Isaiah Washington's 'Grey's Anatomy' Return: Burke Came Back, But Was It Worth It?

Maggie Furlong

ABC made a very interesting scheduling choice this week, opting to re-air Isaiah Washington's final "Grey's Anatomy" episode, the Season 3 finale, before his much buzzed-about return episode aired. It helped viewers re-live and remember the horribly sad end to one of the show's original romances, and when Burke called off their wedding moments before Cristina was set to walk down the aisle, we felt her pain all over again.

"He's gone. I'm free," Cristina said to Meredith before bursting into tears and stripping off her wedding gown when she got home and realized Burke's trumpet, lucky scrub cap, and most prized possessions were gone from their home.

But it also paved the way for the kind of Isaiah Washington return that should never happen. Were they replaying their end as a couple to pull heartstrings before some grand romantic reunion?

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Cut to today's Cristina, a stronger Cristina… except that she was just dealt that major blow of the Harper Avery loss. Instead of taking her colleagues' advice to appeal the foundation's decision, Cristina weighed her other option.

"I'm not running away," Cristina said. And then she did. In Zurich, talking to Meredith on the phone, Cristina seemed happier than we've seen her in a while, but during her speech at the state-of-the-art hospital, those painful memories came flooding back when Burke's voice cut through the dark audience. She kept her cool the whole time, even when he finally stepped into the light. (Cue the goosebumps.)

Burke's return (and Washington's) was an emotional moment for Cristina and for "Grey's" fans who'd always wondered in the back of their minds if Burke was the one who got away. He was Cristina's mentor, her intellectual equal, one of the few people who could truly challenge her, in and out of the operating room. His exit from the show back in Season 3 was not initially a creative choice — the on-set controversies with Washington made it a necessity — so while his goodbye felt final, somewhere fans knew Burke was never really out of Cristina's life.

[Related: Isaiah Washington Returning to 'Grey's Anatomy']

Faced with the man who destroyed her life and her ideal of what relationships could be, Cristina didn't crumble like she did when she realized he'd really left her back in Season 3. Instead she fired right back at him when he referenced "the circumstances" of their last "interaction." "Me in a white dress, you fleeing the state," Cristina said, as only she can. There was hostility there, for sure, but some levity as well.

But when Burke revealed that this amazing hospital was his… well, that kind of changed everything, didn't it? Burke's cocky "Tell Meredith I say hello" was followed by an even cockier wink. Or was it charming? Seriously, emotions.

It took Meredith's real-talk voicemail to her BFF to snap us all back to reality. Burke did take away pieces of Cristina, she did work the past seven years to get over him, and, yes, Mama Burke totally took Cristina's eyebrows. These are not easy things to forgive.

But instead of painting Burke as the villain, swooping back in to Cristina's life when she least expected it — and needed it most — and dangling his own Harper Avery win as a carrot to entice her to join forces again, Shonda Rhimes and Co. did the right thing: They reminded us that those two would never have been happily ever after together, ever. And they showed us that Burke has dealt with his demons, most of which he attributed to the high after winning that award. So maybe losing isn't the worst thing that could've happened to Cristina, but that won't ever change her ambition.

After showing Cristina his heart hologram and all of his dozens of 3-D printers, she told him her dream: To print a functional beating heart. "You can do it here."

It seemed like we were being led down that path of "Will they get back together after all this time?" until Burke revealed photos of his happy new life, including a wife and two kids. "My family is my world," he said, before making it crystal clear that he wanted nothing more than something professional from Cristina. Burke always wanted more than Cristina could give (sound familiar, Owen?), and it turns out he got it.

[Related: Sandra Oh and Kevin McKidd Talk Saying Goodbye to Cristina]

We're thankful there were no emotional "I'm sorrys" or "I love yous" — this was so much better than any three little words he could've said to her: "You've become a magnificent surgeon. You've become everything I'd dreamed you'd be."

"The way I loved you was consuming. I don't want you to work for me. I want you to take over for me. I am leaving," Burke said, saying he was moving to Milan to be closer to his wife's family since she'd sacrificed so much for him already, including her own surgical career. Burke found his own perfect version of Cristina when he left — one that was willing to give up work to have a family and be a wife.

And with him leaving this perfect, fully-funded hospital, a dream workplace for Cristina to accomplish everything she's ever dreamed of professionally — and be eligible to actually win that Harper Avery one day — it makes it a safe option for her to take, to not be haunted by those old Burke demons.

"This place is yours Cristina, if you want it." And in that one sentence, her goodbye became much easier to swallow. Even Meredith, her person through all of this, knew with just one look when Cristina landed back in Seattle: "You're leaving."

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If we had to write Cristina's perfect exit, this would pretty much be it: Not running away, but running to something amazing. Choosing her work, as she always has, not letting her past with all these men, Burke and Owen especially, cloud her judgment and greater career goals.

If she had been blinded by Burke's flashy hospital tour and the thought of maybe having a future with him again, it wouldn't have been the Cristina we all know and love (and are not looking forward to saying goodbye to in two weeks).

But because she was strong — understandably taken aback by his reveal but still unwavering — and so willing to take a leap, to change her whole life, and pursue a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity? Now we can say goodbye to Cristina knowing she made the best decision for herself.

Just like the conjoined twins being separated at Grey Sloan (which was not the most subtle B-storyline, but still fascinating), Cristina can now officially feel like that weight of her past with Burke has been cut off of her shoulders forever. And as much as we were unsure about the need for Washington to return to the show, that fresh start for Cristina wouldn't have been possible without him.

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