Fans of Grey's Anatomy braced themselves for the worst before watching Thursday night's finale: the possible death of another major character, this time Stephanie Edwards (Jerrika Hinton). And though the surgical resident survives the explosion that left viewers breathless in the penultimate episode, the reality is that her survival still comes with a bittersweet goodbye.
Hinton has been hinting about exiting Grey’s Anatomy for over a year now. In March 2016, she signed on to star in the ShondaLand comedy pilot Toast, set during a couple's engagement dinner. ABC decided not to move forward with the show — but Hinton, who's played Edwards on Grey’s since 2012, was still making moves toward a departure. “Shonda and I met almost a year ago,” Hinton told BuzzFeed News. “We had a phenomenal, very gratifying conversation about creative process, and work.
“She was immensely supportive of my wishes,” Hinton recalled. “I thanked her tons privately, and I’d also like to use this as a time to thank her publicly for being so supportive of the decision that was right for me at the time.”
Though it was rumored back in January 2017 that Hinton would not be back as a series regular in the show’s 14th season, it was the cliffhanger of the penultimate episode of Season 13 that really shook fans. In the episode, Edwards is held hostage by a rapist (Casey Thomas Brown). In an attempt to escape his clutches and protect a little girl, Erin, (Big Little Lies’ Darby Camp) whom they stumble on, Edwards lights the man on fire. He falls down near some oxygen tanks, and the episode ends with a major explosion — and with the fate of Erin, the rapist, and Edwards unknown.
Fan reaction around the episode was passionate and pleading. In one example of many tweets like it, @OffSeids wrote “Girl istg if they kill off Edwards I'm done with Shonda lol.” Another, @JadeCaity, tweeted “Grey’s Anatomy did not just kill Stephanie Edwards. this is not happening.”
As the Season 14 finale revealed, that indeed did not happen — though it seemed like a close call for a while there. Instead, Edwards spends most of the finale saving Erin from the raging fire. Severely burned by the end of the episode, she tells Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) that between this and her childhood in sickle cell trials, she’s had enough of hospitals. She announces her plans to travel the world and live her life, her surgical ambitions no longer her top priority.
Hinton was very aware of the fan response to the cliffhanger last week. “I hope that [viewers] are not only relieved that she lives, but also that she gets to exit that hospital on her own terms," Hinton said. "I hope they see that in the powerful way that it is.”
According to Hinton, Edwards’ storyline this season is "one where if you sit back and review it on a binge-watch, there might be some threads there that you catch the second time around that weren’t evident the first time.”
That could be, in part, because of how long this has been in the works. In her initial meeting with Rhimes, Hinton said they talked about Edwards' exit and the conversation was largely about “reaching common ground.”
“Stephanie’s journey has always existed on a bit of a back burner,” Hinton said, “and so it seemed right to have these flames come to the foreground in her departure.”
As for whether we’ll see Edwards again at Grey Sloan Memorial, Hinton thinks it’s unlikely. “The reasons why she’s choosing to leave that place are deep, profound, multi-layered reasons, and because of that, it would not make sense for her to keep checking back in to that place,” she said. “She’s seeking something much more profound for her life.”
Hinton's post-Grey's plan was similar to her character's: “My plan was to conclude Stephanie’s chapter, and then, honestly, leave the country for six months and travel, and be a part of the world again, and feel reintegrated into society, and basically go on this spiritual quest,” she said. But then, an opportunity “materialized out of the ether,” as she put it: a costarring role on Alan Ball’s new HBO show, Here Now. Hinton will play one of the adopted children of Holly Hunter’s character. “It’s this wonderful thing I did not plan,” she said.
So yes, this is a goodbye to Stephanie Edwards, but Hinton wouldn't change a thing. “Sometimes you do all of the blood, sweat, and tears, and you go home wondering if it was worth it,” Hinton said of filming her final episodes. “With this, the blood, sweat, and tears have been worth it.”