Grey’s Anatomy: Alex Karev’s Fate Was Worse Than Being Killed Off

The strange circumstances of Dr. Alex Karev's Grey's Anatomy exit robbed fans of closure.

Justin Chambers as Alex Karev on Grey's Anatomy
Photo: ABC

This article contains spoilers through Grey’s Anatomy season 17.

Dr. Alex Karev, brought to life by Justin Chambers, is one of Grey’s Anatomy’s most dynamic characters, permanently leaving a mark on the series even after his exit. While he started off as a jerk back in season one, he quickly became a fan favorite as we peeled back the layers of who he actually was. 

Against all odds, he didn’t just survive his time at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, but thrived. Not only was he Meredith’s person after Cristina left, but he was there for all other characters when they needed someone over the years. Then entered Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington), who he fell deeply in love with and eventually married. So why did he suddenly leave in season 16 and why was it such an awful ending for the character? Let’s break it down. 

In the season 16 premiere, Jo actually offers Alex an out before checking into a treatment center after her recent depressive episode. She reminds him that they’re not legally married since their license was never filed and promises that she’d understand if he left, but Alex simply uses the opportunity to propose again. She says yes and it should be the start of a new chapter for them, except everything begins to slowly fall apart.

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In the sixth episode of the same season, at Alex’s suggestion, he and Jo go to the courthouse to legally get married. Following that, his last appearance is in the eighth episode, which features him acting as a witness for Meredith during her medical license review. Alex even brings in Meredith’s past patients to speak on her behalf. He also has letters from Cristina, Callie, Arizona, April, Addison, and more. As far as final episodes go, it’s a beautiful testament to who Alex is. The problem is that fans had no idea that it was his final episode as the news wasn’t announced until after the 350th episode aired. 

From episodes nine through fifteen, Alex is gone, having told Richard that he is dealing with family issues in Iowa. He doesn’t even return his wife’s calls, simply saying to her that he’s going through something and needs time. Eventually Jo reaches Alex’s mom and finds out he was never in Iowa in the first place. It turns out that he was dealing with issues, however … in a way.

Back in season 12, Jo found out about the fertilized embryos Alex and Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) had from when they were married in season 5, which Alex doesn’t think is a big deal. In a very disturbing foreshadowing moment, Jo commented how he could have “a bunch of Izzie babies walking around” with Alex’s face on them and then comments that she doesn’t want to just be the “let’s get a dog” girl. The episode ended with Alex promising that he’s not going anywhere and that if she wants to have a kid together, then he can be ready. But ultimately leaving Jo for those “Izzie babies” is exactly what Alex does.

The real question here is why? Why have Jo present Alex with the exact scenario that leads to him leaving in the future and have him assure her that he’s not going anywhere? Why have Alex not take the escape ramp that was offered? Why have the two of them get married again, legally this time? But it only gets even worse. After 16 seasons of character development, the writers somehow managed to throw it all away in an episode solely featuring Chambers’ narration rather than an actual appearance. That’s right, his departure is explained by the actor doing voiceovers for Alex’s letters to Jo, Meredith, Miranda, and Richard. Sound familiar? Well, that might be because when Izzie left Alex back after being fired, she left Alex a note. 

In his letters, he says that this is not the way he wanted to do this but that he’s already left and will not be coming back because it’s not home anymore. He’s with Izzie. He called her to write a letter on Meredith’s behalf and credited it as the perfect excuse to call his ex after all this time. It turns out that she had his kids, twins to be exact. He states that if it was just about two women that he loves, he would have chosen his wife but because Izzie had his kids, it’s different. They’re five years old, making it so that Alex has missed out on those years because Izzie never told him. 

Fans always wanted to see Alex as a father, but not like this and the situation overall is manipulative. If he wanted to be in his kids’ life, there are many other ways he could have done so. It makes sense for him to still have love for Izzie, but the Alex we have seen develop throughout the series would have never abandoned the life he’s built with the people he loves. 

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To Jo, he calls the action what it is, cowardice and the worst thing he’s ever done. Alex talks about how he can make Izzie’s family whole, giving them the family the two of them never had growing up. He already signed divorce papers and left everything to her, mentioning that hopes she finds someone so much better than him, a full circle moment to him realizing he deserved better than Izzie. Since there’s no new footage of Chambers and Alex is not getting a proper goodbye, the episode is filled with flashbacks that only make it worse because it reminds us of the character we are losing and how out of character this ending is. 

Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of characters come and go on Grey’s Anatomy, including many rough character deaths. While many might have felt thankful that Alex wasn’t killed off, his exit was way worse than death. When Derek died, fans were devastated and creator Shonda Rhimes explained, “What were the options? Derek was going to walk out on Meredith and leave her high and dry, and what was that going to mean? So as painful as that was for me as a storyteller, the only way to preserve what felt true to me was that Derek was going to have to die in order for that to remain honest.”

So why was the same treatment not given to Alex, who was a much better man than Derek? While Alex didn’t leave any kids behind, he left his wife, who expressed the fear of him leaving her more than once rather than staying, which is what he wanted out of his partner. It was cruel, especially after they got remarried. If Alex had been killed off then it would have preserved his love story with Jo and his character development, but instead, they had him go back to Izzie, which also ruins the fact that he realized he deserves better all those seasons ago. 

Krista Vernoff, who recently stepped down as showrunner, opened up about the controversial storyline to Variety, explaining that she and the writers didn’t want to kill him off, but not for the reason you think. “Jo had been through just a massive depression in the wake of ‘Silent All These Years.’ She had just emerged. Grief is really, really, really hard on actors. In addition to not wanting to put the actors through sustained grief, I didn’t want to put the characters through another sustained grief. And that was probably the more significant thing.” 

While not wanting to put the actors and characters through more grief is understandable, that can’t be the excuse to not make the best decision for the character when so many others met that fate, including Andrew DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti), who was killed off in season 17. Vernoff did eventually acknowledge how fans responded to the ending by saying, “[Karev] wanted a childhood that nothing in his life had ever given him. And yes, he had Jo now. And yes, that was a beautiful love story. And yes, for many years writing them, I had thought they were endgame. And so I understood why to some people this felt like a betrayal of that character development.”

Alex and Jo, who never fell out of love, had planned to one day start a family and would have made amazing parents, so making this family through Izzie that we never actually see on screen is a betrayal. Alex deserved better. Jo deserved better. The audience deserved better. Out of all of the characters we have lost, his ending will go down as one of if not the worst and death would have been much easier to swallow. 

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