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'Grey's Anatomy': Creator Shonda Rhimes explains Derek Shepherd's death

The character portrayed by actor Patrick Dempsey was killed off in a recent 'Grey's' episode. Various major characters have met their end on TV dramas recently as networks attempt to convince viewers to watch TV shows live. But some programs have handled it better than others.

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    'Grey's Anatomy' stars Patrick Dempsey.
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The ABC medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” shocked many viewers this past spring when a major character met his end. 

In April, Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), a doctor on the show and the love interest for “Grey’s” protagonist Meredith, died during an episode of the show. “Grey’s” creator Shonda Rhimes discussed the reasons behind the decision at a recent Television Critics Association panel for the ABC show.

“The decision to have the character die the way that he did was not a difficult one in the sense of what were the options?” Rhimes said. “Either Derek was going to walk out on Meredith and leave her high and dry and what was that going to mean? That was going to suggest that their love was not true – that the thing we said for 11 years was a lie… and that was untenable. Meredith and Derek's love had to remain Meredith and Derek's love. As painful as it was for me as a storyteller because I never thought that would happen, the only way to preserve that is Derek had to die for that love to remain honest…. for me, the only way was to make Derek and Meredith's magic to remain true and forever frozen in time.” 

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“Grey’s” is currently part of a Thursday night lineup for ABC that includes the shows “Scandal,” which was also created by Rhimes, and “How to Get Away with Murder,” which is produced by Rhimes’ company ShondaLand. 

Derek’s death was the newest character demise to shock viewers. Many were taken aback when actor Josh Charles’s character Will Gardner was killed on the CBS show “The Good Wife” in 2014. However, the departure of Will was a more traditional TV death in that it was reportedly caused by Charles's desire to leave the show. “I was just ready to kind of move on,” Charles said

From remarks by Dempsey, it sounds like Derek’s departure was a storytelling decision rather than one by the actor. “It really was something that was kind of surprising that unfolded,” Dempsey said in an interview. Shocking character deaths and plot twists have seemed to be everywhere over the last few years as networks have tried to woo viewers to watch TV live rather than on a delay. One show has become particularly notorious for it: the HBO drama “Game of Thrones.” However, that’s not necessarily the showrunners’ fault – the show is based on the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin and most of the deaths on the show occurred first in the books.

These character deaths can be a good writing decision. With the death of Will on “The Good Wife,” many critics felt the character’s departure was a good way to move the show forward, with one reviewer writing that “Alicia Florrick is not defined by her love interests, and her story does not end because Will's does…. [I]n an entertainment landscape in which women still vie to be seen as fully realized people, rather than supporting characters in male-driven narrative or as mere objects of desire, it is a bold and welcome move.” Another called Charles’s departure “a limitation that worked in the [co-creators] Kings’ favor.”

However, it also seems that these deaths can leave viewers or even the actors themselves feeling betrayed if the character demise doesn’t seem earned in the story or if important plotlines aren’t resolved. For example, many “Thrones” fans believe that one of the most recent characters to be killed off, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), can’t be gone because a long-running plotline – that of his parentage – hasn’t been wrapped up. “The major loss with Jon’s through-line is he never finds out who his mother is and that’s the heartbreaking thing for me,” Harington himself said.

As for the death of Derek himself, some critics feel it wasn't quite earned – one wrote that Derek "deserved more than this" and another called the manner in which his death occurred "incredibly frustrating.... I wasn't crazy about the writing."

A major character death is a risky move for any TV show. If it’s handled right, it can revitalize a program, but if handled wrongly, it can alienate fans and make the show tough to manage creatively. 

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