Grey's Anatomy: An Iconic Character Returns in Shocking and Emotional Season 17 Premiere

WARNING: This article contains spoilers from Thursday’s season 17 premiere of Grey’s Anatomy.

After production on Grey's Anatomy season 16 was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the doctors of Grey Sloan Memorial are finally back with more drama, tears, and laughs… and one shocking and iconic familiar face.

In Thursday's season 17 premiere of the ABC medical drama, the story picked up weeks into the pandemic — with flashbacks of prior weeks sprinkled in between — with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.), Catherine Fox (Debbie Allen) and the rest of the Grey's crew knee-deep in the workload and the emotional and exhausting roller coaster that is caring for patients with coronavirus and navigating their new normal.

"I've heard that when tidal waves hit, there are often people watching onshore," Meredith, sitting on a secluded beach, said via voiceover in the opening scene."They see the disaster coming. They see the horizon disappearing. They don't really see until it's too late. There's a lecture we take in residency that's meant to prepare us for such surprises. It's called disaster ethics, where future surgeons imagine what they would do when the unimaginable happens. But it's imperfect because while it's good to plan for the worst, you can't really know how it will end until your smack dab in the middle of it."

With patients dying left and right, Meredith struggled to stay afloat both mentally and physically— and at the end of the two-hour premiere, she passed out in the middle of the Grey Sloan Memorial parking lot.

As the closing scene panned from a passed out Meredith back to Meredith sitting on the beach, viewers heard a familiar voice calling Meredith's name from afar. It was DEREK SHEPHERD (Patrick Dempsey). Yes, Meredith's late husband. A happy, healthy, living Derek Shepherd calling Meredith's name. As the two locked eyes, the show concluded… because, of course it did.

What does this mean?! Before we get into that, let's first break down the rest of the juicy moments from the unforgettable season premiere.

After their wedding was postponed last season due to Teddy's (Kim Raver) infidelity with Tom Koracick (Greg Germann) — in which Owen found out after Teddy accidentally sent him a steamy voicemail of her and Tom hooking up — she and Owen were forced to address the awkward situation head-on.

"What do you need to tell me?" Owen asked a guilt-ridden Teddy. "Nothing," she responded.

Well, that's awkward because Owen then played the uncomfortable voicemail for her as she stood in shock and embarrassment.

"It was supposed to be our wedding day," he told her. "So much for us."

Later in the episode, Teddy expressed her self-disgust to Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington), saying she "made a mistake."

"Have you ever made a mistake," she asked. "Have you ever hurt someone you loved? Have you ever tried to sabotage your own happiness because easy and happy are so unfamiliar to you? They're so foreign that you can't even live with it. I love Owen and I broke us and that feeling is unbearable so you can judge me all you want or you can take a break because I'm doing enough judging of myself for the both of us."

Weeks later, Teddy attempted to apologize to Owen, he wasn't having it and drove off. Yikes.

Andrew DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti), who had a full mental breakdown last season, found himself at the center of an intervention put together by close friends and family. "What seems like a weakness is actually a strength if you get help because you care so deeply, you fight so hard for the people you love that's not illness, that's love," Grey told DeLuca.

"You have an illness but there's no shame," added Miranda.

"No shame," DeLuca responded. "That's a joke right? My whole life I've had one goal one thing that would mean I did okay: don't end up like my dad. I wanted it more than being a surgeon. One thing, and I failed. I don't care what you think … I don't know what to do."

"All we're asking you to do is fight as hard for yourself as you do for everyone else," said Meredith.

Weeks later, though, DeLuca is doing better, referring to Meredith as a friend and thanking her for saving him.

But this wouldn't be an episode of Grey's without a major hookup. Who's single? Well, there's Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) and Jo (Camilla Luddington). OMG did Jackson and Jo really have a steamy moment?!

They were about to before an intoxicated Jo started crying uncontrollably. Phew. Thank goodness for tears.

"Jackson, I am mortified," said Jo weeks later. "All the time, every minute that I'm around you. I cried into your mouth. I'm pretty sure I snotted into your mouth. You were trying to do me favor."

"It was a favor you weren't ready for," he said.

"I really wasn't," responded Jo, whose husband Alex Karev suddenly left her last season to start a life with ex Izzie Stevens.

"You went through hell," he said. "You were doing your best. You're still doing your best. We are friends."

"Can we just pretend it never happened?" she asked.

"Done," he said, as he watched her walk away.

Is it really done though? (Hopefully.)

As for Catherine and Richard, things are still up in the air after the unfortunate turn of events last season when it was discovered that Webber — who had been suspected to have Alzheimer's due to his recent erratic behavior — actually had cobalt poisoning from a hip replacement surgery he'd had three years ago. After recovering from a successful surgery, Richard was back to his old self and quickly remembered every last second of his wife Catherine firing him last season and then buying and shuttering Pac North hospital where he had been working just to humiliate him. It seems as if Webber still wants nothing to do with his wife.

"I hate that my husband hasn't come back to me," Catherine told Maggie at one point. But, later, Maggie told Catherine who's who and what's what.

"I get that Richard humiliated you when he sent you away after his surgery," she shouted at her boss. "So what? You humiliated him when you bought his hospital. You've both done incredibly hurtful things but he is someone who can help you through this nightmare and bring you some joy which is something we all need more of right now. It's only too late if you decide it's too late. There are people dying. There are children dying. There's a worldwide pandemic but you are still alive."

After coming to her senses (and after accepting Tom's resignation as chief of chiefs), Catherine approached Richard with some news. "Dr. Webber, I'm hoping that you will accept his job as chief of chiefs and my apologies for everything I've done to hurt you," she said. "I am so sorry."

"Well, I guess we need to get our hands on some COVID tests," he responded. "I feel fine. I just want to make sure it's safe to do all the things I want to do with you."

What a relief. They're back together.

While Amelia Shephard (Caterina Scorsone) and Link (James Christopher Carmack) are settling into life at home as new parents and Maggie (Kelly McCreary) is navigating a long-distance relationship with new beau Winston (Anthony Hill), let's circle back to that big shocker.

DEREK. IS. BACK.

"The most important task we had this season was to honor the reality of this global pandemic and the impact it’s having —particularly on healthcare workers," showrunner Krista Vernoff said in a statement. "Along with that, we had to come up with creative ways to allow our show to still be fun and romantic and provide some escapism. Enter Patrick Dempsey. The beach motif, which will continue beyond the premiere, provided a way for us to live outside the pandemic even for a little while here and there. And Derek’s return provided pure joy for us, for Meredith, and for the fans."

"Season 17 has been a Herculean effort by our cast, our crew, our writers, and our partners at Disney and ABC — and we are proud of it. But our effort is nothing compared to the work of our Frontline healthcare workers to whom this season is dedicated," she continued. "We hope our show inspires you to wear your masks to protect them and each other. As Derek Shepherd would say, 'It’s a beautiful day to save lives.'"

Cue the tears.

In next week's trailer, viewers see Meredith struggling with what could possibly be a terrible case of coronavirus.

"If I fall asleep, I'm afraid I won't wake up," she says in the clip.

After telling Derek that she misses him, he responds, "I know," before slowly walking towards her.

In a recent interview with Variety, Vernoff revealed that during the initial writers' room meeting in June, she didn't necessarily want to make the subject of COVID-19 a part of the show at first.

"I think that people have fatigue of COVID, and I think they turn to our show for relief," she recalled saying during the Zoom meeting.

Some were quick to disagree, though. "I think it's the biggest medical story of our lifetimes," Vernoff remembered co-executive producer Lynne E. Litt saying, noting that a real-life doctor on staff — who worked on the coronavirus frontlines while Grey's Anatomy was on hiatus — said they had a responsibility "to tell this story."

Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

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