Grey's Anatomy Showrunner Says Keeping Patrick Dempsey's Surprise Return Secret 'Was an Epic Feat'

The Grey's Anatomy team went to great lengths to keep Patrick Dempsey's surprise return under wraps.

At the end of the season 17 premiere of the beloved ABC drama, fans were shocked to see Dempsey's character, Derek Shepherd, back sharing the screen with Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey. Though it was a dream sequence inside Meredith's imagination (Derek died in an April 2015 episode), the emotional moment was a major twist — one producers were careful to keep secret behind the scenes.

"I have to say that it was an epic feat, the keeping of this secret," showrunner Krista Vernoff told Deadline. "I didn’t send cuts to the studio and network that included that last scene. I didn’t have writers’ assistants in the writers’ room for the last couple of months. There were writers who didn’t know we were doing this on that staff. Most of the actors didn’t know we were doing this. The crew didn’t know we were doing this when they showed up on the day."

Vernoff explained that she even wrote the scene as Meredith envisioning a reunion with her mother Ellis Grey (played by Kate Burton) instead of Derek so no one in early stages of production would know.

"I put the name 'Ellis Grey' in the script that we read at the table, and I had Meredith say 'Mom' at the table, so we got there on the day and no one had been told what was happening," said Vernoff. "… I was like a crazy person with this secret. And Ellen and I were texting at all hours of the night, like: 'Who knows,' "I think this person!' "

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Vernoff said, since the show would be covering real-world trauma surrounding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, she wanted to work in a treat for fans to balance the material. That's when the idea for a Dempsey return came about.

"From a writer’s perspective, it happened because it was my job to find a way — once we determined that we were doing the pandemic — to also bring joy, and escape, and fan candy, and all the things that at Grey’s Anatomy we give people," she said. "We give them romance, and we give them humor, and we give them joy, and a lot of that is lacking for the medical community in this pandemic. And so, I was walking on the beach one day, and I was like, what if there’s a Meredith dream motif?"

"There have been studies about how intense our dream life has been. In the pandemic, people are having really intense dreams because of the lockdown," continued Vernoff. "We’re not getting enough stimulation, and so, it’s happening in our dreams. So it started as that; it started as, how do we give people some escape?"

"I had this imagining of a beach motif throughout the season, and I called Ellen, and I said, what if we bring back, I don’t know, some dead character that you could dream of on the beach, that would be so fun for the fans," said Vernoff. "And she said, let’s get Patrick. Even in my most excitable dream life, that thought hadn’t occurred to me as an option, and there it was."

In a recent interview with Deadline, Dempsey reflected on the longevity of the drama series: "It’s crazy how much time has passed, but it really was so comforting, and lovely, and inspiring to go back, and to work together, to see everybody. It really was so open too; that was the thing, really — people were very, I think, vulnerable in a positive way, where we were all grateful to be there and to be together."

As for whether more fallen characters will pop up on that dream-world beach, Vernoff teased that anything is possible: "I don’t know. You have to tune in and see who comes to the beach. It’ll be a joyful discovery."

Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC

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