“Grey’s Anatomy” has never shied away from tackling heavy topics — and on Thursday night’s (Feb. 23), episode entitled “Back Where You Belong,” a seemingly simple kidney transplant from a loving mother to her ailing son Chris, quickly turned into a much darker situation when the boy’s father shows up… And both mother and son instantly recoil with a combination of fear and anger at his sudden presence.
As the doctors learn, the two patients fled almost a year prior, after years of domestic abuse, when the woman’s husband finally went after their son. A divorce precluded by the fact that they’ve been hiding — all the while, her son getting sicker — means that technically none of the Grey-Sloan staff can force the man to leave the hospital.
Though Jo (Camilla Luddington) couldn’t have known any of this when she sweetly led the man into his victims’ hospital room, she quickly goes into a downward spiral of panic, guilt and PTSD from her own abuse. We’ve seen over the years the way Jo’s attempts to get around her past can sometimes backfire — she is very open about some things, like being homeless, but other things she likes to shove down, like this abuse — and more often than not she ends up sabotaging herself. But it seems she’s starting to see that too, thanks to the stability and support of her “work family” and her desire to figure things out with Alex (Justin Chambers).
Jo breaking down, finally allowing herself to admit that she’s not okay is actually a step in the right direction. She’s been pretty tough to take over the last season — her inability to tell the truth, wherever it comes from, has negatively effected every person who tries to show her love. It nearly killed Karev’s career, and could have literally killed Deluca (Giacomo Gianniotti). It’s far past time for Jo to face her demons — if she doesn’t, the pain will continue to slowly eat away at her every day until there’s nothing left.
Chris’ transplant surgery gets even more complicated once the mother’s spare kidney dies, before Jo or Stephanie (Jerrika Hinton) can operate on the boy — now there are two people here, with one working kidney between them, and deciding what to do with it is impossible. There’s no precedent, everybody’s in a tizzy about who’s in authority anyway thanks to the Minnick Civil War currently underway, and interim Head of General Surgery Dr. April Kepner (Sarah Drew) is the last person you want under that kind of pressure, obviously…
But then Chris’ abusive father gets a blood test, and proves a match — the doctors realize they now have the extra kidney that means both mother and child can go on living a normal life. But Jo throws several fits about it, finally explaining in a way that puts her history into context, but also gives her a moral authority, in a way, to help guide these decisions while the mother and son are under anesthesia.
As Jo cries, talking about that woman waking up and finding out that her husband had controlled her — made decisions for her, about her body and her son — we see a new side to Jo: A raw one, not just in the usual way or in the sense of her coping mechanisms, but a version of herself that is so threatened and angry about this story, sickened by it, that she’s nearly forgetting who it’s about at all. It’s persuasive — she knows what she’s talking about, and if there were any other way, the other doctors would comply.
In the end, Jo hisses into the man’s face as he’s being prepped for surgery, “You’re using this as a way to worm your way back into their lives,” which is the best assumption if you want to stay safe. She’s fairly dark in this moment, pending over him on the table like he bent over her earlier in a menacing move that was half of what sent her down the rabbit hole: It’s good to see her empowered, even good to see her a little cruel, but it’s not too easy to look at.
But when he swears that’s not it — that he just wants to do this one good thing, since he can’t ever take back what he did in the past, or even properly apologize — it doesn’t matter if she believes him, because it doesn’t matter if it’s true: By donating the kidney anonymously, he can help the boy without asserting control over them, and he’ll be free to leave them in peace once again. Jo throws him this option as an act of contempt, but we have ever reason to believe he takes her up on it:
When Chris’ mom wakes up from surgery, Jo tells them a kind stranger happened be a perfect match and made the donation. While technically she tells the truth, it’s a white lie — and the first time one of Jo’s lies have ever had a positive effect on those around her. The mother cries tears of joy just thinking that there are such kind people in the world. And of course, there are — her son’s kidney just doesn’t happen to have resided previously in any of them.
Ignoring their problems is something each and every doctor at Grey-Sloan does very well, and especially by burying their issues in their patients’ health issues and traumas, the better to try and heal them from the outside. Jo is a damaged woman, whose self-protective measures were once not only helpful, but crucial to her survival. She knows as well as anyone that once she stops pushing everyone away, and accepts their help, she might come out on the other side — but knowing and believing are two different things.
It’s a leap she’s going to have to make, if we’re going to get our confident, cutting, witty Dr. Wilson back — raising other people up with her gifts, instead of destroying everything in her path.
“Grey’s Anatomy” returns with new episodes on Thursday, March 8, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.