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Going Down? The Art of the Elevator Scene on ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’

No show has used confined spaces as consistently and effectively as ABC’s hospital drama

Jungyeon Roh

Grey’s Anatomy is a monumental piece of American narrative fiction, a smash hit that captivated the national imagination in the waning days of the cultural supremacy of network television. It made creator Shonda Rhimes into one of the most powerful creative figures in American entertainment, launched or revitalized dozens of actors’ careers, and pumped the music of Snow Patrol and Brandi Carlile into every living room in the country. You want to know how big Grey’s Anatomy is? It took one of the most emotionally heavy episodes in a series defined by death and sex and set the whole thing to music. That’s a flex.

But much as Grey’s Anatomy’s legacy is its social conscience, or its feminism, or its unrepentant attitude toward sex—the show’s title is one of the baldest double entendres in television—it will always be remembered for its elevators. Just as Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing is indelibly linked to the walk-and-talk—a way for two characters to deliver exposition while keeping the viewer interested—Grey’s Anatomy is known for the elevator scene, in which the staff of Seattle Grace (later Seattle Grace Mercy West, later Grey Sloan Memorial) could move the plot along while they themselves were in motion. But unlike the corridors of the White House, an elevator provides unique storytelling opportunities. On Grey’s Anatomy, the elevator is home to steamy first kisses, confessions, and private conversations, and, over the course of 14 seasons, the writers and directors of the show have made ingenious use of the elevator as a physical space. It’s an enclosed, opaque metal box, offering privacy from the outside world while also preventing its passengers from seeing what the doors are going to open up onto. That sense of privacy is crucial for a story that is largely about attractive coworkers fucking. I mean, look at this. You’d never get away with such neck-smelling hotness on a Sorkin walk-and-talk.

But there are less horny reasons for privacy. The elevators at Grey Sloan are also prone to be stopped so people can work out their issues, which is somewhat troubling considering a hospital’s elevators are used not only for emotional triage, but for transporting actual patients. This is a frequent problem with Grey Sloan’s private spaces, like supply closets and on-call rooms; really, any space with a door is used as frequently for moping, crying, arguing, or boning as much as it’s used for its presumably essential medical purpose.

The most notable elevator trap is early in Grey’s second season, when George (T.R. Knight) and Alex (Justin Chambers) get stuck transporting a patient to surgery, then have to perform the surgery themselves within the confines of the elevator.

Or one can be metaphorically trapped, like when Derek ended up in an elevator with three of his exes in the Season 4 episode “Piece of My Heart.”

The elevator is also an interesting place to film, because it’s one of very few physical spaces in which everyone, by custom, faces the same direction. Because of this, we get to see multiple characters, in conversation, while we watch their facial expressions at the same time without cutting. One of the most poignant elevator scenes, the Season 8 episode when Owen breaks up with Cristina, is a great example of the emotional gut punch a scene like this can give, even when the two actors aren’t looking at each other.

But while most of the elevator action on Grey’s Anatomy takes place on the inside, some of the show’s great moments take place just outside. In the post–Super Bowl episodes “It’s the End of the World” and “As We Know It,” Kyle Chandler’s bomb squad officer Dylan Young is introduced when he steps off the elevator and walks purposefully into action, looking like the coolest sonofabitch in the world. And at the end of the episodes, after the bomb’s been detonated and Burke and Derek have completed their respective surgeries, the two ride the elevator back to the lobby, and the doors open to reveal Seattle Grace’s two star surgeons, returning from a dangerous day at work looking as cool as Sam Shepherd as Chuck Yeager walking away from the wreckage of his F-104 in The Right Stuff.

But elevator moments aren’t always uplifting or cool or sexy. Sometimes the elevator fails the staff and patients of Seattle Grace/Grey Sloan, never more so than in the Season 6 finale. A mass shooter with a grudge against Derek enters the hospital and starts gunning down doctors. Alex, one of the first victims, manages to crawl down to an elevator and make it to the lobby, but Charles Percy isn’t so lucky. He’s shot while in a room with Bailey and a patient (played by Mandy Moore), and while Bailey drags him to the elevator door, the elevator itself is out of order, and Charles dies.

Grey’s Anatomy is about to enter its 15th season, a staggeringly long run for a network drama. For context, Camilla Luddington, an actress who first appeared on the show more than halfway through its run, has now appeared in more episodes than Katherine Heigl or Eric Dane. Cristina has been off the show longer than either Burke or Addison were on it. Ellen Pompeo had a guest appearance on Friends as a college love interest of Ross and Chandler; that episode aired only 13 months before the Grey’s Anatomy pilot, which is now further in the past than the pilot of ER was when Grey’s premiered.

Any show that runs that long tends to get self-aware, and Grey’s Anatomy’s elevator scenes are evidence of that. When Addison leaves the show at the end of Season 3, the Private Practice backdoor pilot features a subplot about a mysterious talking elevator. When Derek finally proposes to Meredith in Season 5, he lines the walls of an elevator with scans and paperwork from memorable medical cases they’d worked on together, telling the story of their relationship through their work, but within an elevator. The episode was called “Elevator Love Letter.”

Every Grey’s Anatomy fan has a favorite elevator scene, and mine didn’t even take place in real life, strictly speaking. In the Season 5 finale, the show is close to losing two of its five original key interns: George O’Malley and Izzie Stevens, two best friends whose complicated relationship was one of the major sources of drama in the show’s early seasons. George has decided to quit the hospital and join the Army, while Izzie is dying of cancer. The episode revolves around a John Doe who stepped in front of a bus to save the life of a young woman he didn’t know, and with minutes left in the episode, the unidentified patient is able to communicate to Meredith that he is, in fact, George O’Malley. It’s one of the most shocking, emotionally stunning reveals I’ve ever seen on television. The gasp and “Oh God!” Meredith lets out is almost exactly the noise I made the first time I watched it. As teams of doctors work to save George’s and Izzie’s lives, we see a dream sequence in which Izzie, wearing the dress she wore to the hospital prom in the Season 2 finale, boards the hospital elevator in, the implication is, the afterlife. When the elevator doors open, George, wearing his Army uniform, is on the other side of the threshold. Even in a show that’s had the emotional stakes cranked up to 11 since the beginning of George W. Bush’s second term, that moment stays with you.

When you watch 317 episodes of a television show, the little things that make it special become familiar and comforting. The elevator scene is far from the only great thing about Grey’s Anatomy, but the ability to find an identity in the small things, and then do those small things well, is what makes Grey’s Anatomy one of the great shows of the 21st century.