It was recently announced that Sandra Oh will be leaving the show “Grey’s Anatomy” after ten years. Her character, Cristina Yang, will be written off and while she’s said that she asked for a “happy” exit, the way this show works I’m sure she’ll end up crushed under a painfully obvious metaphor for something Meredith Grey needs to learn. Like, a replica Statue of Liberty will fall on her, because now Meredith needs to be more independent. It’ll be a shame to see her go, though, because as awful as that show is and has been, I have stuck it out for Cristina Yang.
Cristina was one of the few television characters I really identified with. Like Dr.Yang, I’m not a particularly emotionally expressive person and we’ve both been mistaken for being cold, unfeeling robots because of it. Cristina actively works to cultivate that image, feeling it gives her an advantage in her field but she has shown that she’s not the unfeeling automaton people take her for. Early on, when she tells Meredith that she had to put a name down as an emergency contact for a medical procedure and says the famous “You’re my person” line, you can sense the fear of rejection that runs through her tense body. When she suffers an ectopic pregnancy and loses an ovary and the pregnancy she had planned to terminate, she ends up crying uncontrollably in the recovery room and tries to throw everyone out rather than let them comfort her. There are other examples where she shows that despite her facade, she actually does learn the details about her patients necessary to make sure they’re getting the best care, and if she keeps them at arm’s length it’s only because she feels that it’s in their best medical interest that she not become too attached. She’s refused to operate on people she knows for just this reason, and was devastated when one of her colleagues tricked her into operating on their spouse to get around her objections.
One of my favorite storylines was when a surgeon with an autism-spectrum disorder came to work at Seattle Grace, not because the storyline was particularly well-executed (it wasn’t) but because it helped show that Dr.Yang is NOT on the spectrum. There are neurotypical people who are averse to hugging and who can seem emotionally distant. They’re not particularly uncommon traits, but for some reason they’re not traits frequently displayed by female characters. Another uncommon trait of hers (one I happen to not have in common, but which I appreciate anyway) is that she doesn’t want children. She doesn’t hate children, or react to them with disgust, but she doesn’t want to be a mother. She had plans to terminate her first pregnancy before her fallopian tube ruptured, and she terminated a second pregnancy despite being with a partner who did want children. Even when Meredith asked if she would be guardian to Meredith’s kids should anything happen to her, Cristina made jokes about “the best fleet of nannies money can buy,” making it clear that even under those dire circumstances she wasn’t interested in being a parent. It’s rare to see a female character on a popular show who not only does not want to be a mother, but who takes clear and decisive steps to prevent it from happening. Particularly when those steps involved abortion.
Between the writers and Sandra Oh, there was also balance to Cristina’s character. They were able to have her suffer traumatic or heartbreaking events without rewriting her character. I’ve seen too many shows that take strong women and throw them through an emotional wringer, only to have them come out the other side a hollow shell of themselves. Perhaps this happens sometimes, but watching Cristina crawl through depression and PTSD to come back to being a strong, confident, ambitious surgeon was wonderful. She was changed, but she was not weakened or broken. She was also the only character to finally call “bullshit” on the never-ending series of unfortunate events that plagued the doctors at Seattle Grace, referring to the hospital as “Seattle Grace Mercy DEATH” when she was in a plane crash with some of the other surgeons.
There are flaws with the character; her relationships have never played out particularly well and her most recent one was particularly frustrating as it wasted the potential of Kevin McKidd as well. Sometimes her actions seemed more guided by what the writers wanted for the story, than what would be organic for the character. I was also sad that they seem to have dropped the “Cristina is a slob” characterization established early on in the series, as that was another trait we don’t typically see with female characters. And the one shot of her apartment seemed as though they were genuinely on the “you couldn’t see her living room floor for all the dirty clothes” side and not the “Oh, tee hee, sometimes I leave my purse on the counter overnight instead of on its purse hook, I’m such a slob!” version.
I realize many people gave up on “Grey’s Anatomy” long ago or never started watching, and are likely warming up their typing fingers to fire off some huge screed about the downfall of culture and rotting brains and whatever other personal pet peeve they can tie into the show. That’s fine. But I think that any complex, well-acted character deserves attention and Sandra Oh has done a fantastic job bringing Cristina Yang to life for ten years. I will miss the character, and will probably stop watching the show once she’s gone. The relationship between her and Meredith has been the backbone of the series since the first episode, and I don’t see how they can keep it going if she leaves. Maybe it’s best if we don’t just see a graceful exit for Dr.Yang, but for all the characters, and let them transition into the next part of their lives without weekly updates on who’s boffing who in an on-call room. Knowing the writers of this show, though, we won’t see the back-end of the Seattle Grace crew unless the entire city is wiped off a map by a meteor. Which will then provides a voice-over about What It All Means.
Goodbye, Dr.Yang, you were too good for the show you were in and I hope there are better things waiting for you in your future. That goes double for Sandra Oh.