It’s no secret that Grey’s Anatomy (Wednesday’s at 9 p.m. ET on CTV) does a handful of things better than just about any show on TV today. Sexy work hookups? Check. Compelling medical cases? That’s a positive diagnosis. A celebration of female friendship? They’re our person. But every so often, Grey’s Anatomy steps away from their tried and true formula and creates an episode that is so impactful that it instantly becomes a piece of pop culture history. That’s what happened on Wednesday’s “Silent All These Years” episode and that’s how you stay on the air for 15 seasons.
Since joining Grey’s Anatomy in Season 9, Camilla Luddington’s Jo has been playing the long game with her family history. After revealing that she was left at a fire station at birth and bumped around foster homes until she lived in her car, Jo’s past switched from being about her childhood trauma to being about abusive ex-husband trauma. But the groundwork for Jo’s character development that was laid so many seasons ago came to fruition on Wednesday’s episode, when a quick swab and an online DNA test led Jo to the door of her birth mother.
Played with a commanding force by Michelle Forbes, Jo’s mother wasn’t a waitress living paycheque to paycheque or a woman who sat by the window every day hoping the baby she gave up would find her. That’s the reality that Jo had hoped for, one that had understandably made her feel less alone and unloved growing up without a family. Instead, she got a woman who had lived her life trying to pretend Jo didn’t exist. It was heartbreaking and gut-wrenching and not the idyllic family reunion that most primetime shows would deliver. But Grey’s has never been that show.
What Jo found was that she was the result of a rape, and the man who attacked her mother was now dead. Her existence was hidden, with Forbes’ character keeping Jo’s birth a secret. As she repeated throughout the pair’s emotional meeting, Jo’s mother did the best she could, with her rape, followed by Jo’s birth, making her feel like she had lost her mind.
How could she not?
There were so many brilliant aspects of Wednesday’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but one of the biggest achievements was the way in which the episode took its time to allow the viewer to begin to process the trauma that was sustained by the key players. An 18-year-old woman went out on a date with her TA, was raped, impregnated, and felt as though she had lost her mind. She gave birth to a daughter who never had a home and married a man who almost beat her to death. Those are the bullet points. In between the periods and commas are the long and difficult daily lives of fictional characters who could be, have been, and are real people.
Jo’s reception by her birth mother was not something often seen on TV. It’s wasn’t the loving and emotional reunion of Sterling K. Brown’s Randall, who had also been left at a fire station, but in his case by his adoring father played by Ron Cephas on This Is Us. It wasn’t Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson, who had been raised by a loving mother even though she too was the product of rape on Law and Order SVU. Instead, Luddington and Forbes delivered performances that we couldn’t look away from, no matter how painful it was when ‘I’m sorrys’ weren’t given, when hands were jerked away. It was awful and agonizing and real and showed how gravely one person’s decision to exert their power over someone else can cause a ripple effect throughout countless other lives.
Michelle Forbes wasn’t the only guest star to give an unforgettable performance on Wednesday’s episode. Khalilah Joi played a woman named Abby who Jo treated after returning to Seattle. Brutally sexually assaulted while at a bar, Abby’s visceral pain leapt off the screen, with her story taking a surprising turn that in retrospect fit perfectly with the episode. She wasn’t the abused wife Jo had once been. She was the woman who thought she was flirting with a nice stranger and soon found herself inhabiting a body she no longer recognized with a mind that saw the same face every time she closed her eyes. She wasn’t Jo. She was Jo’s mother.
The bruises and cuts and bite marks on Abby’s body were shocking. The long and invasive process of documenting a rape kit was agonizing. The fear Abby voiced over being blamed for her attack was painfully relatable. Hearing Jo’s mother describe her assault was difficult. Seeing the brutal and dehumanizing result of an assault on Abby’s body, witnessing the added loss of agency she endured as she was photographed naked, and hearing her fears over being victim shamed made it impossible to ignore the severity of the action. Jo’s mother did not get a hallway of women supporting her after assault. Even Joi’s Abby was a fictional character, but hopefully someone watching Wednesday’s episode felt less alone.
The writers behind Grey’s Anatomy said that they were inspired to write “Silent All The Years” after watching the brave testimony of Christine Blasey Ford in 2018. Blasey Ford wasn’t successful in stopping her alleged assailant Brett Kavanaugh from being admitted to the Supreme Court. But she did succeed in giving a voice to millions who have been silenced by strangers, by partners, by the attempted lessening of the word ‘date’ added to their rape.
Grey’s Executive Producer and Showrunner Krista Vernoff called Wednesday’s episode “the most powerful hour of TV I’ve ever been a part of.” It was definitely one of the most powerful hours of TV we have ever watched.
Watch Grey’s Anatomy every Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on CTV.