Much of the Grey’s Anatomy cast and crew were kept in the dark about Patrick Dempsey‘s surprise return as the late Derek Shepherd at the end of Thursday’s Season 17 premiere. In fact, they were led to believe it was another dearly departed character with whom Meredith would encounter on that beach.
“I put the name ‘Ellis Grey’ in the script that we read at the table,” showrunner Krista Vernoff revealed to Deadline, referring to Meredith’s mother, played by former cast member Kate Burton. “And I had [Ellen Pompeo] say ‘Mom’ at the table. So we got there on the day and no one had been told what was happening… I was like a crazy person with this secret. And Ellen and I were texting at all hours of the night, like, ‘Who knows?'”
As noted in our premiere recap, Meredith was found collapsed on the hospital parking lot, amid the stress and grueling hours of the pandemic. As colleagues rushed to her side, we saw Meredith, clad in white, on the gauzy beach she was at in the cold open. And then a second figure appeared down shore — that of her beloved, deceased McDreamy (watch the moment above).
“I have to say that it was an epic feat, the keeping of this secret,” Vernoff acknowledged. “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.”
Dempsey’s comeback, meanwhile, will extend into next week’s episode, with Vernoff confirming, “It’s more than the one scene you saw.”