‘Grey’s Anatomy’: What Happens When Fans’ Loyalty to a Character Conflicts With Their Loyalty to the Show

Last Thursday, almost 10 million people tuned in to Grey’s Anatomy to watch a literally explosive episode that featured — spoiler — the death of a major character: Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), better known as McDreamy. This isn’t the first time a prominent character has exited the long-running medical drama — in fact, ten big names have left over time — but it’s the one that’s producing the most visceral backlash from the series’ obsessive fandom, showcasing TV viewers’ intense loyalty to their favorite characters.

In the most-watched episode since the season premiere, the cloyingly titled “How to Save a Life” (an obvious throwback to Season 1) centered around Derek single-handedly saving a handful of people from a car accident, only to get back into his car and immediately get smashed into by a truck. The rest of the episode mostly takes place in a hospital where Derek is undergoing surgery, unable to talk (but still able to think/narrate, explaining to the audience everything the doctors are doing wrong). It’s meant to be a heroic send-off — he saves lives! — and the episode certainly did pack an emotional punch, but this wasn’t enough to please viewers. McDreamy is dead, and that’s simply unacceptable.

It’s so unacceptable, in fact, that viewers have started a Change.org petition directed at Shonda Rhimes, angrily begging — in bolded, caps-lock text — the creator to bring back Derek through any means. “I think that with all the brilliant ideas and writers that you have, that you make this episode a DREAMT one. A hallucination. You cant continue the show without McDreamy,” they write. The petition is intense, with tactics ranging from calling out a fictional hospital’s fictional treatment of a fictional character (“The hospital that killed Derek needs to be SHUT DOWN! The doctor needs to have his LICENSE REVOKED! 90 minutes?! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! NEGLIGENCE to the fullest power!”) to claiming that fans are physically suffering (“People are not sleeping nor eating because of this tragic turn of events and you are not there to help them in any way shape or form!”).

The passionate and emotional response to Derek’s death isn’t a new television phenomenon. Fans have long decried the sudden demise of their favorite characters, taking it almost as a personal offense. And they’ve only become louder in recent years, so much so that the creators of The Good Wife penned an open letter to fans elaborating on and explaining the shocking death of one the series’ biggest characters. These powerful reactions, which often take the form of lashing out and insulting the series’ creators and writers (the comments on the petition are especially vicious) is actually a positive reflection of the way in which a series can sink its hooks in its viewers.

ELLEN POMPEOIt doesn’t matter to fans if Derek’s story has run its course and future plots would’ve been terrible. It doesn’t even matter that Patrick Dempsey wanted to leave Grey’s Anatomy. What matters is that these fans all had an intense connection to Derek, and especially to the relationship of Derek and Meredith, a relationship that has anchored the series from the beginning — after all, Grey’s Anatomy began with Der/Mer’s first hook-up before it even introduced the medical aspect of the show. Derek was characterized as a handsome, sensitive, and highly skilled surgeon, making his relationship with Meredith a desired pairing for fans. It’s the strong writing throughout Grey’s Anatomy‘s 11 seasons that built the connection that viewers felt to Derek, which is why it was so devastating when this connection was suddenly severed.

When it comes to most fandoms, audiences’ love for the characters often outlives the series itself. It can easily be argued that Grey’s Anatomy is past its prime — it can be argued that any show on its 11th season is past its prime — but it’s also clear that the Grey’s fandom shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it gets more intense with each new season, as if to compensate for any less committed fans who have jumped ship, or at least to prove that there is still a huge demand for more Grey‘s and that they’ll keep watching as long as the show’s still on. But even that isn’t especially true; the majority of those who signed the petition claim that they will not watch Grey’s Anatomy as long as Derek remains, well, dead — showing that loyalty to a character can even supersede loyalty to the show that created him.