Grand Rounds: Dissecting Grey's Anatomy: Can't Fight Biology

Welcome to Grand Rounds: Dissecting Grey’s Anatomy, a roundtable on Grey’s Anatomy featuring Snarky’s Machine, Tasha Fierce, Everett Maroon, Redlami, and s.e. smith. This week’s Grand Rounds is hosted by the incomparable Everett Maroon and if you’re jonesin’ for a recap before you plunge in, Snarky’s Machine has got you covered over at I Fry Mine In Butter. Without further ado, let’s begin!

Everett Maroon: Meredith’s voiceover at the beginning and end of the episode offers two different explanations for human behavior—our biological limitations and the human drive to overcome obstacles, including our own biology. Which explanation does the episode end up supporting, and what do you make of the tension between these two theories?

s.e. smith: The episode seemed to go with overcoming obstacles, judging from the voiceover at the end, with Meredith saying that sometimes we can overcome biology. As an explanation for human behavior, it pushes past the “biology made me do it” excuse that sometimes seems to reign (particularly with reference to bad behavior), but I’m not sure it’s always possible to overcome biology. In the same episode, we have Meredith considering genetic testing, for example, and if she does have a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s, that’s not something she can “overcome.” The word “overcome” is particularly loaded in narratives about disability and bodies, and it’s one I tend to have an oppositional relationship with because it’s often framed as “work hard enough and you can overcome anything.” This was very much a “triumph over adversity!” kind of episode and those tend to leave me feeling grumpy.

Redlami: I think the episode clearly lands on the side of fighting to overcome, whether it’s the risky bone transplant, the anti-asthma worms or Meredith’s finally deciding to do the Alzheimer’s test. Meredith makes the point that while you might not be able to overcome your biology, you don’t have to sit back and passively accept your biology as the sole architect of your fate.

Everett Maroon: We seem to wind up on Team Triumph Over Limitation, but there is still a tension at play—it’s one thing, after all, to know if you’re going to get a fatal disease, but then, of course, you still have to battle the disease or deal with its consequences. The conversation between Meredith and Derek at the end of the episode sums up this perspective very well, as he pushes against her desire to know if she’ll someday get Alzheimer’s,* which we all know she’s wanted to find out for pretty much the entire series. Derek’s insistence that people should pay little attention to what hurdles their DNA might throw at them signals to me that we may actually see more in the way of biological boundaries before this season is over, but I think the overarching message looks like it’s human to have limitations, and it’s human to fight those, all at the same time.

*I was not happy to hear this disease discussed as causing people to drool. Perhaps the writers had it confused with rabies, or just felt like being flippant to millions of people with the illness and their families, I’m not sure.

Snarky’s Machine: I think the episode did not settle the debate or present strong arguments on either side. What I observed were a lot of sketches or ideas that could have used further development. That said, I was very impressed with the writers’ willingness to allow some ambiguity. Medical shows tend not to do that and instead really want to hammer home the biology argument.

Tasha Fierce: I think the episode ends up supporting both explanations. Biology deals us a certain hand, but our choices and “drive to overcome obstacles” determine how that hand is played. The tension between the two was portrayed as being constant, and if we’re to counter our biology our drive must be equally constant. However, I don’t think the episode really explored that tension in depth.

Everett Maroon: In contrast to the tensions between and within the characters we’ve seen in the first three episodes of the season, tonight’s show gave us a few steps toward resolutions with Arizona and Mark, Lexie, and Cristina and Owen. Are the doctors out of the woods yet after the trauma of the shooting?

s.e. smith: I don’t think so, but I think they are moving in the right direction. I’m really liking Cristina’s progress, and I think it was especially important that she made a realization because of a patient, not because of pressure from the other docs. Sometimes those breakthrough moments happen fortuitously like that, when someone outside a situation unwittingly makes a comment that makes things really clear to you. One theme I noticed with relationships in this episode was the idea of giving, of doing something because your partner needs it, and of letting that take you where it will, and I liked that. Often, people on Grey’s seem so damn selfish all the time, and this episode reminded me (and the characters) that relationships are give and take.

Redlami: While some of the characters seem to be returning to form, I won’t consider the healing to be complete Until Cristina’s ready to get back into the OR. Even the worm-guy’s pep-talk response for her question of why he’d want to start his experiment over—”because I love what I do, more than anything”—isn’t quite enough yet to get her to return to what she loves to do.

Everett Maroon:During Bailey’s supposed gruff handling of residents we get to see her take such care with Dr. Yang, and it appeared to pay off in Cristina being honest about her emotional limitations—by the end of the episode she’s both walked into an OR willingly, and bought a house that needs a lot of fixing up, its own rather risky proposition. I wonder how many scenes we’re going to get with Bailey emotionally supporting the residents, and I wonder when Bailey gets some windfall from the Karma Kredit Plan.

I was glad to see that Arizona could mellow out about Callie and Mark’s friendship because it’s high time we saw Arizona mellow out about anything. Insisting on having no kids (which is fine on its own terms), insisting on repainting the apartment, insisting on when and how Callie should come out to her father, the accumulation of forcefulness is getting to be a bit too much for me. And finally, it looks like Cristina and Owen are really in love. Whew! I genuinely enjoyed their shared screen time last night.

Snarky’s Machine: Cristina seems to mostly out of the woods and I really appreciate how the writers are balancing the realities of her experiences with the audience’s desire to see Cristina be her “old” self. I think the emphasis on the friendship between Cristina and Meredith has been the best element of the story arc unfolded by the first four episodes. Grey’s has been struggling to reaffirm the relationships between the women of the show, which had faltered in the last couple of seasons. I am very pleased to see the writers embrace this important aspect of the show. Cristina and Meredith’s friendship was the heart of the show in the earlier seasons and while that didn’t always mean it was handled without problematic elements, it was handled in a way that often honored the complexities of female friendship.

Tasha Fierce: I’m not sure if they’re out of the woods since Cristina hasn’t gone back to performing surgery. Meredith is finally coming to terms with the miscarriage and tells Lexie, Jackson realizes he can’t coast anymore, and Mark and Arizona start on the path to accepting each other’s roles in Callie’s life, but not all of those conflicts had to do with the shooting. I think if Cristina can get back to surgery, we can say they’re pretty much out of the woods.

Everett Maroon: Several characters in this episode had passions that either went up to the point of being self-destructive or past that point. How do you read these passions in light of the messaging about biology and our desire to go beyond our physical selves?

s.e. smith: I think, to touch upon the theme of overcoming again, that we are taught for much of our lives to try/push harder and great things will happen, and that social conditioning can often push us into going further than is safe and advisable. The character with the worms, for example, talked about being unhappy when he worked in labs, and how now he’s finally doing what he loves, but he’s also pushing himself to extremes and endangering himself because he thinks if he just tries harder he will find that happy place and will contribute something to the world. I feel like this is very much socialized, rather than biologically determined, the idea that we have an obligation to basically run ourselves into the ground to be read as successful by the people around us, and it’s an interesting example of a place where “overcoming” falls short.

One thing that really frustrated me was the storyline with the dancer. This is something that comes up again and again on television; any kind of disability is presumed to be The Worst Thing Ever, and it’s assumed that disability ends your life and closes off opportunities. Amputees can be and are dancers and I really disliked the fact that the episode framed it as “if you lose your leg, you will never dance again.” The episode set up dance as the character’s passion, but didn’t explore any alternative to allow him to pursue his passion other than a potentially risky procedure to save his leg.

Redlami: I think the message was pretty clear that while biology might put constraints on our abilities, it doesn’t necessarily impose absolute limits. There’s some wiggle room at the edge of what can be accomplished that’s fueled by desire, whether it’s to eke out the last few years of healthy life with Huntington’s or accept that you want to dance somewhere other than in the end zone. Specifically, the point was made that there’s always some uncertainty about what’s possible, and our passions are what propel us to explore that territory.

Everett Maroon: I’m not sure why we went all dancey dancy last night except maybe the writers all bonded last summer after watching Billy Elliot, but it’s the second time I can think of when a feminine white man has resisted an “ectomy” surgery so he can save his art. Anyone remember the opera singer? But the point was made—Alex summed it up when he identified with the dancer, saying that if it were him, he’d do everything he could to save his limbs. Cristina finds a way to identify with the Worm Eater who explains that he simply knows his very unorthodox research is his life’s passion, and it’s after this moment that she can venture into an OR. So it seems passion is the thing that can take us past both our physical limitations and our emotional response to those limitations. I liked the interactions between Meredith and the patient with secret Huntington’s too, for exploring the question of whether the knowledge of one’s impending, progressively debilitating condition is cause to give up on life or to live it better. And I also appreciated that we had some examples of pushing too far, what with the one woman’s attack on an innocent laundromat, and Cristina’s patient’s impaction. But wow, worms are pretty gross.

Snarky’s Machine: What I found interesting is how Cristina was able to move outside herself and both Bailey’s perspective on unchecked passion and her patient’s perspective. I think the writers did a great job showing glimmers of the “old” Cristina, but also demonstrating how she has grown and changed by the events of the season finale and also her experiences saving Derek’s life. Again, Grey’s writers tended to moralize with both the dancer who had cancer and the older woman (played by the incomparable Frances Conroy!!!) who was felled by her broken heart. Of all the patient stories this episode, I felt these two stories struggled to respectfully depict the choices made by each patient.

Tasha Fierce: The passions of the characters who ventured into self-destruction could be said to be driven by biology in that the will to survive and thrive is a biological imperative. The woman with Huntington’s sought to really live her life before she became unable to because of her illness. The character who confessed to attempted murder was driven by primal instincts of territorialism and also love/attachment. I think the message was that the limits of biology can both be overcome and succumbed to.

Everett Maroon: There were several moments this week that focused on heterosexual attraction, specifically on the male gaze and men’s power to attract women. How did you think this was handled?

s.e. smith: Errrrgh. Was how I thought it was handled. The whole storyline with Avery was just cringeworthy and icky, although it was a nice reversal of the “female resident flirts with male surgeon to get surgeries” storyline that comes up in a lot of places (including on Grey’s). And in terms of Alex, asshole that he is, basically saying “men objectify you, deal with it,” excuse me while I vomit. The whole theme of this episode is about overcoming biology, yet it’s implied that heterosexual men are powerless to stop themselves from looking at women’s breasts. Thanks for that, Grey’s.

Redlami: Teddy eventually took Jackson to school when she realized he was trying to flirt his way into her OR, which was in line with the theme of fighting biology—Teddy certainly seemed close to succumbing. But what I think was missing from this particular subplot was how predatory and opportunistic Jackson was being, exploiting what he surely knew was Teddy’s vulnerability. I find this to be a weakness in the way some episodes are constructed: nearly every situation is viewed through a single lens, ignoring what could be deeper implications of the characters’ behaviors.

Everett Maroon: The female doctors of the surgery service are really extremely nice not to sue for sexual harassment because hello, it abounds at Seattle Grace. Apparently men just can’t help their weak, macho selves from staring at women’s breasts, so ladies, if you’ve got ‘em, let ‘em shine. Teddy stood up for herself nicely against the flirtatious Avery, but she did look like she was going to cave into his six-pack for a while there. The difference in the Teddy/Avery exchange and the other voyeuristic moments seems to be that Avery was trying to get something (surgery time) out of the gazing, and that was too far over the boundary that Teddy asserts in her role as mentor. What? A boundary people have to respect? Less examined was the racial aspect between the two in this instance; when Alex and Mark openly flirt or stare at Arizona or Callie, they also hold white privilege. Avery’s exchanges, however, don’t contain that, and Avery just happens to be the fella who gets called out. Hmm.

Snarky’s Machine: I think Jackson’s interactions with Teddy were interesting and also very well handled. Jackson is a very attractive biracial black male and I think the writers did an okay job trying to explore how class, race, gender and looks intersect with his character and how that affects his interactions with other people. I didn’t necessarily frame Jackson’s behavior as simply malevolent male manipulation, but his problematic means of safely negotiating a world that is hostile and confused by biracial black males, which often tokenizes them or reluctantly embraces them provided they opt to leave their “blackness” at the door. Jackson is a great character and I think the show handled his misogyny towards Teddy much better than the writers handled Mark’s misogyny towards Callie and Arizona.

Tasha Fierce: Personally I found that Jackson’s interaction with Teddy was an interesting inversion to the typical “women using her feminine wiles” trope that is constantly used. Although in those situations the women are rarely asked to prove that they’re more than just a pretty face. I do think there was some misogyny in Jackson’s interaction with Teddy, especially in the operating room where he tries to “seduce” her into letting him do the procedure, assuming his attractiveness as a male will overpower her reason. As far as Mark, Arizona and Callie, I have to say I love the relationship and camaraderie between Mark and Callie and I’m glad they’re bringing Arizona into the fold as part of that friendship.

About your bloggers:

Snarky’s Machine is the founder of the pop culture site I Fry Mine in Butter.

Everett Maroon is a Seattle-based writer, focusing on popular culture commentary, speculative fiction, and memoir. His interests include the interrelationships of characters on Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Bailey, behind-the-scenes politics, and Dr. Bailey.

Tasha Fierce blogs about politics, fashion and whatever she wants at Red Vinyl Shoes.

s.e. smith is a cantankerous, cat-wearing, pop culture-loving, pants-eschewing philistine from the wilds of Northern California with a compendium of largely useless random knowledge and a typewriter that doesn’t know when to quit.

Redlami turns numbers into stories and is the resident tech geek at I Fry Mine in Butter.

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