SPOILER ALERT: The story includes information that is revealed during the May 6 episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
EXCLUSIVE: A beloved doctor is checking out of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital.
Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams is departing the hit ABC medical drama after 12 seasons. His character Jackson Avery’s pending exit from the series is revealed in tonight’s episode, “Look Up Child.” Williams’ last episode, titled “Tradition,” will air May 20.
“Jesse Williams is an extraordinary artist and activist. Watching his evolution these past 11 years both on screen and off has been a true gift,” Grey’s Anatomy executive producer/showrunner Krista Vernoff said in a statement to Deadline. “Jesse brings so much heart, such depth of care, and so much intelligence to his work. We will miss Jesse terribly and we will miss Jackson Avery — played to perfection for so many years.”
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Over the last few years, Williams has branched out beyond acting. He has directed episodes of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Rebel and has built a formidable résumé as a producer. He most recently produced Two Distant Strangers, which won the Oscar for live-action short film last month.
Vernoff and the Grey’s writers had long conversations about how to end Jackson’s story to make sure it was satisfying for fans. In the end, the idea everyone got behind is to bring back Sarah Drew as April Kepner for a proper sendoff, giving one of the show’s most popular couples, “Japril,” closure.
Williams’ farewell kicks off with the Jackson-centered “Look Up Child,” in which he pays a visit to his father Robert (Eric Roberts) and has a heart-to-heart with his ex — and the love of his life — April (Drew), the mother of his daughter Harriet who has been living in Seattle with her husband Matthew (Justin Bruening).
The episode juxtaposes Jackson’s conversations with Robert and April, in which he tells them of his decision to take over the family foundation and exact change, bringing equity to healthcare, which he not been able to do working within the system. That would involve him moving to Boston and April, with Matthew and Harriet, uprooting their lives to follow him there so he can be there for his daughter.
“I’m not running from something, I’m running to something, trying to make something of my own,” said Jackson, who also stopped by to see his mother, Dr. Catherine Fox (series EP Debbie Allen), to give her the news. “I have the opportunity to make it all.”
Both Robert and April are skeptical at first. (“You are not that guy, I don’t think you ever will be,” April said) but in the end, they both support his decision. (“You are that guy, Jackson,” April said.)
In the end, April dropped a bombshell that she and Matthew had split up, giving fans hope that Japril may be back.
Grey’s alumna Drew’s anticipated return is reminiscent of George Clooney’s surprise appearance in Julianna Margulies’ final episode on another classic medical drama series, ER.
Williams’ current two-year contract is coming up at the end of the current 17th season. Grey’s Anatomy has not been renewed for an 18th season but is expected to be, contingent on closing deals with all three remaining cast members: Ellen Pompeo, who is also a producer, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr. Williams has been the fifth longest-tenured Grey’s Anatomy cast member behind Pompeo, Wilson, Pickens Jr. and Kevin McKidd, who joined in Season 5.
Williams joined Grey’s Anatomy as recurring in Season 6 and was promoted to a series regular the following season. He quickly emerged as a breakout star, with his Dr. Jackson Avery among Grey’s most popular characters. The role has won Williams an NAACP Image Award. You can view a gallery of Williams as Jackson throughout his 11-season tenure on the show below.
“I will forever be grateful for the boundless opportunities provided me by Shonda, the network, studio, fellow castmates, our incredible crew, Krista, Ellen and Debbie,” Williams said in a statement to Deadline. “As an actor, director and person, I have been obscenely lucky to learn so much from so many and I thank our beautiful fans, who breathe so much energy and appreciation into our shared worlds. The experience and endurance born of creating nearly 300 hours of leading global television is a gift I’ll carry always. I am immensely proud of our work, our impact and to be moving forward with so many tools, opportunities, allies and dear friends.”
Hinting at the character’s pending departure, Jackson this season has grown increasingly frustrated by the inequalities in the health care system as well as the pandemic’s disproportionally large impact on communities of color. Working on the front lines with incoming Covid patients, he at one point used his credit card to book hotel rooms for low-income Covid-positive patients who needed to quarantine.
“I don’t want to play a role in a system that’s just broken,” he told his mother in Episode 12. Williams also has been without a steady romantic interest this season, though he and Jo become friends with benefits after a failed sexual encounter.
Williams is the second Grey’s Anatomy series regular cast member to depart this season, joining Giacomo Gianniotti whose character Andrew DeLuca died in the March 11 episode.
The most recent two-year deal Williams signed for Grey’s Anatomy in 2019 involved scaled back duties for him as he was preparing to make his Broadway debut in the revival of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, which was originally slated to begin performances April 2, 2020. Delayed by the pandemic, it will now likely open in early 2022.
On the feature side, Williams recently signed on to co-star in the Amazon movie Marked Man.
The actor and activist, who served as a senior producer and correspondent on America Divided, also executive produced features Random Acts of Violence and The Burial of Kojo and documentaries Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement, With Drawn Arms and Survivors Guide to Prison.