'Grey's Anatomy' Boss on How Season 16 Breakup Led to 'Station 19' Romance (Exclusive)

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Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Thursday's season premiere of Grey's Anatomy.

There was a lot to unpack in Grey's Anatomy's return.

Picking up exactly where we left off in the finale, the season 16 opener, titled "Nothing Left to Cling To," addressed all the biggest cliffhangers -- the most notable being Jackson's (Jesse Williams) whereabouts. Thankfully, we didn't have to wait long, as the premiere revealed that he didn't disappear into the fog to abandon Maggie (Kelly McCreary), but was instead helping a wife save her unconscious husband. That aside, Maggie and Jackson were forced to face the harsh reality that their relationship was very much on its last legs, and Jackson broke up with his girlfriend in the most brutal way possible, calling their relationship "broken" beyond repair.

In classic Grey's fashion, however, their breakup led Jackson to find solace in Station 19 firefighter Vic (Barrett Doss), who, by the way, is still grieving the death of her fiance. And that wasn't the only major move from the episode: Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) is sentenced to hundreds of hours of community service, with her medical license now in jeopardy. Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) discovers she's pregnant with Link's (Chris Carmack) baby. Richard (James Pickens Jr.) and Alex (Justin Chambers) are now working at a low-rate, competing hospital following their firings. Teddy (Kim Raver) is stuck between a rock and a hard place with an unconventional love triangle with Owen (Kevin McKidd) and Tom (Greg Germann).

"The biggest challenge was figuring out how we were going to follow through on the firings," showrunner Krista Vernoff tells ET. "Having Bailey fire Richard and Alex and Meredith -- one of the originals firing the other three originals was a pretty bold move and we wanted to make sure that we played it through with real consequences and dramatic stakes, and I think we've done that successfully."

With another season of Grey's officially up and running, ET spoke with Vernoff about the biggest moves from Thursday's premiere, from Meredith's dangerous new reality to Maggie and Jackson's devastating breakup to the surprising new romance between Jackson and Vic to Amelia's surprise pregnancy.

ET: Right off the bat, there have been a lot of changes on Grey's Anatomy. In the aftermath of Bailey firing Meredith, Alex and Richard, how is Bailey handling the new Grey Sloan? And how are Alex and Richard adapting to working at Pacific Northwest?

Krista Vernoff: I'm always looking to keep the show fresh and alive. That is a complicated challenge, 16 seasons and over 300 episodes in. When we came up with the idea of Pac North Hospital taking our doctors [Alex and Richard,] and letting them be the fish out of water, they're big fish in a small pond. They're highly skilled, talented surgeons who are used to working with the best support staff imaginable at a well-funded, great functioning hospital. Now they find themselves in a really crappy hospital that needs to be turned around. That felt like a real challenge both for the characters and for the actors. It lets them play something new and it's been joyful to have Jim [Pickens Jr.] and Justin [Chambers] working together this season in that capacity.

How has Alex and Richard's working relationship changed in this new environment as they face new situations?

Alex is once again Richard's boss, which is a strange dynamic considering the origin story of the show. It's a very strange thing for Richard to have to answer to Alex and yet, they're in this together. Alex offered him a new opportunity to create a new legacy: Help me turn this place around. So, they're really working together in the early part of this season to do something that feels unimaginable and unachievable, and yet they're unstoppable because they're so determined in their own way to prove Bailey wrong for firing them.

Grey's Anatomy
ABC

The Jackson cliffhanger was reconciled relatively quickly, but led to Maggie and Jackson's breakup. Was this a long time coming for these characters? 

I feel like it was a long time coming. I felt like Maggie and Jackson had a fight that very nearly broke them up in [the seventh] episode [last season]. And so, by the time they were having that fight in [the finale], it felt to me like they were saying things that they couldn't really come back from. I love both of these actors and I love their work together as a couple, and I'm loving their work together as a couple with a bad and difficult breakup. It's all exciting.

When Jackson is breaking up with Maggie, he says, "What's broken is us." Do you think they are beyond repair?

Maggie and Jackson, they've had a really painful breakup. It is painful to break up period, but when you break up when your parents are married to each other, which means you've got to stay in each other's sphere, and you work together in the same hospital, which means you've got to see each other every day and one of you has jumped immediately into something new, that is not easy. I'm not going to pretend that it gets easy anytime soon.

You mentioned one of them moves on very quickly. There is a bit of a time jump in the episode after the breakup, but Jackson shows immediate interest in Station 19's Vic. Why did you want to introduce that potential new romance so soon?

I think that it's human behavior. Often we comfort ourselves with something new when we've been through something painful. It happens with great frequency and I'm interested in exploring the edges of human behavior. I'm interested in exploring people not behaving well all the time. People prioritizing their impulse over someone else's feelings, I think is human and makes great TV.

What can we expect for them moving forward?

It's a little bit of a slow build. The decision-making around it was a gut feeling. It was just a gut feeling. I knew that it was time for Maggie and Jackson to break up at the end of last season. I took over Station 19 and was looking at all the moving pieces and I just had a feeling about these two. And so, we tried it and the whole storyline is exciting to me. The complexity of it all is really interesting. It's been a long time since Grey's had a break-up this messy.

Grey's Anatomy
ABC

Moving on to Meredith's legal limbo. She sort of gets off with a slap on the wrist after committing insurance fraud. Why did you decide to have her avoid jail time? 

I see. That's what you mean by a neat bow, that she didn't have to go to jail. Well, this is Meredith's story. For the first third of our season is dealing with the fallout of the decision she made at the end of last season. She got several hundred hours of community service. She didn't get a cushy clinic gig, she got picking up trash on the side of the road, and now the medical board is coming after her license. So, this definitely gets more complicated for Meredith -- who is not a rule follower -- before it gets any better.

Does this affect DeLuca's standing at Grey Sloan?

Definitely. DeLuca and Meredith are a couple at this moment, and Meredith has been fired from the hospital. Everybody has different feelings about that and they don't necessarily have access to Meredith to discuss those feelings. It definitely puts a little bit of conflict between DeLuca and Bailey, and complicates his job.

Amelia also discovers she's pregnant with Link's child. She has a complicated history with pregnancies and losing a child. What are you excited to explore as she embarks on this new journey this season?

I love the character of Amelia. I love her really complicated history. I love her emotional intelligence. I love her recovery and I love that she's always trying to grow and learn and expand and change and evolve as a human being. And I love throwing obstacles and growing opportunities in her path. For her to have decided that she wants not to go all in with someone, but to slow-roll a relationship and to take it slow and get to know a person and do something differently than she's done before... And then for her to discover in that same episode that she is pregnant, felt messy and exciting.

How does this complicate things for Amelia and Link?

This is a complicated, complicated thing. They were dating and having fun and now they're taking a very different journey than the one they thought they were on.

Grey's Anatomy
ABC

Alex proposes to Jo again after she gives him an out in their relationship, due to the fact that their marriage isn't legally binding because they never got their license. Are they looking to go through with tying the knot officially?

That's the promise of the proposal scene, isn't it? There's possibility to explore their love anew and explore their marriage anew.

You've hinted that you were working on getting a former cast member to return this season. What's the status on that?

It's an ongoing effort and if I can make it happen, it'll be exciting and if I can't make it happen, we have other exciting things happening. 

I'll just throw out some guesses. Is it Sarah Drew or Kate Walsh?

I will never tell you! (Laughs.) 

Lastly, Taylor Swift is a big Grey's Anatomy fan. She wore a Grey's pin on a magazine cover in May. Have you ever talked to her about having a guest stint on the show?

I mean, I haven't. But if she came and did it, my daughter would definitely come to set that day. 

Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

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