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I give Grey's Anatomy
credit. Six seasons into a hit show it would be very easy to coast along doing the same old, same old...lather, rinse, repeat. But exceptional television is built upon finding just the right balance of novelty and predictability, of taking a calculated risk from time to time. So I have to give the writers their due for trying some new things this season: a story from multiple perspectives, "I Saw What I Saw"; an exclusively Derek-centric episode, "Give Peace a Chance"; and now a journey into the past with three flashbacks all linked to the present, "The Time Warp".
In the opening voiceover, Richard begins by talking about the addictions that shape our lives...the hungers that, unless they are tamed and controlled, consume us from the inside out. For some, the addiction is surgery. For Richard, the addictions are Ellis Grey and Alcohol. And it's fascinating how one addiction inadvertently led to the other.
The year was 1982 and Richard Weber and Ellis Grey were residents at Seattle Grace Hospital. Times were very different then, not so very long ago. As viewers we're used to a Grey's Anatomy (idealized) world-view which is blind to race, gender, and sexual preference. But in this flashback Richard and Ellis are marginalized because of their race and gender, respectively, and it influences their personal relationship. Yes, there's passion there but that passion is also driven by the camaraderie they feel as outsiders in the hospital. Working together on one of the first cases of AIDS, they make a stand and treat a patient considered "untouchable" to much of the staff. We also get glimpses of their complicated personal story: they're both married to other people and Ellis has a child, Meredith (adorable with her Anatomy Jane doll) whom she pretty much ignores. In the end they uphold a high professional standard while struggling with personal choices and it's gut-wrenching to see Richard take that first drink of vodka (at Ellis' urging...ironic, much?) that will impact his future so much.
What a kick to see how Mandy "the minnow" transformed herself into Bailey "the Nazi". It seems Miranda Bailey was raised to be polite and respectful. She was taught to never raise her voice and to never make waves. But surgery is "a shark tank" and Mandy, like so many other women, is a minnow. Through a complicated and confounding case, Mandy becomes Miranda (and there are even shades of Bailey emerging) as she learns to be an advocate both for her patient and for herself. I found it particularly interesting that while Mandy dealt with a tough-as-nails resident of her own, Miranda grew into a resident/teacher (to our Fab Five) who, although tough-as- they-come herself, wasn't just empty bluster and rage and selfishness. Miranda is an excellent teacher just as she is an excellent doctor, putting what's best for her students and patients before her own ego as a surgeon. Her image was carefully crafted to release and reveal the strong woman who had been hidden underneath that meek persona. The gruff exterior is the armor she puts on every day to survive in her world. It's also interesting to see the beginnings of the Richard/Miranda mentor/student relationship, never funnier than the faux-disciplinary-action scene when Richard tells Miranda, "You're going to make a hell of a surgeon, Dr. Bailey. Lose the smile!"
Then there's Callie Torres, whom we met after-the-fact. Not part of the original cast, Callie was nonetheless still "present" at Seattle Grace in 2006. I really enjoyed seeing the bold, risk-taking Callie again. She's been MIA for awhile now, having been beaten down by her failed marriage to George and her professional and personal challenges. But this Callie Torres is fearless (or "arrogant" according to Richard), telling a polio patient that she will make him walk again. And she does with the help of Alex Karev (!) who it turns out is still stinging from his freak-out in the elevator (I'm betting long-time, die-hard fans loved this) and struggling to get his swagger back. The two of them have a nice dynamic and it's laugh-out-loud funny when they celebrate their medical victory with a little roll in the proverbial hay. "Cone of Silence!" Callie insists. Alex agrees and keeps his word, even back in the present day as Arizona starts to put two and two together.
Leaving a Legacy
This brings me back to Richard as I consider the questions: How does who we were influence who are? How does our past inform our present and our future? Richard's a man at a critical cross-road. We saw how his early days with Ellis shaped him. We saw him being "The Chief" in Miranda and Callie's stories (and, boy, have I missed that Richard). And we saw him as an elder-statesman hoping to pass on what he's learned and leave a legacy to the hospital and staff and students that have meant so much to him. Will he accept the position of Attending General Surgeon? Will he ever be the Chief of Surgery again? Richard doesn't know right now what the future will bring and neither do the rest of us in our own lives. And that's ok. Sometimes there are more questions than answers and you just have to keep on moving.