The long-running medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, returned on Thursday night for it’s 17th season’s mid-season premiere. The end of crossover episode (with Station-19) revealed the shocking death of long-time character, Dr. Andrew DeLuca, played by Giacomo Gianniotti.

DeLuca was stabbed while attempting to pursue and expose a sex trafficker, a continuation of his storyline from the previous season. Characters Owen Hunt and Teddy Altman tried to save DeLuca in surgery, but they ultimately lost him.

His character appeared on Meredith’s beach dream sequence, a recurring setting this season where Meredith reunites with passed loved ones while she battles COVID-19. The episode ends with DeLuca meeting up with his deceased mother and walking into the sunset with her.

DeLuca is the fifth series regular to be killed off the show and the first since Patrick Dempsey left the show in 2015. Gianniotti played DeLuca for seven seasons, guiding the character as an intern, through residency, and finally as an attending doctor.

Showrunner Krista Vernoff said she had no plans to kill DeLuca and was against the idea at first, but eventually accepted that that was where the story needed to go.

“There literally was an entire imagining that came into my head of DeLuca following the sex trafficker out of the hospital, following her through the city, refusing to let up, and being punched in the stomach at a certain point by some colleague of hers who he didn’t see coming and him dropping,” she said. “The whole thing downloaded and I was like, “Oh my God, we’re killing DeLuca?” That’s how it happened. Nobody wanted to kill DeLuca. I didn’t want to kill DeLuca! But when I came in and said, “You guys, this is the story,” everyone went, “Oh yeah, that’s the story.” We wanted to honor the fact that we didn’t feel like we had completed the storytelling of the sex trafficking [plot] and this felt like the story.”

Vernoff said there was power in showing a death that was not related to COVID-19 when the entire season so far has been focused on the pandemic.

“I was preoccupied with some tragedies that I was reading about that were entirely unrelated to COVID. My whole body was like, “Wait! This isn’t fair! COVID is big and bad enough, really, someone’s sister just died of cancer? Really this person’s house just burnt down?” It felt so wrong and sometimes that’s what the world does, sometimes there’s tragedy upon tragedy and I think we all experienced that this year,” she said.

Gianniotti said the writers wrote his dream exit and described his experience with the character and the way he got to exit as a “gift.” Throughout his time on the show, DeLuca also faced multiple mental health challenges, ultimately being diagnosed as bipolar. Gianniotti said it was a privilege to be part of that story line.

“As far as the mental health storyline, it was an honor and privilege to tell that story. Ultimately, it’s about representation and for people to see someone who is bipolar can be an attending and command a whole department at a hospital is huge,” he said.

Gianniotti thanked viewers of the show and his fans on twitter the night the episode aired.

Gianniotti announced his directorial debut in February. He said he hopes to direct on Grey’s more in the future.

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