[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the upcoming ninth season of ABC's Grey's Anatomy.]
Grey's Anatomy will go into its upcoming ninth season down two characters with a third on the way out but that may not be all that's in store when the Shonda Rhimes medical drama returns in September.
Following the finale that saw Owen (Kevin McKidd) fire Teddy (Kim Raver) and the deadly plane crash claim Lexie's (Chyler Leigh) life, there's a strong possibility that any number of people could be joining Lexie in the great beyond.
Confirming that Derek, Cristina and Meredith will all survive the crash, Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) and Mark's (the departing Eric Dane) days may be numbered showrunner Rhimes hints in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
Last seen stranded in the woods with a broken bone protruding through her leg and coughing up blood, Arizona -- along with Cristina (Sandra Oh), Mark, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Derek (Patrick Dempsey) -- were left clinging to life without food, water or word of rescue. Mark, meanwhile, was in really bad shape and needed emergency surgery in the wilderness and was even ready to join his dearly departed in the afterlife but (at Arizona's encouragement) continued to fight to survive.
THR caught up with Rhimes to preview the ABC medical drama's upcoming ninth season and discuss whether or not Little Grey will have a proper funeral (don't get your hopes up), how Dane's departure will impact those around him and what's next for the rest of Seattle Grace's best and brightest.
The Hollywood Reporter: How are you approaching this season? In the past, you've known what the finale was and worked backward but last season because of all the uncertainty, it was split in two.
Shonda Rhimes: We know what the finale is and we're working backward from that. It's the usual way we work and we had a lot of fun last season but because we were unsure of a lot of things we were left with building a lot of things and it doesn't matter because we have a finale that's totally separate from what else is happening.
Could we see a time jump in the premiere?
Not a big one. We're doing something really interesting this year. Our first episode takes place two to three months after we left the finale, so you see the aftermath and where everyone ends up. The second episode jumps back and we're back in the woods, we start the episode back in the woods. To me, it's a very different way of telling the story and you have some questions about why people are the way they are and in the second episode you find out why things are the way they are.
Will you continue to play with that format throughout the season?
We're not. We don't have big plans to play with it back and forth. Even though we had a plane crash, this isn't Lost (laughs). We wanted to find a way to clearly and interestingly tell the story of who our character and why they are who they are.
What's the likelihood we could see additional fatalities or cast member departures?
I think that's possible, yes.
Could it be one of the five remaining plane crash survivors -- Arizona, Meredith, Cristina, Derek and Mark -- who don't make it?
I think any number of people could be departing at this point. That's left open.
Considering the way with the finale ended with Alex (Justin Chambers) and Jackson (Jesse Williams) both being accepted to other programs -- and Cristina, if she survives, could we see some of the season take place in other hospitals?
Yes, we could absolutely see some of the season take place somewhere else; that was always in the cards for us -- the idea that somebody would be somewhere else and we would see things play out that way. When we start the season, there are some doctors who are not at Seattle Grace and we will come to understand what that means as time goes on.
Might that be something that continues on for the length of the series?
I don't know that it's going to be the length of the series; we're going to do it for as long as it feels interesting to us for as long as we have story to tell in the way that we need to tell it. At the end of every season, I always say let's leave it on the table for next season and part of the reason for next season is what happens if a doctor is someplace else and what that means for our story and how that works.
Will there be a funeral for Lexie?
That was heartbreaking. I could have written for Chyler for the rest of my life; that was the hardest thing we did last year. We're not doing funerals this season, that's not part of the language of what we're trying to do this season. It's not about a funeral at all.
You mention funerals -- might there be a need for more than one?
There could be, but we're not doing them even if there were.
How will Mark's upcoming departure be handled?
I'm really proud of the way we're handing his exit. I really wanted and fought for that character to be given their due. I didn't want to come back to this season and say, "Mark Sloane is gone." I really wanted to give that character his due and we came up with a beautiful and creative way to showcase that and that goodbye.
How will his departure impact Callie (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona and their shared family with him?
His departure impacts everybody. Mark is a teacher to Jackson, he's best friends with Derek, he's Callie's best friend, he's Sofia's father. It's going to be a big loss for everyone and I don't want to minimize that.
What shape will Meredith, Cristina and Derek be in mentally and emotionally when the season picks up?
It's surprising. Derek is coping with the loss of the use of his hand in surgery and what that might mean for him. I love the heroic way he deals with it, which is: Who are you if you're not the guy who operates. We really play with that and show what that means for him as a person. Meredith and Cristina are coping in ways that are both expected and unexpected for those characters.
It sounds like all three will survive the crash.
I can confirm to you that Meredith, Cristina and Derek survive.
Which leaves Arizona, who wasn't in great shape in the season finale. What's her heath status like when the season picks up?
I don't know that I want to talk about Arizona.
Arizona has a huge following in the LGBT community and you and Grey's have continued to get recognition from GLAAD. Any comment on the notion that Arizona could be leaving?
I was honored to receive two awards from GLAAD this year and I feel like that character is iconic to me at this point. The way people respond to that character and that relationship, there's something really beautiful about that. We don't make decisions lightly and I certainly don't make these decisions lightly. I really try to stick to what's best for story and what's best for the show and it's really sometimes difficult to do that but it's also sometimes really gratifying to that. We're doing what feels completely right and in line with where we've been and where we're going.
How is Arizona's fate going to impact Callie?
It's going to impact her hugely. We're going to spend a lot of time with Callie this season, there's a lot of story to be told there.
Cristina mentions during the finale that she's experiencing PTSD, is that something you're going to explore this season?
Cristina has been experiencing PTSD since the shooting and trying to cope with that. One of the things I love is that she and Owen experience PTSD at different times, but yes, we're going to really follow that. Not in the typical way that you'd think, although none of them are going to have an easy time getting on a plane again. No one is flying again anytime soon. We're watching her cope in the best way she knows how.
How will Lexie's death impact Meredith? Could we potentially see the return of dark and twisty Meredith from early Grey's Anatomy?
You're going to be surprised at the Meredith you see. I think there's a lot of growth there for the girl who drowned, put her hand on a bomb in a body cavity, the girl whose husband was shot in front of her. She's grown in a number of ways and the way that she's coping with the plane crash is very different from the Meredith you would have seen coping with the shooting and the Meredith who was coping with the bomb guy exploding -- she's a different person at this point.
Will Cristina still be there for her or will she be one of those who explore life outside of Seattle as she mentioned in the finale?
You'll have to wait and see.
Could we see Jeff Perry return as Meredith's father?
I've gone back and forth with that. We lost the chance to cross over the moment that Jeff Perry became both Meredith's father became Cyrus [on Rhimes' Scandal]. There's something very strange about watching Jeff Perry play Meredith's father at 9 p.m. then at 10 p.m. watch him play Cyrus.
How will Owen respond to his role in the crash after he held his calls in the finale and potentially delayed their rescue?
I don't think there's any guilt there. We're not playing with the idea that he did a terrible thing not taking his calls that day, that's not really an issue for us.
What kind of Seattle Grace will the docs be returning to, clearly it will be a bit depleted with a few people moving on.
It's going to be a very interesting place. We've been calling this season the season of romance and talking about playing up the romance of surgery and the romance between characters and the romance of friendships and really mining that as much as we can so it's not going to be a dark season.
What's next for April (Sarah Drew) now that she doesn't have a job?
When we come back to April, she's back home on the farm so how she gets back to us at the hospital is going to be a very interesting journey.
Will the Chief (James Pickens Jr.) and Adele's story continue to be explored?
We love Loretta Devine, so anytime we can get her we are thrilled. So yes. We have a really beautiful and painful journey that we want to really have a chance to watch and see.
You've added a couple recurring characters in Camilla Luddington and Gaius Charles. Will they be doctors at Seattle Grace or elsewhere?
People keep asking me about these guest stars. We didn't add series regulars, these are guest stars who are coming on to be guest stars. I prefer not to discuss guest stars at this time.
What are you looking forward to seeing in Season 9? Do you think Arizona's time is up? Hit the comments with your thoughts. Grey's Anatomy returns Thursday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. on ABC.