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Grey's Anatomy: The Controversial Exit That Sent Shockwaves Through The Fandom

Characters come and go on "Grey's Anatomy" all the time, but sometimes, their exits are a little more... unceremonious. This is precisely what happened with the beloved character Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), who was one of the series' five original surgical interns — and who abruptly exited the series in Season 16, Episode 16, "Leave a Light On."

After years of fascinating character growth and development on "Grey's Anatomy," Alex Karev had truly come into his own; once an arrogant jerk who alienated everybody around him, he was one of Meredith Grey's (Ellen Pompeo) best friends, becoming her "person" after Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) moved away in Season 10 and her husband Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) died in Season 11. Not only that, but he softened his hard edges and became a top pediatric surgeon, showing an unlikely gentle side around kids, and he was happily married to Dr. Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington). Then, it all changed suddenly.

As "Leave a Light On" begins, both Jo and Meredith receive an unexpected letter from Alex, telling them both that he's gone and won't be returning to Seattle's Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. Why is he gone? He got back together with his first wife Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) offscreen. The rest of the episode is, frankly, really lame; it's just a ton of archival footage of Alex and Izzie's romance as well as his relationship with Jo. Understandably, fans were really, really upset that such a long-running and beloved character was written off so hastily — the episode doesn't feature any new footage of Chambers, whose final real appearance was in the show's 350th episode "My Shot."

The showrunners defended their decision to write off Alex...

It's not surprising that "Grey's Anatomy" fans flocked to social media to express their displeasure over Alex Karev's unceremonious exit. As Tony06955226 wrote on Twitter, "I stayed after Cristina [Yang] left. I defended the decision to kill Derrick [Shepherd] off when he left the show. I've stayed through many questionable seasons. But this?" Christalyn13 took a different approach: "I'm going to forget I ever saw this episode and just tell myself that Alex died."

Eventually, then-showrunner Krista Vernoff took to Twitter herself to address Karev's exit in a Notes app screenshot. As she put it, "It is nearly impossible to say goodbye to Alex Karev. That is as true for me and for all of the writers at 'Grey's Anatomy' as it is for the fans. We have loved writing Alex. And we have loved watching Justin Chambers' nuanced portrayal of him. For 16 seasons, 16 years, we have grown up alongside Alex Karev. We have been frustrated by his limitations and we have been inspired by his growth and we have come to love him deeply and to think of him as one of our very best friends. We will miss him terribly. And we will always be grateful for his impact, on our show, on our hearts, on our fans, on the world."

...as did Ellen Pompeo

Star Ellen Pompeo also addressed Chambers' abrupt exit, crafting an Instagram post dedicated to Karev's character and his departure. After thanking the passionate and loyal "Grey's Anatomy" fandom, whose outcry couldn't be overlooked after Karev's goodbye, Pompeo finally turned her attention to the episode itself — thanking episode director Debbie Allen and original showrunner and creator Shonda Rhimes for everything they did throughout the years.

"Thanks to our national treasure @therealdebbieallen and the writers for giving Alex Karev the best send off," Pompeo wrote. "Thanks to @shondarhimes for creating the most amazing character. For me personally for Karev to go back to the beginning.... was the best possible storyline. It pays homage to those incredible first years and the incredible cast ...that created a foundation so strong that the show is still standing. So let's not be sad."

What Pompeo means is that Alex reveals to Jo and Meredith that he found out Izzie used fertilized embryos the two made when she was sick with cancer — the chemotherapy she received rendered her infertile — and when he found out they had children together, he just completely abandoned the new life he'd built. Is this a wild turnaround for the character? Yeah. Did Justin Chambers want a quick way out? Apparently.

Many actors have left Grey's Anatomy over the years — but Alex's exit was particularly bad

As was mentioned earlier, actors leave "Grey's Anatomy" all the time — even Pompeo, whose character is the namesake of the entire series, left behind her role as a series regular in February of 2023 (she still appears occasionally and provides the show's traditional voiceover). Sandra Oh and Patrick Dempsey both left, as did Katherine Heigl — she never appears in the series past Season 6, and her footage in Karev's final episode is archival as well. Jessica Capshaw, Sara Ramirez, Jesse Williams, Sarah Drew, Eric Dane, and Chyler Leigh, among many others — who played Dr. Arizona Robbins, Dr. Callie Torres, Dr. Jackson Avery, Dr. April Kepner, Dr. Mark Sloan, and Dr. Lexie Grey, respectively — have all left the series, and as far as the original interns go, none are left after Meredith's exit (T.R. Knight's George O'Malley died at the end of Season 5). 

All of those characters and actors, though, got an actually decent farewell — Cristina Yang's face was at the center of the title credits in her final episode, for crying out loud — so the lack of a real goodbye for a character as important as Alex Karev is especially egregious for fans. It's potentially possible that Chambers would return for a guest appearance someday... but nothing will change how awful that departure really was.

"Grey's Anatomy" is available to stream on Hulu and Netflix.