Grey’s Anatomy is something of a cultural phenomenon. It started out as a medical procedural — one of many on the air — but it has endured the test of times. It remains one of ABC’s strongest performers after fourteen seasons.
At the center of it all is still Meredith Grey, one of the strongest, smartest, and most iconic characters on television. Her story arc is equal parts heartbreaking and inspirational, which actress Ellen Pompeo portrays beautifully. She grounds the show, and is the primary reason for its success.
Although Meredith is a constant, the characters around her certainly are not. All shows are bound to have a few shake-ups in the cast, but Grey’s takes it to another level. The show makes it clear pretty early that no character is safe. Whether these exits take the form of a tragic passing, a job opportunity, or an illness, fans of Grey’s have watched a lot of major characters leave the show.
Often times, we think of these exits as negatives. If a character is beloved, that will make their departure that much harder to handle. However, sometimes a character leaving the show can be a good thing because it allows the showrunners to get rid of the unnecessary characters and focus on the ones that matter.
Here are 7 Character Exits That Hurt The Show (And 8 That Saved It)
15 Saved: Erica Hahn
Hahn was a cardiothoracic attending surgeon. She previously worked at Presbyterian Hospital before she became the Head of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Seattle Grace Hospital. During her brief stint on the show, she and Callie Torres shared a romantic connection, which served as a touching coming-out moment for her character.
However, Hahn's relationships with the other main characters were not very positive. She and Preston Burke were professional rivals, having attended John Hopkins together previously. Hahn was also antagonistic towards Cristina Yang, who had a complicated relationship with Burke at the time.
Her biggest beef, though, was with Izzie Stevens. After Hahn found out about the LVAD wire incident, she became angry with the staff and left. This is actually a reasonable reaction, but because Hahn isn't a likable character, it's probably just as well that she made her exit when she did.
14 Hurt: Callie Torres
Callie Torres was an orthopedics surgeon working at Seattle Grace Hospital — later Grey Sloan Memorial. She joined the crew in season two, and definitely made her mark on the show before leaving in season twelve.
Callie was a pretty awesome surgeon, and she wasn't afraid to get tough with her patients or her fellow doctors when she needed to. Not only that, but she also had a lot of meaningful relationships with the other characters.
The most notable dynamic was between her and Arizona Robbins, which made them a strong couple — at least for a little while. However, this also led to her character's exit, when the two enter a custody battle over their daughter, Sofia.
This story arc seemed to paint Callie as the bad guy, when really, it was just a poorly conceived plot point. Callie's absence is still noticeable now.
13 Saved: Denny Duquette
Denny Duquette was a patient at Seattle Grace diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Although he starts out as a fairly likable guy, his relationship with Izzie Stevens pushes things over the edge.
First of all, how Denny and Izzie were able to pursue a relationship at all still remains a mystery. Denny was a patient, and Izzie a lowly intern. If any sane doctor got a whiff of that relationship, Izzie would have been booted immediately.
That being said, Denny's exit from the show offers up some of the most iconic Grey's drama. Izzie cuts his LVAD wire to put him higher up on the transplant list — and chaos ensues.
Denny ultimately gets the heart, only to lose his life moments later anyway.
Denny's departure helped to develop Izzie more as a character, and created a lot of great tension on the show.
12 Hurt: Addison Montgomery
Addison Montgomery is a gifted neonatal surgeon and Derek's ex-wife. When she first comes on Grey's, it seemed like she would be an antagonist to Meredith. Although plenty of drama comes from their shared interest in Derek, Addison actually becomes one of the best characters.
Although she wasn't actually on Grey's for very long, she had a commanding presence on screen — played incredibly well by Kate Walsh. Her relationship to Derek, Meredith, and Mark unfolded in unexpected and entertaining ways.
It's not surprising that the showrunners picked Walsh's character to star in the spinoff show, Private Practice.
However, that show wasn't as successful as Grey's, making Addison's exit the wrong choice in the long run. Addison would have been better off staying on Grey's.
11 Saved: Preston Burke
Preston Burke was another cardiothoracic surgeon on the show, and the head of the department for a while. Along with Derek, he was one of the most prominent surgeons at Seattle Grace. However, his exit allowed Cristina to develop more as a character.
Burke had a few interesting storylines, from his attempt to become Chief of Surgery to suffering from a gunshot wound. The latter put a lot of pressure on Cristina to help him through surgeries.
When Burke ultimately left Cristina at the alter at the end of season three, it was heartbreaking to watch Cristina handle this reality. However, his exit also made her even better as a character, and paved the way for people like Owen Hunt to join the gang.
Burke's departure from the show helped the characters around him to grow, which is why it was a good thing.
10 Hurt: Lexie Grey
Lexie Grey — or "Little Grey" as Derek and other attendings call her — was Meredith's younger half-sister. She was a year behind Meredith in the program and a brilliant doctor before her untimely end.
Meredith already had a turbulent relationship with the rest of her family — especially Thatcher - her and Lexie's dad. When Lexie came into the picture, that immediately complicated things even more for Meredith. Their sisterly relationship is pretty slow-going at first, but that bond becomes more genuine as the seasons went by. Lexie also formed an intense romantic relationship with Mark Sloan, a tragic will-they-won't they dynamic.
Lexie's exit was one one of the saddest on the entire show.
During the infamous plane crash, Lexie gets trapped underneath the rubble, and passes away as Sloan watches. Lexie was one of the best characters on the show. She left before her story was really finished.
9 Saved: Leah Murphy
Plenty of interns and residents have come and gone but no group can match the original Seattle Grace gang from season one. Leah Murphy illustrates that the best.
Leah was part of season nine's intern class, along with Jo Wilson and Stephanie Edwards. She never meshed well within the dynamics of that group, nor with anyone else on the show.
All of her interactions with other characters just felt awkward and forced.
This is especially noticeable when Leah develops somewhat of an obsession with Arizona. They hook up a few times, which leads to some uncomfortable and awkward new policies at the hospital.
Clearly, the characters themselves knew Leah didn't fit in, because Richard Webber more or less fires Leah because he doesn't think she should be a surgeon. Leah has returned since, but let's hope she stays gone.
8 Hurt: Stephanie Edwards
Stephanie Edwards was another member of season nine's internship group. During her time on the show, it's revealed that Stephanie has sickle-cell disease. She was a successful subject of a clinical trial, but the experience still haunts her now. She went on to be one of the most talented residents, and forms a close and entertaining friendship with Jo.
Her character exit is memorable but heart-wrenching.
After a fire breaks out in Grey Sloan, Stephanie desperately tries to escape with a young child wandering around the hospital. They make it out, but Stephanie suffers severe burns. This prompts her to quit her job so she can see the world and live a better life.
As tense as this episode was, Stephanie's departure left Jo as the only major resident from their class left - a void that hasn't really been filled.
7 Saved: Nathan Riggs
Nathan Riggs had a pretty superficial role when he first joined the show. After Derek Shepherd's tragic passing, it seemed like the show felt the need to give Meredith another love interest almost immediately. They tried to sell audiences on Riggs, but it didn't work.
Riggs is a cardiothoracic surgeon from New Zealand. He has experience as a medic in the military, and served alongside Owen Hunt and Owen's sister, Megan. Riggs and Megan were engaged before Megan's disappearance.
At Grey Sloan, Riggs forms a bond with Meredith. The two do share similar, tragic backstories, but the show never fully fleshed that out.
Riggs was never going to be a replacement for Derek, and the show doomed his character from the start by trying to make that happen.
When Megan came back, Riggs road off into the sunset with her almost immediately. Meredith didn't need him, and neither did the show.
6 Saved: Teddy Altman
Teddy Altman is somewhat of a mixed bag as a character. The events that happen to her seem to ask the audience to pity her rather than sympathize with her, but she still had some positive effects on the characters.
Teddy becomes the new Head of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the hospital. Owen convinces her to come to Seattle. Here, Teddy continues Cristina's education in her specialty. This dynamic quickly gets tense, because Teddy still has feelings for Owen despite Owen and Cristina's relationship.
Not only that, but Teddy's own love-life proves tragic in its own right. Teddy marries a patient, Henry, so that he can use her health insurance. Henry's untimely passing leaves Teddy heartbroken.
Things never really went right for this character, but she did positively influence Cristina's career, giving her the motivation to keep striving to be better, especially after Teddy left the hospital. In this sense, Teddy's exit saved the show.
5 Hurt: Mark Sloan
Mark Sloan — better known as "McSteamy" — was the suave womanizing doctor who became Head of Plastic Surgery at Seattle Grace.
Mark grew up with Derek in New York. The two were like brothers, until Derek discovered that Addison had cheated on him with Mark. This drove a wedge in that entire dynamic and created great drama. Later, Mark begins a relationship with Lexie Grey, the true love of his life. However, that relationship gets complicated too when Lexie learns that Mark is the father of Callie's child, Sofia.
His passing after the plane crash was devastating for the characters and for the fans. He also left behind a very young daughter.
Along with Lexie Grey, Mark's passing also inspired the hospital's new name: Grey Sloan Memorial. His death was gut-wrenching, and his impact on the show was huge.
4 Hurt: Derek Shepherd
Oh, McDreamy. Behind Meredith, people probably associate Grey's with Derek Shepherd, the neurosurgeon from New York who arrives at Seattle Grace in season one. He is the other half of "MerDer," one of the greatest television couples ever.
Grey's Anatomy is about a lot of things, but at the center of it all are the character dynamics — specifically, Meredith and Derek's. It was their love that propelled the story forward through a lot of ups and downs and tragedies.
His passing — while doing the thing he was best at, saving lives — probably had the biggest impact on Grey's, more so than any other character.
While the show still works well with Meredith at its center, it doesn't feel as focused as it did when Derek was there too.
3 Saved: George O'Malley
George O'Malley was among the most beloved characters on Grey's Anatomy to this day. There's no denying that this loss impacted the show.
This is a rare instance where a good character helps the show by leaving it.
George was easily the most underrated intern and resident. He had an unassuming, mild-mannered demeanor. He also would have made a great trauma surgeon. Yet, in later seasons, it felt like George had less to do than the other characters. He had some great story arcs early in the series, but all that tapered off after a while.
The episode where he loses his life was riveting. The dramatic tension of not knowing who the patient was, only for Meredith to figure out it was George — "007" — was devastating. George was well-liked among all the doctors. Watching them each handle his passing made the show better.
2 Hurt: Cristina Yang
Cristina was arguably the best character on the show — even now, so many seasons after she left. Whereas Derek was the love of Meredith's life, Cristina was her soulmate. This is just one example of the mark Cristina left on Grey's.
Cristina was a brilliant doctor who took an immediate interest in cardiothoracic surgery. This has placed her in situations with multiple characters on the show, from Burke, to Hahn, to Altman. Cristina's relationships with Burke and Owen in particular created excellent drama.
Her friendship with her "Twisted Sister" Meredith cements them as one of the most compelling relationships. They would do anything for one another, which makes them feel relatable and heartfelt.
No one has come close to replacing Cristina on the show.
She was the best and brightest of them all, and she always will be.
1 Saved: Izzie Stevens
Izzie Stevens was in the very first internship class on the show along with Meredith and the gang. However, her presence on the show wasn't as good as her absence.
More than anything, Izzie was whiny and annoying. She always made it clear that the person she cared most about was herself. She practically guilt-tripped Denny into letting her cut the LVAD wire.
Izzie's exit from the show allowed the writers to focus on better characters, especially Alex. After Izzie left, Alex developed a lot as a character and eventually fell in love with Jo Wilson.
Izzie might have been one of the original interns on the show, but she was definitely the lowest on the totem pole. Her departure moved the story forward for the better.
What Grey's Anatomy character do you miss the most? Let us know in the comments!