It’s been years since we’ve really cared about Grey’s Anatomy. No longer the subject of water cooler chatter or Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, Seattle Grace has receded to the back of our collective pop culture consciousness. Yet the show is not just another ABC soap. With a character like Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang, that could never be true.
Before there was Alicia Florrick, Carrie Mathison, Olivia Pope, and Claire Underwood, there was Dr. Yang. Over the past ten seasons, showrunner Shonda Rhimes and Oh have delivered one of the strongest, most complex female characters on television. Yang was intelligent, ambitious, competitive, and often the source of much-needed comic relief. As her best friend Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) said, she was “dark and twisty.” You know, everything you want in a surgeon.
Last night, we had to say goodbye to her.
In the beginning, Cristina Yang was not very likable. Originally cast as an antagonist to Grey, it would’ve been easy to saddle her with common Asian stereotypes. Yet, she defied expectations. She was hyper-competitive. She wouldn’t compromise. She spoke her mind. Yang suppressed her emotions because she believed that was what she needed to do to be great. And all of this, especially her choice of career over personal life, was championed. Not wanting to have children was a strength; it was the right for her. And her refusal to be anything less than the best made her one of Seattle Grace’s finest doctors.
The show’s exploration of abortion, PTSD, and the struggle to balance work and love would not have been nearly as moving had it not been for Oh’s nuanced performance. Remember when Burke (Isaiah Washington) left Yang at the altar in the third season finale? The last image we saw was her crying and begging Meredith to help her get out of her wedding dress. It was through brief moments of vulnerability such as this that Oh showed us just how human Yang was.
Ultimately it was her friendship with Meredith that revealed the real Yang. The relationship was founded on their acceptance of each other’s “dark and twisty” nature and calling the other on their bullshit. Before leaving the hospital, Cristina says to Meredith, “You are a gifted surgeon with an extraordinary mind. Don’t let what he wants eclipse what you need. He’s very dreamy, but he is not the sun. You are.” This honesty—in this case about Patrick Dempsey’s Dr. Derek Shepherd—is what made their friendship the most compelling thing about the show, and one of the strongest friendships on television. A weak episode could be saved by just one scene in which the two women drank tequila and danced out their problems.
The Cristina Yang we met ten years ago would have had no problem leaving to run a prestigious hospital in Zurich. She was staunchly against forming any sort of emotional bonds at work. In her finale “Fear (of the Unknown),” she struggled to say goodbye to Seattle Grace. She confessed she wasn’t ready to go because “nothing feels finished.” It’s not until Meredith forces her into a cab to the airport that Cristina realized what she had to do to feel finished: She needed to dance it out with her twisted sister one last time.
Cristina Yang wasn’t just the brain of Grey’s Anatomy, she was one of the more integral pieces of its heart.