Sometimes our reason isn’t what we say. We lie or we stretch the truth. We make up a scenario for our behavior to be acceptable and still hide our true intentions. To be ourselves, to be honest about what it is we want and how, is too vulnerable; it opens up too many weak spots ready to be hurt.
Tonight’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)” deals in intentions. Mainly, it deals in the intentions of two characters: Jackson Avery and April Kepner. Instead of taking place in the gossipy pond of Grey-Sloan Memorial, April and Jackson find themselves on a private plane on their way to the Avery Hospital in Bozeman, MT, to work on a case for a young girl with throat cancer.
Unlike most episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, tonight is a completely contained story line. All you need to know to watch this drama unfold is that Jackson and Avery have a child together, that they are currently fighting, and that Jackson has never met his father. These are the three story lines that drive this episode. Jackson Avery’s entire schtick in Bozeman is about promises, but the episode itself is promising that for the first time in months, a story can feel fresh, interesting, and emotional.
Jackson Avery does not want April to come on this trip with him, because, as we learn fairly quickly, he has a secret motive. His missing father lives in Bozeman, and works at a diner/bar. But that's the part that’s too vulnerable, the part he can’t tell. The reason it’s sold to April is that they are there because of a “jackpot win.” A brain-dead kid happens to be a perfect match for a young girl with throat cancer. Ideally, the child can be a donor for the girl, but when April and Jackson show up, the father does not know that his kid is brain-dead. The father thinks that these two are here to save him. And so immediately, they must ruin his day.
Jackson explains that they are there to support the father no matter what he chooses, before invoking his own status as a father to try and convince him to donate the organs. It works, but it doesn’t end up mattering, because ultimately the child has a lesion on his throat which makes him a poor candidate for a donation.
Before they realize that the kid won’t be a good donor, though, we meet Caroline, the daughter of two passionate mothers just trying to get their daughter’s tumor removed and allow her to continue to speak. Avery plays up the dad card in a real way, insisting that he doesn’t make promises he can’t keep.
“It’s my life too but I don’t use it,” April later chastises him, before going back to the hotel to prep for the surgery. But Avery doesn’t go back to the hotel. Jackson goes to the bar, and is obsessed with a bartender, who brings him a free beer, and who pretty obviously is not just a stranger. He stays there drinking beers. His phone is dead when April gets the news that the donor won’t work, and Jackson is four beers and a shot of whiskey deep when April shows up. Again, April is painted as uptight for asking Jackson to behave like an adult who has a surgery to do, and when he breaks a glass and runs out, we learn the truth.
“I was a surgeon, many lives ago,” the bartender says. “The hours are better and nobody dies.” And then he introduces himself as Robert Avery.
Drama is ensuing around how to fix the girl's throat without the donors, and her mothers give the docs until 3 p.m. the next day to come up with a solution, or they say they will move her. Here Avery lies. He makes the women a promise that he can’t keep: He promises them that their daughter will live and that she will retain her vocal chords. But instead of being able to brainstorm, he is lost within his own drama with his father, and April knows it.
“I’ve got a million things to say to that guy,” Jackson explains. “He looked me right in the eye, and he doesn’t know his own son.” So, April forces him to go confront him so it can be over and they can get back to work. Once he identifies himself, his father hugs him, gives him some coffee, and Jackson gives him his résumé. “Of course you’re amazing,” his father says. But wants to know what all dads want to know: Are you happy? “Of course,” he says with resentment. But his father really is happy — without him.
But of course, this conversation cannot possibly go in a way that makes both parties happy.
This part is supposed to carry the emotional weight of the episode, but it’s also supposed to be more subtle than that. And it succeeds. Though there is tension, it feels like a reprieve from the constant screeching of his fights with April.
The next morning Avery and April have a dual conversation: what to do about the girl, and what happened with his father. Avery messes up an idiom saying “your gut’s in your throat” instead of “your heart’s in your throat,” and has a revelation. What if they just used Caroline’s own intestines in her throat?
And so they do. But their success isn’t a surprise. With only one patient on the line tonight, the episode would have been a waste of an hour if they hadn’t come up with a solution. What is a surprise is that this successful surgery also gives them an adrenaline high, and they end up wrapped up together in bed. In the morning, April promises him that he’s a good father, because he took care of her and her child when they needed him to, and then sends him on his way to tell his father whatever it is he needs to say.
Jackson does go back to his father’s diner, and tells his father about his daughter, Harriet. But when his dad says he’s a grandfather, Jackson refuses him. “You’re not my father,” he says. “I feel like when you have a kid you’re making a promise. And I’m keeping my promise.”
For the first time in months, Grey’s Anatomy has given us an episode that is self-contained after the weeks and weeks of petty dramas. At the end of the episode, things feel good: Jackson and April are back together, and more than that, one of the season’s longest and most agonizing plotlines has finally come to a close.
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