Grey’s Anatomy knows how to shock people. Across 17 seasons, ABC’s prime-time medical drama has put its leads through plane crashes, bombings, mass shootings, car accidents, and multiple interrupted weddings. One of the series’ best episodes involves two people getting impaled on the same metal pole. This is not a show for the squeamish or jumpy.
Then there’s Season 7, Episode 17: “This Is How We Do It.” This episode advances several major Grey’s plot threads—Derek and Meredith’s Alzheimer’s trial; Richard and Adele’s complicated marriage; the weird Mark-Lexie-Jackson thing; and more—but it ends with Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) driving together in the car. The two had recently broken up and … actually, this being Grey’s Anatomy, the backstory is complicated and involves lots of sleeping around within the workplace. The short version is: They’re in a relationship, Callie’s pregnant, and Arizona proposes to her. Then, before Callie can answer, Arizona drives into the back of a truck.
What a cliff-hanger.
But the real shocking moment didn’t come until the start of the following episode, “Song Beneath the Song,” which premiered 10 years ago Wednesday. As the episode picks up, we learn that Callie, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, went through the windshield. The early prognosis is dire: It’s Ramirez who does the episode-opening narration, which is usually performed by Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey. And as the camera pans over Callie’s bloodied body, we see a silent and unscathed Ghost Callie standing over the scene.
Then she starts to sing.
“Song Beneath the Song” is, of course, the much-discussed (and much-maligned) musical episode of Grey’s Anatomy, in which one of the most emotionally pointed events of the show’s run is accompanied by members of the cast performing non-diegetic covers of songs that had appeared previously in the show.
I first started watching Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix years after this episode aired, on the recommendation of a friend, and in the months after, said friend kept asking if I’d reached the “very special episode” yet. After seven and a half seasons, I was starting to wonder what the show could possibly be building to that could top the post–Super Bowl bomb squad episode, or George O’Malley’s fatal bus accident, or the one where Ron Butterfield from The West Wing shoots up the hospital.
Then came “Song Beneath the Song,” like a televised metal pole through the abdomen.
For 44 minutes, I sat slack-jawed in my living room watching surgery set to (mostly but not exclusively) the kind of late-aughts soft rock (Snow Patrol, the Fray, Anna Nalick) that I’d been too embarrassed to admit I’d listened to in college. No amount of death, gore, or marital infidelity could have prepared me for this.
I hated it immediately. I was so gobsmacked by the gimmick that I couldn’t fully appreciate the gravity of what should’ve been one of the tensest episodes of the show’s entire run. And even when I eventually got over my shock, I mostly felt embarrassed for everyone involved.
I usually have a pretty high tolerance for musicals—I got through two whole seasons of Glee, for God’s sake—but everything about the episode felt weird. The tonal shift from sexed-up medical melodrama to jukebox musical was jarring enough on its own, but it was positively disorienting compared to the last thing I’d seen from the show: Callie (and her unborn baby) on the verge of a gruesome death.
Even the song selection felt off. One Fourth of July, I attended a fireworks demonstration set in part to Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.” That song is not a patriotic anthem, but rather a song about a woman murdering her abusive husband, told from the perspective of the couple’s young daughter. That’s the vibe I got from watching surgery set to Gomez’s “How We Operate.”
That said, the music selection was less weird than the cast’s record-scratch tonal shift from life-or-death surgery on a friend to a song where everyone goes home to bone between operations.
When it came out in 2011, “Song Beneath the Song” was immediately polarizing—in the euphemistic sense where everyone is aware of something and a majority hate it but don’t want to say so bluntly. The Vulture write-up of the episode was titled “Grey’s Anatomy’s Doctor/Horrible Sing-along,” which, if nothing else, places the episode far enough in the past that Joss Whedon’s comedy musical was still in the zeitgeist. Alan Sepinwall was equivocal in his review, writing: “Like Grey’s Anatomy as a whole, some parts were unintentionally silly, others were surprisingly powerful, and it was rarely dull, at least.”
Watching again, years later, I still don’t like “Song Beneath the Song.” But I’ve come to appreciate it. The music itself is pretty good. Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes had apparently always wanted to do a musical episode but felt emboldened to try it after casting Ramirez, who joined the show shortly after winning a Tony Award. Chandra Wilson (who plays Miranda Bailey) is also a Broadway veteran, and even the non-triple-threat cast members hold their own. (Not like ABC would hang their stars out to dry in the age of Auto-Tune.) Plus, as is necessary for such a preposterous premise, everyone bought in. Kevin McKidd, who prefigures Russell Crowe’s performance in Les Miserables, gives 110 percent in all of Dr. Owen Hunt’s numbers.
Ramirez is the episode’s main character, though, and as such gets the climactic number: Seattle-area folk rock goddess Brandi Carlile’s “The Story.” This performance became so fixed in the show’s identity that Grey’s trotted it back out for Alex Karev and Jo Wilson’s wedding in the Season 14 finale. (After Callie had been written off the show. Awkward. Also, don’t ask what became of Jo and Alex, I’m still absolutely furious.)
But even the episode’s less-celebrated numbers have their own resonance 10 years later. Somehow, singing over surgery—and the technobabble dialogue that comes with it—focuses the viewer’s attention on the action itself and sidelines the interpersonal conflict that ordinarily drives the show. The episode’s final surgery, set to “How to Save a Life,” ends up being oddly moving.
“There’s something so cheesy but so affecting about Callie standing in a hallway in a tasteful cardigan, hair blown out, makeup perfect, stoically singing at the camera while her bloody open skull is being wheeled off to an OR,” Eric King wrote in a 2017 retrospective for Entertainment Weekly.
But there’s more to it than that. The “How to Save a Life” scene, corny though it may be, evokes the sense of community and belonging that comes from a group of people singing together. The part of the brain that gets tickled when unrealistically attractive medical heroes (even the accursed April Kepner) belt out a pop rock melody while trying to save their injured friend is the same part of the brain that got the warm and fuzzies over sea shanty TikTok.
Most of all, though, this episode was such a fucking flex by Shonda Rhimes.
I cannot fathom how powerful someone must feel when they not only create the biggest network drama in the country, but abruptly turn it into a musical seven years down the pike. Calling it a heat check feels disrespectful, because it undersells the confidence and audacity required to put something like this on television, regardless of whether it was ultimately successful. If nothing else, I’m in awe of the fact that they even attempted this episode.
If there’s a revisionist critical consensus emerging around “Song Beneath the Song,” that seems to be it. Grey’s Anatomy has never been subtle or timid. It’s a gory, blunt, entirely maximalist TV show, and that’s why it became such a totemic work of pop culture. Maybe my shock at encountering a musical episode was naive; after all, it would’ve been out of character for Grey’s not to try something like this.