The “Grey’s Anatomy” mid-season finale, “Risk,” premiered Nov. 21. While the episode was slightly less dramatic than fans have grown accustomed to, leaving only two real cliffhangers instead of the usual five or six, it was no less satisfying. The weaker parts of the episode — including the fact that its goal seemed to be to force the break up of every single couple — were compensated for by the last two minutes, which forcefully reminded audiences of what this show can be like at its strongest, and what makes it so addictingly heartbreaking without compromising the integrity of its characters.

Grey’s Anatomy

Season Eleven Mid-Season Finale
Thursdays at 8 p.m.

Fans of “Grey’s Anatomy” entered this season skeptical, wondering if the long-running drama could maintain its momentum for yet another season — and one without Cristina (Sandra Oh, “Sideways”), one of the show’s central characters since the beginning. The season feels slightly drawn out, but while Cristina’s absence has been sorely felt — especially within Meredith (Ellen Pompeo, “Life of the Party”) and Derek’s (Patrick Dempsey, “Enchanted”) relationship, in which Cristina had been a fundamental third party, the show surprisingly functions without her.  

One of the plot drivers of this episode — the reveal that Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams, “The Cabin in the Woods”) and April Kepner’s (Sarah Drew, “Moms’ Night Out”) baby possibly has fatal complications — adds unneeded drama to a storyline that’s already interesting enough: seeing if their relationship can survive the trials of caring for a newborn on top of the problems already posed by their different views on religion. The fact that Jackson’s ex-girlfriend diagnoses these complications isn’t ironic or a source of comic relief, but just uncomfortable.

Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez, “Chicago”) and Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw, “Minority Report”) finally have a scene together without one of them ending up in a rage; the lack of jaw-dropping drama in favor of unobtrusive displays of quiet emotion is a welcome change and gives the audience a moment to breathe. Justin Chambers (“The Wedding Planner”) continues to give a stellar performance as Alex Karev, the original black sheep of the family who is finally coming into his own as a mature adult. The scenes in which he bluntly gives Meredith and Arizona the advice they need subtly hint that he’s ready to take over as the flawed yet true moral compass of the group.         

Of course, the show’s most dynamic couple continues to be Meredith and Derek, who seem to be heading towards their deepest divide yet. In the finale, Meredith’s newfound half-sister Maggie (Kelly McCreary, “Being Flynn”) acts as a catalyst for the couple to fight until they reach a breaking point. The final — and by far the best — scene of the episode is between the two of them and features some of writer Shonda Rhimes’s most impressive work. Derek makes a phone call accepting a job offer that will take him away from his family, never breaking eye contact with Meredith. She tells him to go, and go now, her current reality of watching Derek walk away from her blended with dim childhood flashbacks of watching her own mother call after the love of her life. Derek and Meredith’s pain is palpable without being pushy. It’s impossible to watch them arguing without remembering where they came from and what they’ve been through, and both Pompeo and Dempsey bring nuances to their performances that remind audiences of how much they’ve grown and fleshed out their characters over the years.

The way that season 11 is going so far, every poignant scene holds elements reminiscent of years past; the last seconds of the finale do so overtly, featuring a chilling montage of the most poignant turning points of Meredith’s life in Seattle. This collection of snippets from every season, more than anything else in the episode, reminds the audience of what “Grey’s” used to be and could return to, while also seeming to gently prepare the audience for the inevitable close of this long-running saga.

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