'Grey's Anatomy' Star Reveals Why Shocking Return Was the 'Ending I Never Expected'

'I’m still trying to put into words how profound the experience was for me,' the actor says following Thursday's emotional episode.

Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Thursday's episode of Grey's Anatomy.

Grey's Anatomy delivered another shocking return in the latest season 17 episode, welcoming back T.R. Knight's George O'Malley for a fitting reunion with Meredith Grey.

In Thursday's episode, George -- one of the original interns who started at then-Seattle Grace alongside Meredith -- reappeared in Meredith's COVID dream at the same sandy beach where she previously reunited with her late husband, Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). Meredith and George, who had a heroic but devastating death in the season 6 premiere following a horrific accident, had the closure they were never able to have as they reminisced about their friendship and talked about grief, death and the afterlife. Knight posted a touching message on Instagram following the episode, writing, "

Now the secrets behind how Knight's return to Grey's after more than a decade are being revealed. Grey's showrunner Krista Vernoff shared that George was the first character she thought of when the opportunity arose to bring back familiar faces, revealing that it was the image of Meredith and George at the beach together that seemed intriguing. 

"The joy that filled me up when the image came, I believe, is translated on screen," Vernoff said in a Deadline interview. "I believe we have given many millions of fans that moment of pure joy with this, and right now in our lives, in this pandemic pure joy is rare, and so I’m so grateful to T.R. for coming and playing, and offering that to everyone, because I think it’s meaningful... Ellen [Pompeo] and T.R. are close, and George and T.R. were both always favorites of mine, and so he was my first idea of, as a fan, who do I want to see again?" she added. "I wanted to see George, so that’s where it started." (Months earlier, prior to the pandemic, Pompeo and Knight had gone on a hike in Los Angeles.)

Krista Vernoff

When Knight hopped on the phone with Vernoff to talk about reprising his character, the conversation lasted an hour. It was the idea of giving closure to George's story that seemed intriguing. In the script, George was called Thatcher, a reference to Meredith's late father, and much like the secrecy surrounding Dempsey's return, the majority of the cast were kept in the dark.  

"She thought that this might... offer closure, and I was like 'Oh, I think that’s already happened,'" Knight said, adding that it was an immediate "yes" to come on board. "What was interesting is something my husband... we were talking about that idea of closure and he was saying that sometimes closure’s shutting a door, and sometimes it’s like revisiting a familiar room, and finding what brought you joy, and it just hit me."

"Going to the set that day, because we shot on the beach and it was an early call, I’m driving in the dark because you want to be early... It was just wave upon wave of happiness, of joy, of Krista. She was there the entire day. Linda Klein, she was there all day. And then to have Ellen, and Chandra, and Jim, of course, and all the other familiar faces that were there, too, because there were quite a bit of crew that were there still. To have all of that, it was just unlike any other experience I’ve ever had in my entire life, in my 47 years," he continued. 


Though Knight didn't get into specifics over his departure in 2009, his exit came after a turbulent end to his five-season run. Asked if he missed Grey's in the decade away, he admitted that he missed "the people and it's George."

"It was hard for my brain to try to figure out who George would be now, or what he would be, and then to get Krista’s pages... it was just…oh yeah. I don’t know how to describe it other than it’s like, yeah, there he is," Knight said of revisiting his character. "What I loved about what Krista did with George was... Meredith is having this vision, for lack of a better word, of who George would be. George is a very complicated person and that’s what made him such an amazing pleasure to play, but Meredith is seeing the best of George: She’s seeing his humor, his kindness, his generosity and in this brief moment that you get to see him it’s such a great way to remember him. We all know George also had his faults. He stumbled a lot, literally and metaphorically. He was a little passive-aggressive, had some anger, held a grudge a little too long, but that’s what made him such a brilliant character to play, so to be able to get back into that world was... there's a better word than profound, and I’ll get there someday."

The 47-year-old actor, who currently stars in HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, said acting opposite Pompeo was like no time had passed.

"It’s just that trust, not knowing, not reading anything beforehand, just jumping and saying yes. It just felt good, I guess," he said. "Also to act with Ellen. I knew that part of it, that it was mostly Ellen and me, it’s one of those things you wish it always happened but then it wouldn’t be special when it did, to act with someone who you know... It’s this roller coaster that you’re on together. To be able to experience that again with Ellen, and to know that every take is going to be different, there’s going to be a sense of play, a sense of challenge. It’s the best kind of acting."

Krista Vernoff

Knight was also rendered speechless when it came to discussing the episode's final scene between George, Meredith, Webber (James Pickens Jr.) and Bailey (Chandra Wilson). 

"Even though we filmed this in the middle of October, I’m still trying to put into words how profound the experience was for me," he said in part. "When Krista first gave me the pages, Bailey was not in it yet, I think Richard was. And then I got the second round. It’s just hard for me to put into words, still, how meaningful it was. It was incredible, it was just an overwhelming feeling of love in that moment. We were apart from everybody quite a bit because that was a drone shot, and so it was just the four of us, and the sun was setting, and this big fly buzzing around our heads, and it filled me with just a lot of joy."

As for whether this is it for George, Vernoff kept the door open for more down the line. "I thought this was a beautiful bow, and never say never," she said. "Now there’s magic possible."

"It was the ending I never expected and couldn’t possibly have expected, in so many ways," Knight said, skirting the question. "In Krista’s hands I feel safe, I feel energized."

Knight's reunion with Pompeo comes nine months after the former co-stars reunited on a hike after Justin Chambers' last episode aired.

"Old friends are the BEST friends @t.r.knight... but like we aren’t old... we’ve just known each other for a very long time yes yes that’s it....," Pompeo captioned the smiley photo on Instagram back in March.

Knight also reshared the photo on his own Instagram, joking, "I’m just happy we met when we were fetuses."

Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. For more on McDreamy's return, watch the video below.

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