Chandra Wilson on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Nursing Home COVID-19 Storyline, Patrick Dempsey’s Return and Meredith’s Future

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the Dec. 10 episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

As one of the last remaining original cast members on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Chandra Wilson has been playing Dr. Miranda Bailey since the show premiered in 2005. Tonight, Wilson’s character narrates the latest episode — a task usually done by Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey.

Now, in its 17th season, “Grey’s Anatomy” is one of the most influential shows in television history, inspiring generations of young women to enter the medical field. But never in its long-running history has the medical drama been as impactful as this season, as it tackles the coronavirus pandemic.

In the latest episode, Dr. Bailey’s mother dies after contracting COVID-19 in the nursing home she recently moved into, after Bailey moved her parents in an assisted living center, so that they could be living closer to her in Seattle.

At one particularly moving moment of the episode, when Bailey realizes her mother is dying from the virus, the character says, “I don’t want her to be another Black woman statistic.” Later on in the episode, Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) and Dr. Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) have a conversation about the pandemic taking more lives of Black and Brown people, shedding a light on the real-life racial disparity of the current health crisis with certain groups at increased risk from COVID-19.

“Watching the news every day, you kind of get bogged down in the numbers and the statistics. Things people say on TV just end up being news items, opposed to someone’s life,” Wilson says.

“The hope is that by illuminating these things on ‘Grey’s,’ we’re putting these things in the mouth’s of people you know — these characters — so that there is relevance and resonance where maybe there wasn’t before,” she continues. “From the perspective of doing some good, if you can stomach something coming from Jackson Avery’s mouth better than you can stomach it coming from your mayor or your governor, then we’ve served a good purpose.”

Here, Wilson talks about her latest storyline, the power “Grey’s Anatomy” holds during the pandemic, what it was like having Patrick Dempsey and T.R. Knight back on set — plus, Bailey’s future on the show.

Why was it important to include a storyline about coronavirus in nursing homes this season?

There is a myriad of material out there right now, as far as how people are affected differently. Specifically in Washington, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a big light shone on nursing homes being affected in a large way, so it just made sense for “Grey’s Anatomy,” since Washington is our home, that we would highlight nursing homes. Bringing Bailey’s parents to Seattle and having them live in an assisted living facility was one way to do that.

Did you have input in Bailey leading the nursing home storyline? 

No, not at all. This is something that was given to me, and I said, “We have to tell that story,” because we are talking about a lot of people’s experiences — but it is actually rare that Bailey was able to at least be there with her mom, whereas, for the most part, people aren’t able to be with their loved ones when they pass away. 

How will her mother’s death affect Bailey moving forward?

You could see in the scene between Maggie and Bailey, there is a lot of guilt there with taking responsibility for having brought her parents to Seattle. Bailey notoriously pushes through everything, but I think it’s hard to push through and persevere right now. I don’t have a season’s worth of perspective, as far as how it’s going to affect Bailey, but right now it’s about pushing through. Eventually she’s going to have to deal with it. As far as the timing is concerned, it may not be right away. But eventually, this is going to hit her.

Going into this new season, the writers knew that the show had to cover the pandemic, since you’re a medical show, but since the pandemic is not slowing down, will coronavirus be the center of the rest of the reason? And was that always the plan?

Well, I know that we were starting in the COVID environment — we were just going to jump in time a bit to get us into the pandemic, and then we were going to flash back into things that may have been missed at the end of Season 16 [since production was shut down]. In my heart, just as Chandra Wilson, I was hoping by the time these episodes aired, we would be talking about the past. But we are so present right now, in sort of a frightening way. So that’s been really unexpected for me.

So do you know what’s mapped out for the rest of the season? Or is the storyline in flux, depending on what happens with the pandemic and the vaccine?

I’m not sure how much the current circumstances are changing our overall arc. Our arc has had to remain very fluid this season, based on even if we’re allowed to work at a certain point, depending on how our national numbers do. The relevance grows episode-by-episode, and I think it makes for an interesting journey for our writers right now to figure out where the arc goes because I think it’s about as fluid as the times are right now.

You went through a shutdown last spring when Season 16 was cut off early when there was an industry-wide production halt, due to the pandemic. Have you gotten used to being on set now with all of the safety protocols?

It will never feel normal and that’s good because it shouldn’t. It certainly feels required. This is what we need to do, in order to keep our environment and ourselves safe enough and by extension, our families, so that work is possible. One way or another, we all have to figure out what can we do during this time because we can’t stay home indefinitely. It really is about honoring the requirement and going above and beyond, in order to make sure that we are as safe and as healthy as we can be, so that people can work. 

You are an actor — not a real doctor — but since the show is influencing millions of viewers each week, do you feel a heightened sense of responsibility to keep shooting the show, during these times?

It’s our responsibility to keep the quality of the show, but we’re not trying to beat people over the head with facts and opinions. We are ultimately entertainment.

It’s an interesting responsibility. There is endless television on, and there are endless avenues as ways to watch things, but I know that if I just have to look at Zoom one more time, or something created by the iPhone, it’s really difficult [laughing]. It’s kind of a breath of fresh air to be like, “Hey, there’s a show that was actually shot on a stage with actors in the room!” On a level of importance, take that for what it is, but I feel good about bringing some new dramatic series content to the air, and I think that’s what all the shows are trying to do. Television and movies, we are the place of escape right now. We are the thing that people are relying on, while spending so much time at home. 

The biggest responsibility of that is being able to light a path in getting people back to work on set and create a model.

Another major moment of the episode is when Bailey is talking to Meredith, who is unconscious in a hospital bed with COVID-19, and then you show up in her dream sequence on the beach. Is it supposed to be implied that Meredith can hear Bailey, or anyone else who’s talking to her, even though she’s not responsive?

I think we’ve left that up to personal interpretation. Some sedated patients will tell you that they can hear everything. I think we would all like to think that in our world, Meredith can hear us and she is part of the conversation — she just happens to be at the beach. 

What is the future for Meredith, in regards to her health?

I’m not being evasive, but only because of how fluid the season is, I think we thought we were going some place, but now we’re going a different place, and I’m not sure where that place is. That one is up in the air because I honestly don’t know — and even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you [laughing].

Back to Meredith’s dreams on the beach, what was it like having Patrick Dempsey and T.R. Knight back on set?

Wasn’t that fun? It was so fun. It’s just so nice to welcome people home to “Grey’s,” and with familiar faces and the familiar crew, it just makes it real easy because we all worked together for so long.

Had you kept in touch since they were both off the show?

Oh, sure! Especially, during this pandemic, I was trying to reach out to everybody to make sure that people were doing okay.

Showrunner Krista Vernoff said that she kept Patrick Dempsey’s return insanely under wraps — even many of the actors did not know. Did you know?

Yeah. I got a chance to be in-the-know on that.

What was it like to keep that a secret?

I just know when I was on the beach with T.R., there were a few people around that seemed like they were coming to see what show was shooting, and maybe have taken out a phone, and we had people on phone watch, just to make sure that nobody was going to be able to get the scoop. And I’m sure it was the same thing when Patrick was on the beach. 

What was your reaction when you found out that Derek and George would be returning?

Ultimately, it’s about story. If you present somebody with a cool story opportunity then it’s like, “Yeah, sure why not?” This had to have been attractive for Derek to be there on the other side potentially with Meredith, and for O’Malley, it had to have been. It’s just a really cool story.

I know you won’t tell me if there are plans for any more characters to show up this season because your lips are sealed, but which character from the past do you think would be best for Bailey to reunite with?

Well, here’s the thing — everybody that comes to the beach is there for Meredith, so we don’t even really get to see each other in that other realm, so the other characters don’t have anything to do with that. But as a fan, I’d like all my babies — the dead ones and the ones that are all alive in all places — that would make me so happy! Just as a fan of the show, that would make me so happy [laughing].

You’ve directed many episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Any plans to direct this season?

That, too, is fluid. With all the protocols in place and with the PPE and the zones on set, I think it’s just easier for me to be Bailey. I think they need me to be Bailey right now, and to be well. There is not a season where I don’t catch a cold, and it’s usually around the time that I’m directing, and we can’t have that this season because I wouldn’t be allowed to come to work. So I’m just focusing on being healthy and being Bailey. When we can put all this behind us, then they’ll send me back to direct, and I’m sure I’ll do four episodes instead of two, to make up for it.

The show has been on for so long and so many actors have left the show throughout the years, so the inevitable question is always, how much longer? So how much longer for you?

That is the million dollar question. I always say until the wheels come off, I’ll be there [laughing]. I think there have been so many versions of when the show would end and how the show will end that there isn’t a version at this point. I keep showing up when they call me and tell me that we’re doing another one! I would love to see the end of her — I would love to see the completion of that arc, not only as a character, but with the show, but everything is dictated by story, as always — but what a great story to be able to tell that I was a starter and a finisher, that’s a very cool story.

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