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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sarah Drew on her brief but pivotal return to Grey’s Anatomy

Sarah Drew and Jesse Williams
Sarah Drew and Jesse Williams
Photo: Richard Cartwright/ABC

Fans of the relationship between Grey’s Anatomy characters Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) and April Kepner (Sarah Drew) were in for a treat with the ABC medical drama’s most recent season 17 episode. “Look Up Child” marked Drew’s return after leaving the series in 2018, paving the way for the Williams’ imminent exit from the show. In the episode, Jackson realizes he needs to move to Boston and run his family’s wealthy foundation to help deal with racial inequity in the medical industry. He doesn’t want to leave without his daughter, Harriet, so he spends the hour convincing his ex-wife to take their child and move with him. It’s an intense episode featuring deeply honest conversations between the two. During a press roundtable, when The A.V. Club asked Drew about her return being limited to Jackson’s storyline, she said that it was really important for her to make it special. “I wouldn’t have wanted to come back just to help solve a case or something,” she said.

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Drew said this outing felt similar to two of the previous Jackson and April-focused Grey’s episodes: season 12's “Unbreak My Heart” and season 13's Montana-set “Who Is He (And What Is He To You?), which fans have dubbed these “Japril: The Movie” and “Japril: The Sequel.” “Look Up Child” takes place in the contained, candlelit setting of April’s apartment as the former couple discuss Jackson’s plan for the foundation and how it would help April’s ongoing medical work with rural communities. This varies from the usual and fast-paced hospital environment. “There is something special and refreshing about getting away from the hospital and diving into these two people’s relationship as opposed to ‘this person is dealing with this medical thing,’” Drew added in her response to The A.V. Club. “I knew this was Jesse’s last episode and the subject matter was so deep and dear to him.”

Jesse Williams and Sarah Drew
Jesse Williams and Sarah Drew
Photo: Richard Cartwright/ABC

For her comeback, Drew said that she got a text from showrunner Krista Vernoff, teasing an idea. Drew found out Williams was leaving when the story was being pitched to her on the phone. “I was excited to get to be a part of his departure. The relationship between us as humans and as Jackson and April is meaningful to both of us, so it felt like the perfect time to do a special episode, I was honored to do it,” she told journalists during the conference call. The hour ends on an open-ended note in terms of Jackson and April as a couple, especially with the reveal that April and husband Matthew have separated. Drew liked the open ending for fans to imagine the final outcome, even if she herself is partial to Japril being destined for one another. “One of the biggest heartbreaks for me about leaving in season 14 was that they didn’t get to be endgame,” Drew said,”so who knows what happens when they make their way to Boston, but I think there’s a great deal of hope there.” She also shared that in reading the script, it almost felt like it was charting the course for a Japril spin-off.

April’s character went through a massive transformation over Drew’s nine years on the show. Her career trajectory as a badass trauma surgeon and her strong religious beliefs became notable characteristics, but the weightiest arc was her romantic yet tumultuous relationship with Jackson. It makes sense that his departure from Grey Sloan Memorial–where he’s the Board Chairman and Chief of Plastic Surgery—goes hand-in-hand with confronting April, with whom he shares joint custody of their kid. But doing an episode like this one meant Drew didn’t get to reunite with the rest of her former co-workers. When The A.V. Club asked her about this, she said “it would’ve been fun to walk those halls again, put on those scrubs and see everybody, but I did get to see everybody on set where we went for COVID testing, so I got to walk around and hang out, which was great.”

Grey’s Anatomy has overcome the exit of several series regulars like Patrick Dempsey, Sandra Oh, Justin Chambers, and T.R. Knight over its 17-season run. Yet its current season found a creative way to bring back some familiar faces, including Dempsey’s Derek Shepherd, Knight’s George O’Malley, as well as Chyler Leigh and Eric Dane as Lexie Grey and Mark Sloan, respectively. Drew’s episode, and she confirms she only shot the one, helps build on the nostalgia of the show while giving Jackson a believable exit route. The actress wasted no time jumping back into April’s shoes and find her chemistry with Williams, so The A.V. Club asked if she’s kept up with the series since she left. “Not really. It was the only way I was able to emotionally close the door and say goodbye to this chapter,” she answered. “I haven’t watched since I left but I know Twitter exploded when Patrick came back and with the beach stuff, so I needed a couple updates but it didn’t really affect where I was coming from [in “Look Up Child”] and in regards to Jackson.”

In talking about the legacy of April Kepner and the show overall, Drew told reporters she has kept up with Twitter comments and also uses Cameo to engage with fans. “It’s overwhelming if you sit and think about the sheer volume of humans that this show has touched,” she said. “I’m getting full body chills thinking about it. People keep discovering the show even now and are inspired by it. There’s so many episodes to watch. I’m profoundly grateful for my journey of nine years and in this season and just to be part of this family and iconic show.”

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Staff Writer (TV)