Spoilers ahead for the March 5 episode of Grey's Anatomy Season 16, called "Leave a Light On."
The time finally came for Grey's Anatomy to say goodbye to one of the few remaining original series regulars: Alex Karev. Justin Chambers shocked fans back in January when he announced he was leaving the series after 15 years, with his final episode already having aired. All the clues surrounding Alex's absence pointed toward a potential tragedy that would prevent him from ever returning. "Leave a Light On" finally revealed Alex's fate, and it turns out that he's not dead, but he is gone. Alex ran off to Kansas to be with Izzie, as viewers learned via Justin Chambers-narrated letters to Meredith, Jo, Bailey, and Richard. .
Yes, Alex reconnected with Izzie when he was reaching out on behalf of Meredith when she was in danger of losing her license, and he learned that Izzie had used their embryos from way back when to have twins. Alex was the father of a 5-year-old boy and girl, and he never stopped loving Izzie. He fell in love with the life he could have there and decided to move to Kansas, divorce his wife, and start over with Izzie and their kids without saying goodbye in person. So is that it for Alex Karev on Grey's Anatomy?
Well, Justin Chambers did narrate throughout the episode, so there doesn't seem to be bad blood between Chambers and the Grey's Anatomy team to the point that they couldn't work together again, and Alex isn't dead. Some of his comments in the letters suggested he could come back, while others suggested he's gone for good.
It was the letter to Meredith that seemingly left the door open for a return. After dropping the exposition of where he was and why he had left via the letter, Alex got to this part:
You can come here. You could show up at my door and get me to walk away from all this and just go back to you and Jo and the hospital and everyone who helped me get here. But I hope you don’t. Mer, you are my best friend and I will miss the hell out of you, but I’m finally exactly where I should be. I never had that before. So I hope you do come here one day. But not to ask me to leave. I hope you come to meet my kids. And they get to call you ‘Auntie Mer.’ Because you’ll love them and they’ll love you. And until you’re ready to do that, try not to hate me too much.
Alex still has strong connections to people he left behind in Seattle, and his bond with Meredith is enough that he clearly hopes their relationship will continue, even if it has to be a long-distance friendship until Meredith decides to drop by Kansas. So, sure, he could come back. He just doesn't want to at this point, and scenes set in Kansas (conveniently not showing either Alex or Izzie's faces) showed they were already settled in, sharing a bed and building their life.
His comments in Jo's letter come across as a little more final, with him cutting a lot of the attached strings in one fell swoop:
I wish getting everything I always wanted didn’t have to hurt you in the process. But I can’t lie to you. And I can’t come home. I’m not coming home, Jo. I can’t face you. I can’t look you in the eye because I wouldn’t be able to walk away. Maybe ‘I love you’ is wrong to say, but thank you for making me better and taking care of me when I needed it, for taking care of yourself when you needed it too. I went to a lawyer. I signed divorce papers. I left everything to you. It’s yours. You worked for every cent you ever owned and then some. I also left you my shares in Grey-Sloan.
Alex ended his letter to his wife by saying he doesn't "know how to end this" because he doesn't "want to," but then closed with "goodbye." Basically, it feels an awful lot like Grey's Anatomy closed the door in Alex's farewell episode, giving him a happily-ever-after more or less at the cost of Jo's. That door may not be locked forever, but this could be a case of Alex leaving like Izzie did: alive and off to the next stage of life, but not without an aftermath left behind.
Meredith, Bailey, and Richard all seemed various degrees of shocked, upset, and understanding thanks to their letters, and Jo's final scene with Link indicates that she'll be okay, so at least her life seemingly won't be ruined by what Alex did. As for Alex's legacy to fans in the years since Izzie left... well, only time will tell on that front. So, how did we get to this point?
Grey's started building the mystery of Alex's departure after the winter hiatus by simply stating that he was still in Iowa helping out his mom, which seemed innocent enough. If not for Justin Chambers' news, Alex's absence might have just felt like part of a story arc to showcase Jo without her husband in the mix. Then the plot thickened when Jo revealed that Alex wasn't returning her calls, and then the latest episode revealed that Alex never went to his mom in Iowa.
Jo jumped to the (reasonable) conclusion that Alex left her, since she didn't have any word from Alex to tell her any differently. Meredith also knew he wasn't in Iowa and seemed worried, although she had more immediate problems to deal with.
For me, it started to feel like the best way to write out Justin Chambers without ruining Alex's legacy as a character who grew into a loving friend, husband, and doctor would be to kill him off. That still left the question of the final text to Meredith, but at least a dead Alex wouldn't be an Alex who abandoned his wife, work, and friends.
New episodes of Grey's Anatomy in the post-Alex Karev era air Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. Grey's has been crossing over with spinoff Station 19 more and more often ever since Station 19 launched its third season with a crossover event, to the point that it seems to be emulating a super successful TV universe on another network.