‘Grey’s Anatomy’: Stage fright, bad hair and AIDS in the ‘80s
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Thursday’s episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ was called ‘The Time Warp,’ and it delivered on that promise. Arguably one of the strongest episodes of the season, ‘Time Warp’ didn’t offer us any current character development but did give us a glimpse into what made some characters into the surgeons they are today.
Webber, after rehab and 45 days of sobriety, returns to Seattle Grace expecting to get his job back. Shepherd makes noise about needing board approval but suggests that Webber give one last lecture for the newly reinstated Lecture Day, so that he can go out on a higher note than he did before.
Lecture Day features Webber, Torrez and Bailey on stage, recounting pivotal cases from the entire course of their careers in front of a room full of their colleagues. Though many of our favorite doctors were missing from this episode -- notably Hunt, Altman and Sloan, the focus on individual stories was a welcome departure from the usual busy relationship drama.
Torres had a rough go of it. As Cristina commented at the start of the lecture, ‘She’s doing the pee dance. She does that when she has to pee.’ Callie’s stage fright surprised me -- she’s usually so brash and confident that it was hard to reconcile her character with the stuttering, mumbling woman who kept fumbling her PowerPoint presentation. She shared a story about Sunder, a patient from her third year of residency: a man with a severely clubbed foot and atrophied legs.
This took us back in time to just after George O’Malley’s heroic elevator heart surgery. When that particular episode aired, we hadn’t met Callie yet, so it was interesting to see how she fit into the hospital dynamics before viewers were aware of her presence. This was the first time she’d worked with Karev, who carefully allowed her to believe that it was him, not O’Malley, who performed the elevator surgery, in order to get in on the case. After she promised the man that she could help him walk again, she was reprimanded by the Chief for being too arrogant.
After hitting a roadblock, Alex gave her what he described as a ‘rousing pep talk’ about the elevator surgery that he didn’t actually do. Invigorated, Callie went back into surgery, where Alex’s bluff was called when a cardiac event prompted Callie to ask him to do ‘a miniature version of what [he] did in the elevator.’ Even after discovering that he’d been lying, Callie remained confident in him. ‘Just because you haven’t, doesn’t mean you can’t,’ she said. ‘Get it together and take the scalpel.’
Their mutual cheerleading led to a successful surgery -- and the revelation that they’d ‘celebrated’ together in the on-call room, as the Seattle Grace doctors tend to do. It was a treat to see Callie before she met George -- and it was also quite interesting to remember Alex as he was all those years ago. After everything he’s been through with Izzie, he’s really regressing to the way he was back then, before he made a commitment to his relationship and before he’d discovered his surgical strengths with Addison.
Bailey’s story began with her beaning Dr. Yang and Dr. Grey in the face with Hershey’s kisses, because they were more focused on their friendship bracelets than her story. I loved that moment; it reminded me of the more boring assemblies in high school, while simultaneously making it clear that Bailey is a grade-A teacher.
When she was an intern, Bailey was ‘Mandy,’ a quiet woman with pink glasses who hid behind a curtain of long braids and allowed her short stature to make her invisible. She worked under Dr. Baylow (Missi Pyle), who was almost too evil to feel realistic. She even had those Disney villain eyebrows.
Seeing Bailey before she was ‘The Nazi’ was some much-needed comedic relief in this episode. As she and Baylow searched for the cause of the abdominal pain that had plagued their patient, Alicia, for months, Bailey just let Baylow walk all over her. When Baylow tried to pass the patient off to psych for depression, Bailey kept searching for answers, ultimately realizing that the patient was suffering from porphyria, a disorder that effects hemoglobin.
This triumph served as the foundation for Bailey’s current relationship with Webber. ‘Surgery is a shark tank, and sharks have teeth,’ Webber told her. ‘Make sure you’re a shark and not a minnow. God made you short. Who made you quiet?’
I have to say, my favorite part of Bailey’s story was when she ‘hit the books’ -- meaning the booze. Friendly bartender Joe in his ‘90s grunge gear and floppy haircut cracked me up.
The most powerful of the stories, of course, was the one told by Richard Webber. Webber brought us back to 1982, when he and Meredith’s mother, Dr. Ellis Grey, were at the dawn of their now illustrious careers. Guest star Sarah Paulson shined as young Ellis, and as young Richard, J. August Richards bore an uncanny resemblance to the Webber we know today.
At the time, Richard and Ellis related to each other. After all, he was the only African American in the program, and as the only woman, she was constantly being referred to as ‘sugar’ or ‘nurse.’ As their resident informed them: ‘Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have even been allowed in this program.’
It’s a good thing they were. When a patient presented with the symptoms of what was then referred to as GRID, they were the only doctors who took their oath seriously enough to treat him. GRID, or ‘gay-related immune deficiency,’ is now known as AIDS., and carried such a heavy stigma in 1982 that the patient threatened to sue them for slander when they suggested it.
He returned months later, covered in open sores and suffering from a twisted bowel that no one would operate on, because little was known about the transmission of AIDS at the time. Their bravery and devotion to healing gave him eight more months to live before he returned to the hospital, where he died of pneumonia, with only Ellis and Richard beside him.
It was interesting to see Ellis holding the man’s hand as he died. I wouldn’t have expected her to have a particularly nurturing bedside manner. I also loved the opportunity to see her with Richard and Thatcher, and, of course, with young Meredith. Her love for surgery -- and for Richard -- trumped even her daughter, who, clutching a scrubs-clad doll, begged for her mother as Ellis responded to a page.
I did enjoy ‘The Time Warp,’ but it’s worth noting that this season’s strongest episodes have been the ones that strayed from the usual ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ formula. In addition to ‘The Time Warp,’ the Derek-centric episode ‘Give Peace a Chance’ stood out, as did the ‘Rashomon'-themed ‘I Saw What I Saw.’ It’s cause for concern that ‘Grey’s’ has to resort to gimmicks in order to keep viewers involved.
Make sure to weigh in on ‘The Time Warp’ in the comments below. Did you agree that the episode was one of the season’s strongest? What’d you think of Sarah Paulson and J. August Richards as young Drs. Grey and Webber? Don’t forget to check back in with Showtracker when ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ returns in two weeks.
-- Carina MacKenzie (chat with me on Twitter @cadlymack)
Upper photo: Dr. Mandy Bailey (Chandra Wilson) in the ‘990s. Credit ABC
Lower photo: Dr. Webber (James Pickens Jr.) in the ‘90s. Credit: ABC