'Grey's Anatomy' Boss Shares Secrets Behind the Nostalgic, Surprising Final Scene (Exclusive)

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ABC

Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Thursday's episode of Grey's Anatomy, titled "Flowers Grow Out of My Grave."

Grey's Anatomy dropped a nostalgic surprise.

In the final moments of Thursday's episode, titled "Flowers Grow Out of My Grave," Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) walks through the halls of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital like any other evening, only this time she's visited by close family and loved ones who have died over the years in a surprise episode-ending moment that brought back memories -- and beloved characters -- from the past. 

The moment didn't happen on a random day in the life of Meredith Grey, who had just gotten the news that her father, Thatcher, was dying, but during Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday where family and friends gather to honor and remember loved ones who have died. From George O'Malley (T.R. Knight) and Mark Sloan (Eric Dane) to Lexie (Chyler Leigh) and Ellis Grey (Kate Burton) -- even Doc, the dog, paid a visit -- Meredith was visited by many of those who were nearest and dearest in her life.

But the one "cameo" that may trump them all is Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), who died following complications after a brutal car wreck in season 11. Following the episode, ET spoke with Grey's showrunner Krista Vernoff to get the inside story on how the final sequence, which she reveals had been in the works since the summer and features new footage shot specifically for the scene, as well as teases for what's to come with Meredith's love triangle with DeLuca and Link, Jo and Alex's newest challenge and the clock starting to run out on Teddy's baby secret.

ET: There’s a moment at the end of the episode that shows flashes of beloved characters who have died over the years, like Derek, George, Ellis, Lexie, Mark and Meredith’s dog, Doc. Why was it important to cap the episode with nods to characters we’ve loved before?

Krista Vernoff: Day of the Dead is a holiday that is about celebrating and inviting back for a visit those who we’ve loved and lost. The episode aired on Day of the Dead and we did a Day of the Dead theme for the whole episode. It felt like perfect to me as an opportunity to have dead people and her dead dog visit Meredith. 

Were there conversations about who to include in that moment?

Absolutely. We’ve been talking about that sequence since the writers’ room gathered in July. We’ve been working on that sequence in some way or another for many months. We talked a lot about who would ultimately be included. Where we landed, it felt like the significant deaths of Meredith’s family and close friends and her dog, and so that was who we included there. There were versions where we included significant patients. There was a version where we included Denny Duquette (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). There was a version where we included Kyle Chandler, the bomb squad guy [who died in season three]. These were pivotal deaths in Meredith’s life, but it didn’t feel to me when I watched it that those characters would be visiting Meredith. I believed that they would be visiting their own families.

Were those cameos all from old footage that you spliced together?

It’s not all old footage. The design of it is that some of those shots aired in previous episodes. Some of those shots were from dailies from old episodes but never aired. For example, that shot of Mark looking at Derek, that was from dailies and never aired in an episode. And some of those we shot fresh. Ellis, we shot fresh. Doc, the dog, we shot fresh. The design of that is that not everyone believes in life after death, not everyone believes that our loved ones can visit us. I wanted it to feel like there’s something in that for everyone. If you want to believe that this exists in Meredith’s memory, you can believe that. If you want to believe that exists in Meredith’s imagination, you can believe that. And if you want to believe that her beloved family came back to visit her, you can believe that. There’s a little bit of something for everyone.

The episode reinvigorates the idea of a sort-of love triangle between Meredith, DeLuca and Link. What was the thinking behind this new blossoming triangle?

I think you have definitely isolated an emerging triangle. Grey’s has a long history of triangles and I think what’s fun about this one for me was the look on Meredith’s face, which was like absolutely entertained. She is absolutely entertained by the energy coming at her from these two beautiful men -- and she’s still choosing to take the stairs. Where that triangle goes remains to be seen. I’m not going to tease it. It’s delightful as it unfolds, but most of all, Meredith is not tortured. Despite the fact that she’s dealing with the fact that she’s learned that her father is dying, she is still managing to experience the joy of this delightful attention.

Speaking of Thatcher dying, will we see that play out over the course of the next couple of episodes?

I will just say that I believe it will be the most emotional episode of our season. It’s playing in the first half of the second half of the season, so it’s playing in the early part of 2019. It’s a doozy of an episode. Jeff Perry is an incredible actor and he and Ellen Pompeo together are -- it’s very powerful.

Jo goes against Alex’s wishes as chief and goes through with the liver transplant. Is that tug of war going to be the main challenge they’ll face this season?

It becomes complicated to work for your husband and have your husband suddenly be your boss. That is complicated. I’m more interested at this point with Jo and Alex in a little bit of you and me against the world, rather than you and me against each other. I think they’ve earned it.

Teddy’s window to come clean to Owen about being pregnant with his baby closed a little bit in this episode, and I can’t imagine Teddy keeping this secret for much longer. But how does this change her approach and perspective in coming clean about her bun in the oven?

The design of that story is for us to feel Teddy’s pain and to understand Teddy’s delay in telling him, and I do. I feel her pain and I understand her delay, but to also feel the frustration of what she’s creating in terms of future drama by waiting this long to tell him. It’s rare that we tell a story where the viewers are as far as ahead of the characters as our viewers are ahead of Owen and Amelia for this long, but I like the design of this because the frustration that the viewers feel is the mounting frustration that Owen and Amelia will feel when they get this information. And what Maggie feels when Teddy delivers this information. And so, viewers won’t have to wait too much longer for that secret to come out, but I hope they feel the pain because that’s the design.

Ben and Bailey’s marriage seems to be hitting an impasse, where the unknowns of Ben’s job as a Station 19 firefighter is starting to affect Bailey’s health. They’re going to have that talk and I presume it’s not going to be good.

Yeah. That talk is going to take place on Station 19 so people should tune into Station 19 if they want to see the evolution of that conversation between Ben and Bailey. We will certainly reveal the upshot of it on our show, but people should tune into Station 19 to see that play out.

Fifteen seasons in, it seems Grey's Anatomy still has a wealth of stories to mine. What has been the secret to keeping it fresh?

Grey’s Anatomy is rooted in the characters and it’s rooted in character-rooted storytelling and when you rely on character-driven storytelling, there are endless avenues to explore. When you have a cast that’s as strong as our cast is and our guest cast, it keeps everything alive, and also medicine is evolving so it also depends on these incredible medical stories. The evolution of medicine is a very big thing that we played in our show and continue to play so there are endless story opportunities. I just feel like there is no end in sight. It just feels fresh and exciting to me. I’m enjoying it, so I’m glad it feels fresh. 

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

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