It's not something I'm proud of, but I've stuck with "Grey's Anatomy" for 10 seasons of increasingly soapy drama, from yanking LVAD wires to plane crashes to messy divorces to baby mama drama. It was my first taste of Shonda Rhimes, and it made me a lifelong fan. But I'll let you in on a secret: I've been watching the hit medical drama for Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), not the title character.
And now, Dr. Yang is gone.
Sandra Oh is a flat-out amazing actress -- seriously, go check out some of her earlier work in Canadian film, and her upcoming work on the stage. She's also a woman of color pushing for recognition in a film industry that tends to put Asian women on the sidelines; they can be supporting characters, and they can be nerdy, and they can be backup, but they can't be characters in their own right.
While this show may have been named for Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), Cristina Yang made it special. She was sharp and sarcastic, the other half of the "dark and twisty sisters." Her brutal honesty and sometimes biting temperament were balanced by a genuine empathy and compassion that could come out at unexpected moments, and it made me love her as both a character and a woman of color on television. Yang defied stereotypes and expectations, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a Korean woman on television.
More than that, though, Dr. Yang was a stable, assertive character throughout her 10 seasons on the show. She knew what she wanted, she knew how to get it, and she wasn't afraid to go there, even though the people around her were often intimidated by her and disliked her. Yang pushed for a career in cardiothoracics, and she indisputably made it -- we last saw her jetting off to head up her own institute in Switzerland.
Cristina Yang stands out as a prime-time character who was willing to have an abortion and committed to it not once, but twice (her first pregnancy ended up being ectopic, so she needed emergency surgery before she could go through with her procedure). As a childfree person, I admire her for sticking to her decision not to have children when all too often it seems like characters like her magically decide they want children at some point. Yang is firm both in not feeling like parenting is for her and knowing that having children might interfere with the career she wants to have -- but she still respects her best friend for deciding to balance children and a career.
She left a man who loves her and her best friend to pursue her career. She's fiercely and unabashedly career-driven: she wants to be a surgeon, and she knows what she has to give up to make that happen, and she's okay with that, even if at times it's difficult. Dr. Yang was such a powerful force in television because of her uncompromising convictions and confidence that she needed to pursue her dreams, large or small.
Talking about her character, Oh has noted that she looked at women working in the medical profession, especially surgeons, and noted that those in cardio tend to be a particularly hardened, aggressive bunch, because they're forced to be. Cardio is a boys' club, and Yang needed to establish herself in a fiercely competitive and highly masculinized branch of surgery, or risk falling hopelessly behind. Oh struck that fascinating balance of a woman wanting to build a career and a life for herself without falling into the trap of taking on negative behaviors that other people seem to believe are expected of people in her field.
Behind that brittle shell lay a woman who was very vulnerable and tender at heart, a woman who wanted to do the right thing by her patients. Yang was often afraid even as she was confident in herself, knowing that she was a talented surgeon who still struggled socially, especially with intimacy. The point-counterpoint of the rich friendship between her and Meredith was also such a critical part of the drama, as it was one of the few friendships in primetime TV that was firmly center stage, even with love dramas swirling around it.
Yang is fierce and beautiful and glorious and consequently, she's one of the show's most beloved characters. She's been unbelievably well-received by critics and Sandra Oh has won a stack of awards (including SAG, Golden Globe, and Emmy awards) for her work on the show, which just goes to show you that dismissing soapy dramas is a pretty unwise move. Cristina Yang (who was originally supposed to be a "pert blonde") wouldn't be anything without Sandra Oh, and "Grey's Anatomy" is really going to suffer without her.
I don't begrudge Oh her decision to leave. She did her time, and 10 seasons is a good long run. She played a critical role in shaping a show which might be named for another character, but is inexplicably entwined with a character she played. I will totally follow Oh wherever she goes because she's a fantastic actress and I can't wait to see what she does next...but for now, I'm going to take a minute to mourn Cristina Yang.