‘Grey’s Anatomy’ still has it after all these years when it comes to goodbyes

A few thoughts on last night's momentous “Grey's Anatomy” coming up just as soon as the second chair cello boy doesn't count…

Whenever I write or tweet about “Grey's Anatomy” – as I did last night, upon seeing the news about the show killing off Derek – inevitably some clever person feels the need to ask, “Is that still on?” Yes, “Grey's” is an old show – it debuted in the same TV season as “Lost,” “Veronica Mars,” “House,” “Desperate Housewives” and a whole lot of others that didn't last nearly as long as this series' 11 seasons and counting – but it still remains one of ABC's most successful dramas, and one of the higher-rated dramas on TV, period. It's going to be around as long as Shonda Rhimes wants it to be.

And though I stopped watching a couple of years ago more due to time constraints than anything the “Grey's” itself did, “How to Save a Life” was a potent reminder of why the show still exists and still has an audience big enough to keep it around long after so many of its contemporaries vanished. Like a wily veteran pitcher, “Grey's” can't consistently hit 99 mph on the radar gun, but every now and then – especially when you have Rhimes writing her first script for the show in three years – it can rear back and throw a vintage fastball.

That previous Rhimes-credited episode was season 8's “Flight,” with the plane crash that killed off Mark and Lexi, cost Arizona her leg and nearly destroyed Derek's surgical career. Between that incident, the gunman who shot up the hospital, George getting flattened in a car accident, the bomb that blew up Kyle Chandler, and Meredith herself dying for a little while (where she got to hang out with the ghosts of characters gone by) – not to mention various deaths I've either forgotten about or don't know of since they occurred after I stopped watching – the impact of yet another one of the show's doctors dying should be numbing at best, unintentionally comical at worst.

But that's Rhimes' gift as a storyteller. She doesn't apologize for reaching into the same bag of melodramatic tricks time and again; she just deploys them as well as anyone has in the medium's history. The manner of Derek's death was so laden with dramatic irony – he's hit by a truck immediately after saving four other people injured in a motor vehicle accident, then dies of a brain injury his poorly-trained doctors couldn't diagnose quickly enough – that it should have felt corny and obnoxiously manipulative. But it didn't. The episode kept things simple and spare, gave us one last glimpse of Super McDreamy as he saved the four injured people(*), then let his demise play out beat by agonizing beat, with Patrick Dempsey's voiceover keeping us abreast of all the things the doctors were doing wrong, but in a calm and measured tone to suggest the state of shock he was in, rather than giving us some overcooked screams and pleas that his surgeons would never hear.

(*) Really strong guest work from “Suburgatory” alum Allie Grant as the straight-A student with the stomach wound, and Savannah Rae Paige from “Parenthood” as young Winnie.

And then the story nicely transitioned over to Meredith's reaction to her latest tragedy. Again, she's been through so much that this should feel absolutely ludicrous, but Ellen Pompeo kept things nicely buttoned down, and her scenes smartly focused on Meredith as irritated super doctor as much as on her as impending widow. The moment where she recognizes, with quiet exasperation, that she's going to have to put her grief on hold for a minute to give the young doctor a pep talk- the sort that she was on the receiving end of a time or 12 in her early days as an intern – was really sharp, as was the use of a cover of Snow Patrol's “Chasing Cars” (memorably used in the season 2 finale) to evoke Meredith and Derek's long and winding road together as the plug was pulled.

Because Entertainment Weekly's print edition, featuring a story about the death, came to subscribers earlier in the day, social media was full of stories about the episode long before I got a chance to watch it. So there was no surprise here, but just a chance to see how the show approached the whole thing. And this was a very strong example of “Grey's” at its “Grey's”-iest – if anything, it may have played a little better knowing what was coming – even though I suspect I'll be checking out on it until the next milestone installment.

What did everybody else think? If you've been with the show the whole time, how did “How to Save a Life” play in context of recent events, and are you excited or unhappy about seeing Meredith enter a whole new phase of life? If you, like me, came back after some time away from the show, how did it feel to be back for this one?