. She’d had her big love already, she thought, so there was no point in going out to try to find another. “I’m closed for business,” she tells Maggie in Season 12. “Vagina City’s a ghost town. Orgasm train doesn’t roll through here anymore.”
Grey’s has always had a way of following Meredith’s lead. The show was at its peak sexually when Meredith and Derek were doing their prolonged dance around each other, first when they were dating and sneaking around, and then after they were married. Those seasons boasted Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) and Cristina’s spiky romance, a brief sexual fling between Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) and Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), the raw sexual energy of Mark Sloan (Eric Dane), and the bonkers chemistry and genuinely moving love story of Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw), among many others. Every character on Grey’s was horny on main for about a decade, give or take. Then everyone just got really sad.
Grey’s kept up some of its horniness through Season 9, more or less, helped along by an influx of new characters and romantic storylines. Eventually, though, the traumas started to outnumber the flirtations. Repeated fatal accidents, infidelity, divorce, and dead babies are all pretty massive mood killers.
To be clear, Grey’s has always maintained at least one romantic storyline at all times. People still have sex. But it hasn’t carried the same swagger as the show’s early years — and with such a big ensemble cast and so many dramatic narratives to juggle, it was only natural that the show’s priorities shifted. Meredith’s certainly did. And where Meredith goes, Grey’s follows.
Introducing a new love story for Meredith soon after Derek’s death would have felt like a betrayal of the depth and importance of the couple’s decadelong love story. As a result, much of Season 12 of Grey’s is devoted to Meredith simply finding a way to keep going after such a big loss. Her life in Season 12 is still full of conflict and triumph — most of it just isn’t romantic. Pompeo and Grey’s executive producer Krista Vernoff wanted to lean into Meredith being a “medical superhero” after Derek’s death. Meredith is plenty busy without romance, and the show’s ratings saw a resurgence that season, possibly because viewers were eager to see how this legendary character would take on the next chapter of her life.
Grey’s was laying the groundwork for the next era, though. Season 12 also saw the introduction of cardiac surgeon Nathan Riggs (Martin Henderson), who was established by the end of the season as Meredith’s next love interest. Season 13 saw Meredith falling in love and having hot sex again. Fittingly, Meredith and Nathan bonded in large part over a shared sadness: They’d both lost the loves of their lives. But their love story wouldn’t last long — Nathan gets his fiancé (who had been thought to be dead) back at the end of Season 13. “[The writers] didn’t love the storyline, so that ended,” Pompeo wrote in the Hollywood Reporter by way of explanation. And while Nathan showed Meredith that she could connect with someone again, the two didn’t have the kind of spark that could be milked for seasons on end.
With Nathan’s exit, both the show and Meredith were at an impasse. Meredith would remain a worthwhile and landmark character with or without a love interest — but did they really want to keep her single forever? To let Vagina City remain a ghost town, as Meredith had put it?
Meredith doesn’t need a man; she’s plenty all by herself. But so much of Meredith’s character development in the early years of Grey’s was based around her emotional reticence when it came to opening herself up to love. She showed through her relationship with Derek that she could overcome that. She’s proven the same thing in the realms of family and friendship as she’s let two sisters into her life. For Meredith to remain a stoic widow, though, resigned to spend the rest of her life without feeling those big, exciting sparks again, would be a remarkably cynical choice on the part of the show’s writers. That choice would go against what Grey’s has always been — a melodrama that is morbid but never fatalistic and that always falls back to believing in the healing powers of love, romantic or otherwise.
As Meredith said a decade ago, in therapy to overcome a hesitation around romance that she couldn’t quite understand: “So you think I’m broken? Fix me. ‘Cause I’m no quitter.”
At the beginning of 2018, during the second half of the show’s 14th season, the sparks came back to Grey’s in a big way. In “One Day Like This,” Meredith meets transplant surgeon Nick Marsh (Scott Speedman). Nick is having complications from his own liver transplant, and for the span of an episode he becomes Meredith’s patient. Speedman, who some may remember as the dashing, golden-haired main love interest Ben on Felicity, brought to Grey’s the full force of peak WB-era charm. Nick takes an instant interest in Meredith, and as the two banter, Meredith’s defensive emotional force field starts to crumble. She visibly warms; she smiles when he smiles. Meredith does something she rarely does: She confides in Nick and tells him about her life and dreams. He does the same back to her. At the end of the episode, Meredith sits in a bar with Alex, recounting her flirtation with Nick.
“I really like the way my life is now,” she said. “I just… He made me feel something that I hadn’t felt since Derek.” There were obstacles, though: Nick is her patient, and he lives in Minnesota. Grey’s executive producer Krista Vernoff told TVLine, “We all loved him, but Nick was designed as a one-episode guest star,” not a long-term love interest. But as Alex asked Meredith, “Is it really the worst thing in the world, knowing that [romance] is out there if you want it?” The episode ends with Meredith sitting at the same bar where she met Derek. As she turns around, the show cuts to a shot of Meredith from the first season. She looks young and hopeful, and Meredith’s episode-ending voiceover makes clear where her mind is: “One single day can fill us with more possibilities than we can imagine.”
“One Day Like This” was a bright spot in the season. The episode breathed life back into the show’s relationship to love, especially as it related to its main character. Even if Nick never returns to the show, his brief flirtation with Meredith was a reminder of what a rush romantic human connection can be — for viewers as much as for Meredith herself. The show then spent the remainder of 2018 slowly but deliberately backing up that point.
The Season 14 finale of Grey’s takes place at Alex’s wedding to Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington), his on-and-off girlfriend since Season 9. After series regular April Kepner (Sarah Drew) almost dies in the incredibly dark penultimate episode, the finale allows the entire ensemble to gather together and celebrate love. This is hard on beautiful senior resident Andrew DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti), whose girlfriend moved to Switzerland a few episodes ago. After getting drunk at the ceremony, DeLuca drunkenly kisses Meredith. Meredith evades his advances but tells him that she’s flattered.
In the lead-up to the most recent season of the show, which started this fall, ABC’s promo for Season 15 felt like a true callback to the show’s early days. The trailer teased “an explosive love triangle” between Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd), Teddy Altman (Kim Raver), and Amelia; two exceptionally hot new doctors joining the cast — Chris Carmack’s Atticus “Link” Lincoln and Alex Landi’s Nico Kim; and new twists, one of which involved Meredith and DeLuca making out in bed together.
The Season 15 premiere opens with that makeout scene, which turns out to be a sex dream Meredith is having. The opening establishes very quickly that Season 15 is determined to return to the show’s flirty, sexy roots. For the entire season so far, Meredith has been flustered by her own horniness, which is more complicated for her to act on now that she’s a widowed mother of three as opposed to a young, single intern. The season premiere also introduces a new patient, a matchmaker named Cece (Caroline Clay), who makes it her mission to get Meredith back out in the dating world. Cece convinces Meredith to go out on dates and to challenge herself by confronting the emotional issues that have kept her from pursuing romance in the past.
Crushes have also made a big comeback in Season 15. Though in the premiere a hungover DeLuca is horrified to remember that he’d kissed his boss, he spends the ensuing episodes watching Meredith closely. Whenever the two are in the same room, his gaze is constantly locked on her, a small crooked smile on his face from his clear respect of her work and affection for who she is as a person.
DeLuca isn’t Meredith’s only admirer: Link asks her out to drinks soon after joining the hospital staff. Though she rejects him at first, it’s clear she’s intrigued by the idea of him — and of DeLuca, too, whom she seems to gravitate to almost as much as he’s drawn to her. Meredith’s storylines throughout the first half of Season 15 have been underlined by flirtation in multiple directions. Thank god for her horniness — her casual love triangle with Link and DeLuca has brought a chemistry and levity to Meredith’s story that’s been missing since well before Derek died.
In the midseason finale that aired Nov. 15, an emotional moment with Cece spurs Meredith to accept a date with Link. Seeing this, DeLuca knows he needs to act fast if he doesn’t want to miss his shot. When the two have a moment alone together, Meredith tells DeLuca how much he impresses her. “Well, you amaze me, Dr. Grey,” he says in return. “And while I’m feeling brave: I’m not sorry I kissed you at the wedding, because it’s all I’ve been able to think about ever since. And I know you have options. But I want you to know that I’m one of them.”
His voice is confident but warm, and Meredith doesn’t back away like she often does when confronted with an emotional decision. She seems to resist a smile, rattling off a list of reasons they shouldn’t be together (she’s his boss; he used to date her sister). But she doesn’t reject him. She breathes in deeply and braces herself. She wants to say yes, but never in the entire run of Grey’s has Meredith been able to jump into a whirlwind romance without pushing it away first. That’s just who she is. So she tells him she has some thinking to do, and she leaves.
That midseason finale was only the first part of a two-part episode, though, and it ends with a cliffhanger in which Meredith and DeLuca get trapped together in an elevator. The moment feels like yet another callback to the early years of Grey’s, when flirtations on elevators were so rampant and romantically charged that Oprah parodied the scenes. Derek proposed to Meredith on an elevator; before that, they spent plenty of time in them, tortured and yearning side by side. Elevators are Grey’s shorthand for romance, and here was Meredith locked in one with her newest and most promising love interest.
Grey’s doesn’t seem interested in leaving the sadness behind for good. Morbidity has also been baked into the show from the get-go; sex and death have historically gone hand in hand for the series. Trauma is never too far from sight, either; these characters have been through too much for a life without scars to make any sense. Still, Grey’s proved in 2018 that it is interested in exploring an emotional renaissance. The show is at its best when it’s both funny and sad, emotionally grounded and grandly melodramatic. By resuscitating the romantic spark within Meredith, the show is in turn reviving itself.
The second half of the midseason two-parter airs in January when the show returns from its winter hiatus. For a time, at least, Meredith will still be trapped with DeLuca, and she’ll have a decision to make. Grey’s would not have survived this long if watching Meredith Grey make these types of choices weren’t utterly captivating — and as the show’s 2018 efforts have reminded us, there just might be life in her yet.
The mass shooting episode of Grey's Anatomy took place at the end of Season 6. A previous version of this post misstated the season.