Shonda Rhimes’ first hit TV show, Grey’s Anatomy, is currently in its 14th season and continuing to ride high. In my opinion, part of what has kept audiences returning to the show for over a decade now, is its diverse cast and its unwillingness to never sugarcoat the truth — no matter how ugly it may be. This is particularly true for this week’s episode, entitled “Personal Jesus,” which sees surgeon April Kepner having the absolute worst day ever.
Sticking to its tried and true formula, during the show, several different plot lines swirl around and intertwine with one another. This week, we have a story of a new mother going through serious trauma after delivering her first child, a 20-year-old who attempted to cut off his hand after feeling guilty about masturbating and a 12-year-old black boy named Eric, who was shot by the police while climbing through the window of his own home.
Eric’s storyline is particularly riveting because it fearlessly takes on the idea of unconscious bias, something that is, and has always been, a huge part of our society, but rarely explored as keenly. Speaking with the writer of “Personal Jesus,” Zoanne Clack, I dove into her inspiration behind the episode as a whole, and the decisions she made specifically with Eric’s heartbreaking storyline.
“The fact that bias lives in all of us, and it’s because of everything that we are socialized to feel and to unconsciously know, (that) was so striking to me,” said Clack when asked about why she and the team at Grey’s Anatomy decided to tackle the tough subject. “In this day and age with the #MeToo movement and gender bias … and putting all of that together and learning more about unconscious bias, made me feel like we really needed to hit it just straight on if we were going to tackle it at all, “ The writer stated.
At the top of the episode, we meet recently shot Eric being rushed to the hospital and rolled in on a gurney — that he’s handcuffed to. Clack’s explanation of this decision is a sad preview of more bias to come throughout the episode’s duration. “The people who are escorted to the emergency department are always cuffed when they’re brought in by the police. They haven’t had their hearing yet, they don’t know if they're guilty, but they come in handcuffed,” the writer detailed. “So, the injustice of (Eric) not even having done it, but still having to have the cuffs …”
As the story progresses, we meet young Eric’s distraught mother, father and two siblings. It’s important to note that his family is middle class and lives in a well-to-do neighborhood. This revelation further drives home the recklessness of the policemen’s bias. It’s inferred that they believed Eric, a black boy climbing through a window in a nice neighborhood, didn’t belong and could not be trusted.
On the choice to paint Eric’s family in this way, versus the opposite, Clack said, “That was the experience of middle-class America, is what I feel.” She continued, “Because I have a four-year-old black son and I’m a physician, I’m fairly fluent in the world. As he grows up, he may or may not have black friends, white friends, whatever it is. But on the street in a car (or) walking down the street, he’s always going to be a black boy. They’re not going to see how much money he has, what he’s invested in, what kind of house he lives in — they’re going to see a black boy.” Clack further detailed, “The immediate thought that comes to mind based on who you see and what you feel like that person is, is the problem.”
During the episode, Eric speaks to his family about what happened, and the doctors breathe a sigh of relief after seeing x-rays of the bullet wound. They say, “It could have been worse.” So it’s a total shock to find out that pre-teen dies at the end of the episode. Upon receiving the news, Eric’s mom lets out a devastating cry matriarch’s husband and kids attempt to comfort her, seemingly holding in their own grief. In the next scene, the police say they are sorry, but it’s hard to believe. They continue to treat the moment as “business as usual,” unsympathetically requesting a report from Dr. April Kepner (who continues her worst day ever by finding out another patient of hers has also died).
“Personal Jesus” is a challenging episode to watch, especially if you’re black, but nonetheless, it’s necessary. On what she wanted viewers to take away from the experience, Clack stated, “My goal is (for us) to empathize with each other despite our differences in race, gender, social status and all of that. Start a conversation and recognize that we all have biases so that then you can move forward and do something with that knowledge.”
To anyone who watches the episode, it will be clear that Clack’s mission was accomplished. The next step would be to share the story with others in hopes that they can be enlightened too.
Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.