The Grey's Anatomy Season 17 premiere proved that the long-running medical drama still has some tricks up its sleeve with a shocking return at the very end of a two-hour episode focusing on the coronavirus pandemic's impact. At the very end, Ellen Pompeo's Meredith appeared to have contracted the coronavirus herself. On the brink of death, she saw Patrick Dempsey's long-deceased Dr. Derek "McDreamy" Shepard. Dempsey returned to play the part for the first time in five years, and Pompeo celebrated by sharing a selfie from his day on set.
Pompeo's photo was taken at the beach where the last scene was filmed, with the two stars smiling with the sun on their faces. She included another picture with the two stars wearing face masks. "Let's love, let's heal, let's wear a mask," she wrote, adding a heart emoji. Dempsey shared the same two photos, alongside a longer message for fans. "Please let’s come together, respect each other, wear a mask, and thank our first responders. They work tirelessly and risk their lives to keep us safe," the actor wrote.
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McDreamy was last seen on Grey's Anatomy in Season 11, which ended with his death after a car accident. In an interview with Deadline, Grey's Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff confirmed Dempsey will play Derek in more than just the Season 17 premiere. He filmed "more than the one scene" at the very end. Dempsey told the outlet is was "fun" to return to the character, especially during the pandemic, and said he was prepared to do more scenes.
"With everything that we’re dealing with right now, and certainly we have been distracted with the election, but we’re going to get back into the reality of COVID and being in a pandemic, and all the lives that have been lost," Dempsey said. "Where are these souls going? And I think that’s what attracted me to this storyline, I think it can be really helpful and healing to so many people."
Amazingly, Dempsey's return was a total shocker for fans. Vernoff and her team managed to keep his scene a secret for as long as possible. She did not even send cuts of the episode with the scene included to the studio and network until the last moment. Even the crew did not know Dempsey would be at the beach until they arrived. Vernoff's early script even had Meredith say "Mom" during the scene instead of Derek's name.
Pompeo told Deadline she came up with the idea of bringing Dempsey back. Since the two live near each other in Malibu, she approached him about coming back. "The idea just struck me so I just said to him, would you ever consider coming and being a part of the storytelling this season?" Pompeo explained. "I know that Patrick has his foundation in Maine where he helps cancer patients and cancer survivors, and that’s a huge effort of his, and I know that it’s important to him, also, to give people hope, and give people joy, and we wanted to bring something to this moment." Grey's Anatomy likely has more surprises in store when the next episode airs Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.