“Legendary Relationships” is a regular column which will examine relationship moments between women in popular media.
By Liz Fisher
The November 8th episode of Grey’s Anatomy offered a moment I and many other viewers had been waiting for since the season premiere, a reunion between Meredith and Cristina. One could argue, and I would, that Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang’s friendship is more significant than any of the romantic relationships on the show. Grey’s may have its faults but it has excelled in showcasing the deep and complex bond that can form between best friends. It’s a rare and wonderful thing to see a strong friendship such as this one play out between two women over multiple years on a television show.
It was in part their shared dislike of expressing their emotions, that brought Meredith and Cristina together. The first episode of the show saw a disagreement between the two of them end when Cristina asked, “We don't have to do that thing where, you know, I say something, then you say something, and somebody cries, and there's like a moment?” Meredith replied with a simple, “Yuck.” And thus began a defining relationship of both their lives.
Their entire intern group became a family throughout the course of the early seasons. That family has lost and gained some members through the years but one thing that has stayed consistent is Meredith and Cristina’s especially deep connection. They share a quiet understanding and fierce loyalty to and protectiveness of one another. As one might expect in a relationship between any two strong-willed people, their friendship has been rocky, but they’ve always had each other’s backs when it’s counted. When they’ve argued, often passionately, they’ve always been drawn back to one another because they understand and support each other in a way no one else in their lives does. In season 3, when Cristina’s then fiance, Preston Burke, struggled to understand why Meredith had to be the first to learn of their engagement, Cristina explained, “She’s my person. If I murdered someone, she’s the person I’d call to help me drag the corpse across the living room floor.” And that’s remained true of their relationship to this day. When one of them has done things that others might judge them for, Meredith and Cristina have supported one another, right or wrong.
That level of understanding is the reason it wasn’t surprising that when the show did a flashforward type dream sequence it featured not Meredith and Derek (her once on-again-off again boyfriend and now husband) but Meredith and Cristina as an old bickering pair arguing about the proper way to cut a turkey. It seems only reasonable to imagine them still together fifty years from now. While their romantic relationships and bonds with their blood-families have often been uncertain and while they’ve often struggled to find understanding from others in their lives, they have been each other’s constants. “Derek is the love of my life,” Meredith once said to Cristina, “but you're my soul mate.”
Meredith and Cristina both place a high importance on their careers. In recent seasons, Meredith has married and adopted a daughter and is trying to find ways to balance her aspirations as a surgeon with her desire to be a present mother to her daughter, something she never had. Cristina has been a doting aunt to Meredith’s daughter. Cristina has also been certain she doesn’t want children of her own and wants to focus all of her energy on her surgical career, something that has caused a great deal of strife in her own marriage. Though they’ve chosen different paths when it comes to children, they’ve both respected and supported one another in their decisions.
When Cristina’s husband Owen refused to support Cristina’s decision to have an abortion, it was Meredith who pleaded with him to understand Cristina the way she did. At the time, Meredith was struggling to conceive a child herself after a miscarriage but Meredith understood the path she was choosing was not the one Cristina wanted. “Do you know what will happen to Cristina if she has a kid that she doesn't want?,” she asked him. “It will almost kill her. Trying to pretend that she loves a kid as much as she loves surgery will almost kill her, and it'll almost kill your kid. Do you know what it's like to be raised by someone who didn't want you? I do. To know you stood in the way of your mother's career? I do. I was raised by a Cristina. My mother was a Cristina. And as the child she didn't want, I am telling you, don't do this to her, because she's kind and she cares and she won't make it. The guilt of resenting her own kid will eat her alive.”
Meredith and Cristina differ in many ways, in what they want out of life and how they approach their careers and their families. But, as evidenced in Meredith’s quote above, they’ve almost always been able to look at things from the other’s perspective and to appreciate that perspective as valid. In this specific instance, both Meredith and Cristina realized that deciding whether to have children and how that balances with their career aspirations was a personal decision and often a difficult one and they supported and worked to understand each other’s choices.
If one thing is obvious, it’s Cristina and Meredith’s love for one another. However, the strength of that love was tested at the end of last season and the beginning of this one. Last season, while struggling to repair her failing marriage, Cristina told Meredith that her husband, Owen, was her person, not Meredith. To the viewer it was an obvious desperate attempt by Cristina to salvage her marriage, thinking somehow distancing herself from Meredith might allow her to grow closer to Owen, but it was still a big blow to Meredith. Meredith had learned not to rely on people starting at an early age when she had to deal with abandonment by her father and neglect by her mother but she’d allowed Cristina to become her sure thing. At the end of last season, Cristina and Meredith and many of their fellow doctors survived a plane crash that took the lives of Meredith’s sister, Lexie, and fellow surgeon, Mark Sloane. During and in the aftermath of the crisis, Meredith sought to connect with Cristina. “You’re still my person, even if I’m not yours,” she told her tearfully.
Cristina who suffered through the death of her own father at a very young age and who, like every other doctor at Seattle Grace Mercy West, has been through a lot of tragedy there, saw the aftermath of the accident as time to retreat both physically and emotionally. She accepted a job at a hospital in Minnesota in what seemed an attempt to escape the people she loved enough to be hurt by. When Meredith accused her of running away, Cristina didn’t deny it. She told Meredith that she’d be wise leave Seattle behind too because it had brought them both nothing but tragedy.
For a while after the move, Meredith and Cristina didn’t speak. Then Meredith left Cristina the following voicemail: “You were right, about all of it. You were right. This is a place where horrible things happen. You were right to go. You're probably escaping disaster. Look at me, I practically grew up here. And, you're right, it's hurt me in ways I'll probably never get over. I have a lot of memories of people, people I've lost forever, but I have a lot of other memories too. This is the place where I fell in love. The place where I found my family. This is where I learned to be a doctor, where I learned to take responsibility for someone else's life. And it's the place I met you so I figure this place has given me as much as it has taken from me. I've lived here as much as I've survived here. It just depends on how I look at it. I'm gonna choose to look at it that way and remember you that way.”
Cristina called back. As much as she may have hoped cutting ties with Seattle would help her heal and move on, letting go of Meredith wasn’t something she could see through. “You are my person,” she said. “You will always be my person.” After that, the two were often found carting each other around iPads, using FaceTime to share the details of their days. Repairing their relationship and having each other to share the days with, even it was on an iPad, restored some small sense of normalcy to lives that had shifted dramatically in the wake of tragedy. As usual, they found comfort in one another.
The November 8th episode saw them keeping in frequent touch as they both tackled difficult patient problems. Meredith dealt with a patient considered by others to be a lost cause and Cristina took on a risky surgery with her new mentor and friend, Dr. Thomas. Meredith’s case was complicated by the fact that her patient reminded her of her sister, Lexie, whom the doctors were unable to save during the plane crash. However, she refused to acknowledge the emotional impact whenever anyone questioned her about it. Cristina was working to protect Dr. Thomas. She’d become attached to him and grown to admire his knowledge and surgical skill but the hospital was determined to get rid of him because they considered his age a liability. She knew one mistake in the operating room would cost him his career and, like her, his career was the most important thing in his life.
In the end, both Meredith and Cristina performed successful surgeries and their patients survived but Dr. Thomas suffered a heart attack during surgery and died. Over scenes of his death and Cristina in the aftermath of losing him, we heard Dr. Thomas’ advice to her in voiceover, “Do not look for friends here, you won't find them. None of these people have the capacity to understand you. They never will. If you're lucky, one day, when you're old and shriveled like me, you'll find a young doctor with little regard for anything but their craft and you'll train them, like I trained you. Until then, read a good book.”
Dr. Thomas did find a kindred spirit in Cristina, someone who was better at and more focused on work than personal relationships and who wasn’t willing to compromise her work to change that. Like Dr. Thomas, Cristina is driven to be the best in her field and her personal life has taken a backseat to that drive. And maybe he was right in his assumption that, like him, she won’t have any long-lasting romantic relationships. What he didn’t realize was that she already had someone who understood her and her drive to achieve, who accepts it and loves it as part of her. She has a person, not just a best friend but a best friend who would help her hide a body.
When Meredith’s doorbell rang at the end of the episode and she opened it to find Cristina, who we are left to assume conquered the fear of flying she’d struggled with since the plane crash to show up at Meredith’s door, things fell into place again for both of them. “Lexie’s dead,” Meredith said, admitting to Cristina what she’d not been able to say to anyone else. “Yeah,” Cristina replied, “everyone’s dead.”
They hugged and it was a moment of grief but also of celebration. Coming home for Cristina wasn’t so much about returning to Seattle as it was returning to Meredith. In trying to escape connections and relationships, she ended up caring about someone else who died and left her. She realized she couldn’t avoid emotional entanglements that had the potential to hurt her, no matter how hard she might try. Returning to Seattle might have meant more complications in her life, might have meant opening herself up to hurt, but it also meant sharing her life with her person.