Why Grey's Anatomy Goodbyes Are Never 'Entirely Satisfying,' According To Former Showrunner

greys anatomy season 16 abc meredith grey ellen pompeo
(Image credit: ABC)

Grey's Anatomy has been going strong for the better part of two decades, and the 16 seasons so far have seen the departures of most of the original stars. Justin Chambers is the most recent original star to say goodbye to Grey's Anatomy, and Alex Karev left Grey Sloan for an off-screen happily-ever-after with Izzie Stevens. A lot of fans weren't happy with how Alex bowed out of Grey's Anatomy, but according to former Grey's Anatomy co-showrunner Tony Phelan, goodbyes on the show are never entirely satisfying.

Tony Phelan served as Grey's Anatomy co-showrunner with wife Joan Rater for ten years, starting at the show in Season 2 and continuing through Season 10. That tenure means Phelan was at the helm for some of the biggest departures of the series, including Katherine Heigl as Izzie Stevens. Now bringing Council of Dads to TV on NBC, Phelan spoke with CinemaBlend and weighed in on how Grey's Anatomy said goodbye to Alex:

Our very good friend Krista Vernoff runs the show now, and Alex is such an iconic character and I think that whenever, because we dealt with this, there were several people who left the show over the years when we were on it and when we ran it, it's never easy or entirely satisfying to the audience when a character leaves the show. It's very difficult, I think, for people to say goodbye. The realities of the world come into play as well, in terms of the actors wanting to simply move on and do new things. Joan and I were running the show when there was the famous plane crash, and we killed Lexie and eventually killed Mark. People were out of their minds! They were just crazy that we had done that. But you're trying to further the story while at the same time stay true to the characters and accommodate actors who want to go.

Considering fans were split on whether or not Alex should live when news broke that he was leaving, there definitely wasn't going to be any way to satisfy everybody. As the last one of Meredith's group of original interns other than Meredith herself, losing Alex was a major blow to longtime fans. There really might not have been a good way to do it.

Neither Justin Chambers nor anybody at Grey's Anatomy dropped details about why he made the seemingly abrupt decision to leave the show without Alex even getting a farewell episode, but his initial broad statement was that he hoped to diversify his acting roles. There didn't seem to be bad blood in his departure, as he did at least return to provide voiceover work for the episode that finally explained why Alex had left Jo.

Tony Phelan elaborated on the difficulty of saying goodbye to longtime favorites:

It's never easy. I take my hat off to them having to do it, because especially saying goodbye to one of the originals. Saying goodbye to Patrick Dempsey, saying goodbye to Justin [Chambers], saying goodbye to any of those people is very difficult, especially now that Ellen [Pompeo] and Chandra [Wilson] and Jim Pickens are really the only three original characters left on the show.

Grey's Anatomy has had to wrap Season 16 early due to production shutdowns throughout the television industry, but the series was already renewed for Season 17. As Tony Phelan noted, three original series stars remain on board, thanks to Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey, Chandra Wilson as Miranda Bailey, and Jim Pickens as Richard Webber. It may be a while before Season 17 can get into gear, so only time will tell how much longer those three stars intend to remain on board.

The first 15 seasons of Grey's Anatomy are now available streaming on Netflix. For more viewing options now and in the not-too-distant future, check out our 2020 midseason premiere schedule and our 2020 Netflix premiere guide.

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. CinemaBlend's resident expert and interviewer for One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and a variety of other primetime television. Will not time travel and can cite multiple TV shows to explain why. She does, however, want to believe that she can sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation (and author bios).