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 ever fabalicious Snarky's Machine 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!
Snarky's Machine: What are they doing with Alex Karev? His family history with mental illness is well established as are his class concerns. What do you think the writers are trying to say about both issues, particularly how class informs his experience with mental illness? Do you think they're succeeding?
Redlami: The matter-of-fact way Alex relates what he did on his trip home to Iowa suggests that he is well aware of the limits his family's class imposes on the options available for treating mental illness—namely, pushing some pills or being committed. And this lack of available support has been contributing to the pressure he's long felt at having to take care of the people around him. One result of this is that he's developed some serious skills, clearly demonstrated in this episode by a flash of brilliance. But his family responsibilities continue to act as a drag on his attempts at class mobility. Overall, I like the fairly nuanced treatment that's been given to these subjects through Alex.
Snarky's Machine: Grey's has struggled to be both matter-of-fact regarding Alex's and Izzie's class status, yet also not positioning either as people to pity because of it. At times that means storylines revolving on or around the class issues of the residents are often handled off stage, except when it's time to point out how spoiled and clueless Cristina and Callie can be or how posh Meredith Grey is. In order to do so, Grey's often has to use Alex as an object lesson, who hopefully has the effect of shaming all those class-privileged people and it's usually unbearable to watch. So I was really excited they were going to explore how Alex's class informs what he believes are the boundaries of psychiatric treatment (commit or medicate) and how both class and mental illness tend to be the two unseen issues that simmer under his often jerk-y surface. Grey's has been adept at showing Alex as a person who has always had to sublimate his own needs and desires to care for others whose needs are presented as more pressing than his own. In a way even with April he was trying to assert that he had the right to put himself first, though obviously he could have handled that better.
s.e. smith: I had a tough time with this. I feel like Karev often gets used for Very Important Lessons About Class and How It Works, except that it's all seen through Karev's lens and we don't explore the story very deeply. It's like, it's "safe" to present the lessons through Alex, the lower-class kid working his way up, because he's an example of a person who is making it, realizing the Dream, but it would be dangerous to humanize the rest of his family. There are parallels here in the real world with presenting success stories as evidence that anyone can do it, and failures as pity parties. We are reminded over and over that he's trying to escape his family and better himself in a way that is supposed to make us think his family is kinda trashy, I feel like. And there's a lot to explore here with mental illness and the trope that caregiving is the most difficult, awful thing in the world; again, here, we're seeing the caregiver perspective but not the mentally ill person, and the takeaway is "mental illness is awful and will ruin your family and your life if you let it." I really didn't get the sense that the episode was exploring the intersections between class and mental illness at all, honestly.
Everett Maroon: Time and again, people respond only to Karev's gruff exterior and are shocked when he comes up with a brilliant idea or shows vulnerability to his patients. It's well past simple forgetting or blanket expectations regarding who he is as a doctor. Perhaps part of the issue is that on the surgical ward, class differences are ostensibly de-emphasized or erased—all that matters is how well one performs in the OR—but this blindness silences the fact that the people on the ward are coming in with different histories and will have varying responses to what happens at work. Along the same lines implicit in Bailey's statement of "I need a win, that's all," is this idea that above all else, one's skill with a knife is what matters. Which is also partly responsible for why Cristina's insistence on quitting the program is so inexplicable to everyone else at Seattle Grace. I don't think Karev's reluctance to spend time in the midst of what is his primary trauma's "ground zero" is any different from Yang's refusal to be in an OR, but there is no sympathy for him and his relationship to his family and their mental illness in the way that the surgeons can identify with wanting to be in an OR working. And it's enacted as silencing of his class legacy.
Snarky's Machine: This week's episode seemed to emphasis flattening of various lived experiences in order to demonstrate commonality. How do you think race, class and gender were most problematically depicted?
Redlami: I had issues with some of the gender stereotyping surrounding Alex, April and Jackson. April breaking down because of Alex's reaction when she asked him to "go slow" for her was jarring after seeing her so capably handle all the pressure that Owen dished out with the trauma drill. And Jackson's coming out swinging to defend this tarnishing of her virginity felt like something out of The Legend of King Arthur.
Snarky's Machine: Well clearly Mc Dreamy and Teddy experience their lives as surgeons exactly the same way, so it's not going to torpedo her career if he attempts to call Teddy out—in front of her whole audience—because McDreamy has some unresolved issues with being shot and having Cristina save his life, but now hate his wife. Teddy is constantly being questioned by those whose only judgment could be described as "dubious" and seeing her struggle against that sexism—and kick ass—is satisfying, though painful. And what of the black on black crime involving the Chief's devaluing of Bailey's observations about the pancreas procedure that still results in 20% of the patients developing fistulas and dying? Even though the Chief and Bailey came to an understanding in this case, I didn't much like how Bailey had to damn near cry in order to get the Chief to stop and think about the apparent flaws in the procedure. But by far Cristina's don't worry/buy furniture was the most obnoxious. Not because buying furniture for your empty firehouse is problematic, but because once again Grey's has shown there is a "manly" way to go off the career rails, which usually results in some pensive "me" time and discovery of a new procedure and the lady way basically boils down to acting as though one was a part of a traveling slumber party and spending a lot of time engaged in stereotypical safe lady activities, which are supposedly going to prevent anything unpleasant from happening to those poor frazzled lady brains.
s.e. smith: Oh, gosh, there was so much stuff going on in this episode in regards to this. Great question! I was really, really bothered that so many characters reverted to stereotype here, from the frail clinging white virgin to the angry man of color to the poor little rich girl going bananas with the Visa to embittered lower-class guy from the wrong side of the tracks. Like, woah, Grey's, did you just skim TV Tropes for the major plot points in this episode?
One thing that really intrigued me was the plot with the vague Middle Eastern prince (because they're all the same, right?). I was expecting the show to go for the cheap shot and have the prince's entourage refuse to allow a woman to operate on him, but that didn't come up at all.
Everett Maroon: Well, Karev's masculinity and sexual aggression are pretty freaking problematic, to start with. And Avery had to vent his frustration by picking a fight. Nobody's asking why the male doctors would act out in these ways or what effects from the shooting might still be pervasive in the emotions of the staff. But when Yang snaps, she just wants to be the best consumer possible and hang out at the mall. And hey, let's give a shout out to Arab men—so scary with their indecipherable language and hostility toward women, so we better save the one guy who dreams of a better day, right? Or else! Is that really the best television can do to provide a sympathetic portrayal of people from (what I presume is) the Middle East? I miss Monk. Let's not forget that Avery has been struggling all fall and nobody thinks to talk about how the still-very-white surgery establishment might be piling on to his stress level. But he's bi-racial, so that can't be it, of course!
Snarky's Machine: Cristina's "downward spiral" continues, yet oddly only others perceive Cristina's situation as such. What do you think about the way in which Cristina's choices are being invalidated because they are at odds with everyone's else's expectations of her?
Redlami: In one sense, Cristina's retreat from the pressure that seems to crush everyone else could be the healthiest reaction she's had since the shooting. But of course, this choice not only flies in the face of their expectations of her, but admitting its validity would also call into question their own decisions to accept the pressure of their lives and careers. Why would anyone want to not be the best of the best, regardless of the costs?
Snarky's Machine: I found the whole scene of Hunt, Altman, Grey and Shepherd debating Cristina's future—hell, even Bailey and the Chief got into the act—really problematic. Cristina might not have made the choice others felt was best, but there was no reason to assume she was making a bad choice, given that her performance had not been her best since the shooting. Doing the right thing doesn't always feel like the good thing and Cristina certainly embodies that.
s.e. smith: It's interesting to see the show presenting Cristina as very much out of control; we're supposed to read bouncing on the bed and spending lots of money and giggling as a sign that she's reverting to childhood, instead of an expression of relief from pressure. Meredith's voiceover talks about the need for a pressure valve, yet no one seems to be willing to give that to Cristina. I think what's happening to her with every character except Shepard is that everyone wants the "old" Cristina back, the one who is serious and responsible and focused, and they're scared by who she is now so they're trying to stuff her into that box instead of letting her breathe a little. They've depended on her for so long to be the one they "don't have to worry about," as Bailey put it. I've always felt a connection with Cristina because we're similar in a lot of ways, and I feel her really acutely right now; here she is trying to transition and shift herself and no one will let her because they have a rigidly preconceived notion of who Cristina Yang is and always shall be.
Everett Maroon: On the one hand, it makes a kind of sense that someone so singularly focused on a thin slice [sic] of a specialty in a vocation would have missed out on the decades-long national love affair with buying all things large and small, bright and beautiful. When this character was 13 she most certainly did not hang out at the mall and suggest blue highlights to her friends. On the other hand, Torres' question to her is perfect: What are you going to do now? I think the writers tried to show us that the other doctors, while all having "the same goal" of getting Yang back on the program, they're coming at it from different, conflicting interests. Meredith is wrapped up in her onion of a relationship with Cristina. Bailey thinks Yang has walked away from a gifted career. Teddy misses her pupil. And while I am no fan of Derek, at least he gets where Cristina is at emotionally—and I don't doubt he wants her back at the hospital, too. But for all of their "let's help her" pep squad antics, they've forgotten that Cristina's been the person least out in the rest of the world. The doctors' aggression in pushing Pandora—I mean, Yang—back into her box is actually a hurtful response, especially as all of them support each other in having interests outside of the "office." Yang's not allowed such frivolity.
Snarky's Machine: Callie's hair and the lady break up trope. Discuss.
Redlami: Clearly nothing's better for treating heartbreak than a trip to the stylist for a new 'do. Unless it's getting drunk and asking an old boyfriend if you can move in with him. Her main reaction to her breakup with Arizona seems to be insecurity about her attractiveness.
Snarky's Machine: Callie's a fascinating character because she both bucks tropes, while at the same time embodies tropes that are often only available to white females. Callie can be giggly and bit vapid without anyone questioning her right to occupy spaces or assume she made her way into this country illegally. I'm not liking her hair, but I do admire (even if it gets on my nerves) the way that Callie Torres is pushing back against the idea of what a Mexican woman looks, feels, and acts like.
s.e. smith: I'm shocked they didn't do new hair at the end of the last episode! I jest. Yeah, the only thing missing from this episode was Callie sprawled in the middle of the floor with a carton of ice cream. Glad to know this is how Grey's feels about its female characters, that they will of course inhabit every single possible gendered trope while also mocking said tropes, as seen when Callie made her giggling/dismissive comment about now maybe not being the best time to redo her hair.
Everett Maroon: Seriously, blue highlights? Is she going to totes fall for a college quarterback now? What am I missing here? We got the smug look of satisfaction as McSteamy tells her she's never single for long. Obviously that starts with a new 'do from Single Lady Cuts! I'm just shocked she wasn't sucking back a bubble tea while the locks were coming off!
See you next week with "Slow Night, So Long"!
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.