Never forget the Grey’s Anatomy golden rule: All forms of transportation, no matter how small, could — and will try to — kill you. This is a series that needs drama, and sometimes serious accidents, to drive its heart forward; and those accidents need to be pivotal, they need to move characters into new mindsets and change them in substantial ways. For the entire run of the show, these brutal, inescapable events have affected a myriad of people from series regulars to one-episode guest stars.
But more often than not, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) has been involved in these accidents in some way. On this show, Meredith Grey has suffered numerous car crashes (one that killed her late husband Derek Shepherd), a plane crash (that killed many of her friends and colleagues), in addition to a boat crash, a train derailment, and a dozen other problems. Which is why the minute this week’s episode “In the Air Tonight” opened to show Meredith Grey sitting on an airplane, my heart sank. This woman has been through so much, survived so many things, and it’s unfair that life should be so stacked against her.
The opening monologue doesn't do much to reassure us. “In surgery, we call it a complication,” Meredith tells us, promising a future of turbulence. There will always, in every episode of the show, need to be a patient, and pretty quickly the show introduces us to all three of them. The first is a small boy named Diego, the second a man behaving like an entitled child, and a man named Max on a trip with his fiancé.
The twist for this episode is that Meredith isn’t on this trip alone. After switching seats with a father who wants to sit next to his family, Meredith finds herself coincidentally in the same aisle as Dr. Nathan Riggs (Martin Henderson), the crush of the moment whom Meredith turned down last week to be with her family. Between them is a woman named Ingrid, and they speak across her until finally Meredith gets up to go to the bathroom.
Riggs follows her in there, and despite her narrative that she doesn’t want to be with him, they join the mile high club. When she walks out of the bathroom, Max is standing there to joke with her and fix her collar. He is likable, and cute. He points down the aisle at his even cuter fiancé wearing a green sweater and leaning against the window. Well, I think, this man is going to die.
Suddenly, there is turbulence, unexpected for the characters but wholly expected for us. Up goes Max. His head slams into the top of the plane and he loses consciousness. Soon after that Meredith and Dr. Riggs realize that he has a brain bleed, something that needs to be monitored closely. While Meredith stays with Max, Riggs helps a flight attendant whose wrist is hurt. Riggs sets her wrist without pain meds, and wraps it in an ace bandage. They are flirty.
Of course, because this is a plane and TSA rules make it so that basically nothing useful for medical practice is allowed on the plane, they are low on supplies. The easiest fix is little Diego, who gets a small bandage and a promise of stitches on the ground.
For most of the episode the focus is squarely on Max, who Meredith is worried will die without surgery. She demands to speak to the pilot, who tells her the plane simply can’t be landed.
During a lull, the show acknowledges its history. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that when new characters join the show they do not know the entire life history of Meredith Grey. Just last week, after all, Riggs learned how perfect Meredith’s marriage with Derek really was. This week, Riggs learns about the plane crash, where Meredith watched her sister die and struggled for days in the freezing wilderness to survive. “Sometimes I feel like I’m cursed. A lot of people die around me,” Meredith says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just waiting for my turn.” And in a way, it does certainly seem that way.
When Riggs pushes her on trying to give their relationship a chance. “I am married,” Meredith says. Even though she’s not. She’s widowed. But before the moment can become something, they are needed. Max is getting worse. Meredith begs the captain to land, but the captain can’t. And so in a classic move: desperate times call for completely insane measures.
Meredith gets permission from the fiancé to stab Max in the brain with a syringe over and over agin to try and relieve the pressure in his skull. Between bouts of turbulence, she stabs him until she decides it would be better to leave the needle in the skull and reattach the syringe every time.
At this point, though Riggs is called away because the man who has been behaving like an asshole the entire flight can’t breathe. Eventually, Riggs is just doing CPR and using a defibrillator in coach, while Meredith and some random cute dentist pull blood out of Max’s brain. In a moment of true absurdity, Meredith abandons her syringe method and inserts a cocktail straw red and shiny into this man’s skull so that the blood can spurt out like a geyser while Meredith catches the blood in a tiny airplane plastic cup.
And then, despite Meredith’s flashbacks to her awful crash and the terrifying music, they are on the ground. The pilot has landed them safely and no one has died and both of the patients are carted off into ambulances. The captain says thank you. Meredith gets off the plane with her camel-colored cashmere sweater still in perfect condition despite blood spurting into the air at her.
For most of the series, trauma has only ever changed Meredith for the worse. But here, as this plane lands on a runway and the patients survive, this seems like a trauma that could actually change Meredith Grey for the better. At the end of the episode, Meredith decides to go to a hotel with Riggs, but on her own terms. It’s possible that maybe, this trauma and this hot-blooded, high-anxiety episode, might just have brought Meredith a little bit closer back to her true self.
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