What is happening in our world? Who is doing what? what is going on now? These are questions that will be answered. Enjoy.
Grey’s Anatomy Season 16 Has Become a Political Commentary On American Healthcare
Let me guess—when you think Grey’s Anatomy, you think, “That show is still on?” The picture in your head is likely of a melodramatic primetime soap opera about messy workplace romances and on-call room sex—a show long past its early aughts glory days. But if you’re writing the show off as something so facile, what you’re missing is some of the smartest cultural commentary on television about the morally bankrupt state of American healthcare.
At the end of Season 15, protagonist Meredith Grey was fired from her job as chief of general surgery at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital for committing insurance fraud—the principled kind, that is. When a young girl with cancer needed surgical intervention, but her undocumented father lacked insurance because of his immigration status, Meredith pulled a switcheroo with hospital records, claiming that the surgery was performed on her own daughter and submitting it under her daughter’s insurance. Meredith was not only sacked, but prosecuted, leading her to be sentenced to court-mandated community service—meanwhile, the fate of her medical license hangs in the balance.
Grey’s Anatomy has habitually prioritized medical narratives over the dismal financial realities of healthcare in America, though it hasn’t turned its back on such stories. In Season 15, when Alex Karev encounters a patient who refuses a pulmonary surgery because his insurance won’t cover it, Karev intentionally injures the patient with a small cut to the chest such that the surgery can be reclassified as life-saving trauma surgery, thus making it eligible for coverage. Seasons Seven and Eight see Teddy Altman share her insurance with Henry, a charming patient whose congenital tumor condition has maxed out his insurance, by entering into a sham marriage with him. This being Grey’s, Teddy and Henry fall for one another after their nuptials, only for Henry to die on the surgical table under the knife of Teddy’s protégé Cristina Yang, who isn’t aware that she’s operating on her mentor’s husband—but I digress.
Yet now, the show is broadening its lens from occasional insurance snafus to challenging the corrupt system as a whole, with Meredith becoming a crusader for affordable healthcare and criminal justice reform. Season 16 picks up with Meredith spearing trash on the side of the Seattle freeway, where she becomes a woman of the people. While working her community service hours, she grows increasingly enraged at the degree to which her cohorts are falling through the cracks of the healthcare industry. Take the example of her supervisor, who hasn’t seen a doctor in months because her insurance has dawdled for so long on approving a specialist, and who now can’t see the specialist because she can’t afford to take time off from work. Meredith is a generous and empathetic person, to be certain, but also a wealthy and award-winning surgeon sheltered from the realities of scraping by. As such, she’s shocked and changed by this story, and by the dozens of similar stories she encounters through her community service.
Enraged and emboldened, Meredith grows determined to use her platform for good. She reaches out to a website to pitch ideas for an op-ed about the broken state of American healthcare. However, the website instead runs Meredith’s rough pitches as a list, and boy, are they a doozy. Under the headline, “Hospital Hell at Grey Sloan Memorial; Fired Surgeon Speaks Out,” Meredith writes, “In the eyes of the hospital, you are your insurance,” as well as, “In America, the rich live 10 to 15 years longer than the poor. The healthcare industry sells its time to whoever can afford it.” What ensues is a PR nightmare for Grey Sloan Memorial, where Meredith seeks to soften the damage to her former employer while refusing to back down from her convictions.
When Meredith skips her community service hours to mitigate the fallout from her op-ed and to tend to a health crisis for her daughter, who suffers from spina bifida, the judge managing her case determines that she’ll have to make up her missed hours in jail. In the local lock-up, Meredith frets to her cellmate, worrying that she’ll lose her medical license. The cellmate, a struggling single mother working two jobs, shares the story of how she came to be incarcerated. When her childcare fell through, she couldn’t afford to skip her graveyard shift, so she left her children home alone overnight. When her young son dialed 9-1-1 out of panic, she accidentally struck the police officer called to the scene, leading her to be jailed on charges of assault. Without the money to post bail, she’s rotting in jail awaiting a trial, while her children have been sent into foster care. Meredith is visibly changed, ashamed of her own petty problems, and upon her release from jail, she pays her cellmate’s bail.
Character growth is part and parcel of any narrative, yet to see Meredith’s understanding of the world’s harsh realities broaden and to see her grow into an activist is to see a form of character growth we don’t often see in this kind of television. Certainly having the disposable income to pay a stranger’s bail is a privilege, yet throughout the season, Meredith becomes increasingly cognizant of her privilege, and she leverages it with intention in an effort to improve the lives of others. We see her chastened, changed, mobilized. We see her learn that activism without becoming informed is arrogance—only when she digs deep into the issues is she able to effect the necessary change.
Grey’s has always been political in its storylines, forcing its characters to weigh an eternal moral conundrum: play by the rules of the broken system, or do the right thing despite the consequences? That conundrum has made for excellent, zeitgeisty television, sending the characters to the outer reaches of human empathy. We’ve seen doctors give life-saving medical intervention to children whose parents refused to give consent for treatment. We’ve seen doctors of color forced to treat white supremacists. We’ve seen doctors struggle to sit on their hands when patients refuse simple blood transfusions for religious reasons.
Yet this season, Grey’s isn’t limiting its purview to individual human stories—instead, it’s taking a big swing at the brokenness of the system as a whole. It also takes a decidedly intersectional view, yoking the problem of healthcare together with issues of race, class, and citizenship. As Meredith’s eyes open to the problem and the knottiness of it, so too do ours. In an election year, such clear-eyed interrogation of the system can’t be more timely.
Meredith Grey for president, anyone? She’s got my vote.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.