The birth of an impossible baby, giving sight to the blind, and the death of a firstborn son. Amidst these storylines, Grey’s Anatomy gave their faithful viewers perhaps the most honest and relatable spiritual episode the show has seen in its 11 seasons. And it did so with more poignancy than most primetime shows would ever dare.
In the episode, “All I Could Do Was Cry,” Dr. April Kepner, played by Mom’s Night Out actress Sarah Drew, and her husband Dr. Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) must finally confront the results of their unborn baby’s in vitro tests. With a type-II osteogenesis imperfecta diagnosis (brittle bone disease), their baby will not likely survive more than minutes outside of the womb. To make an awful matter worse, they learn that while still protected within his mother before birth, the baby would nonetheless continue to suffer pain as his tiny bones began breaking.
Prompted by actress Drew’s own personal Christian faith, April Kepner’s story of faith has been increasingly prominent in recent seasons of the show. Viewers may have been surprised to see any conflict of faith and life on the screen when Kepner decided to sleep with Dr. Avery during her season 8 medical boards drama, ret-conning in a deep spiritual life for the then off-balance intern. But it was this 11th season episode that brought the real heartache of lived faith dramatically to the screen.
Breaking down in front of her atheist husband as she tries to deal with their baby’s diagnosis, the tortured Kepner lets her inner struggle unfold, justifiably crying out, “This isn’t fair. It isn’t just. And I have spent my life believing in a God who is just. He gave me a calling and I followed it. I save lives everyday; I finally feel like I am becoming the person that He wants me to be… and then this? To be handed this?! It’s cruel. And I feel like God is laughing at me. If this is a test, I fail. All these years trusting and believing and praying… and if this were just, even a tiny bit, then I could maybe… I can’t…”
This performance by Drew, which by the end of the cut became rather raw and emotionally authentic (a performance that could tap into the “problem of pain” that any sincere believer will likely encounter on some scale), relied not just on Drew’s own faith or acting chops, but also the sufficiently real and substantive work of the show’s writers. While Thursday night broadcast TV can often be mere soapy melodrama (just check out any #TGIT promo commercial), and while the cable channels across the dial may find sub-par filler in gimmicky one-off reality shows that use a religious trope to gain a slightly larger market share, this episode of Grey’s had some truly moving moments of praiseworthy spiritual writing.
The writers even managed to get away from the previous episodes’ real-but-predictable conflict between a Christian woman’s desire to avoid abortion and an atheist doctor’s suggestion to terminate a pregnancy of a doomed child. The dilemma was solved by having Kepner deliver the baby via early inducement, thus allowing her to hold her dying child and still limit its suffering without having an abortion. By moving that storyline out of the way, they freed up writerly space to focus on the emotional and intellectual trauma that the sincere believer was going through as she tried desperately to navigate the waters of faith in the midst of her own very real tragedy.
Moving beyond the cliche’ is not the norm in broadcast coverage of spirituality, and it should be noted when it happens.
In fairness, the episode almost tripped into the territory-of-the-trite when it began parading in one doctor after another to merely light a candle in the chapel, leaving one wondering if the spiritual exploration would delve any deeper, but the entrance of atheist Avery into the chapel pleading with God to “show up” for his wife then took the show to a whole new level of depth. By allowing Avery’s character to have that moment, the Grey’s team made April’s token Christianity no longer quite so lonely or quite so foreign. It likewise allowed Williams’ husbandly Jackson to bare his pain and confusion over the question of God equally as powerfully.
Reminding audiences that miracles really do exist, even in the hard science of medicine, the episode filled out it’s storyline with an “I didn’t know I was pregnant” woman giving birth and a hopeless tumor case giving a blind man his sight, but the bulk of the episode was set squarely on the importance of Kepner. Without the writers spoon-feeding it with too much syrup to the audience, Kepner appeared to find her tiny bit of what was “just” in her tragedy when she was able to console another grieving young woman in the hospital, so it remains to be seen whether or not her story of faith will reappear this season. For this episode, though, its inclusion certainly made an impact.
With sustained attention to character development, brave allotment of airtime, and unique-enough writing relative to its peers, Grey’s Anatomy squeaked out some nuance in a somewhat simple plot structure, meaningfully stretched themselves a bit beyond the lone-religious-character trope, and thus struck a spiritual chord that will surely still resonate well with its devoted Thursday audience.