ABC announced on March 7 that Isaiah Washington would bring his character, Dr. Preston Burke, back to Grey's Anatomy, seven years after he was fired following a series of headline-making altercations with the cast — most notably with the then-closeted T.R. Knight, around whom Washington was accused of intentionally making anti-gay remarks.
Washington's return is scheduled to air this May, coinciding with the impending exit of Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh. In a statement, Grey's creator Shonda Rhimes said, "It's important to me that Cristina's journey unfolds exactly as it should. Burke is vital to that journey — he gives her story that full-circle moment we need to properly say goodbye to our beloved Cristina Yang."
The announcement was met with mixed results, given the lingering ickiness many fans still feel toward Washington despite repeated mea culpas and his participation in several GLAAD-backed events. (For their part, GLAAD praised the actor's return.)
No matter how you feel about Washington, the question now becomes: How does Burke return to Cristina, and what role does he play in the beloved doctor's send-off?
Given how notoriously secretive Rhimes is about upcoming plotlines, no further information about the character's return was available. So we made some educated guesses.
Burke and Cristina both accompany their respective residents to this year's medical board exams, and, after a long night of booze-soaked reminiscing, their flame is reignited. (It's not uncommon, as fans know, for things to get steamy at these exams. Read: April and Jackson.) She's last seen driving off into the sunset with her former fiancé, where he will finally give her the wedding she once fantasized about (eyebrows included).
Cristina's success with printing a vital 3D heart gains her national recognition and doctors from all over the country fly to Seattle to see how the procedure is done. One of those doctors is Burke. After years of teaching her, she finally has surpassed him. He tries to make a move on her, but Cristina realizes all that she has accomplished without him and turns him down.
Dr. Harper Avery's health has declined and he returns to Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, which is owned by his family. But he only wants a recipient of his award to operate on his heart. Dr. Burke returns to do the honors. Despite Cristina's best efforts to avoid him, when the surgery goes badly, she rushes to the operating room. Working with Burke again reminds her of the feelings she still has for him and they end up in the on-call room.
After years of wear and tear on his already-delicate hand, Burke's arm atrophies. He returns to have Dr. Shepherd perform another surgery on him. But when Shepherd is called away by the president of the United States (Fitzgerald Grant, natch), Cristina is asked to take his place in the operating room. The surgery is a success and Burke realizes how much he has missed Cristina. But not one to miss a metaphor, Cristina takes her ability to repair Burke's arm — his lifeline — as her ability to also fully repair her heart and move on. Burke leaves after one episode.
After the residents turn their complaints against their bosses into a lawsuit, and win, Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital is once again in financial troubles. Burke has spent the last seven years quietly amassing a small fortune, thanks to a groundbreaking medical procedure he developed, and returns to buy the hospital and save it — again — from closing its doors. But Cristina finds herself unable to work alongside the man who once broke her heart, and transfers to New York. Burke sticks around for Season 11 and Washington becomes a series regular once again after The 100 (his new sci-fi drama on The CW) bombs hard.
Burke now has a family and a young child with a heart condition. The only doctor he trusts to operate on his loved one (other than himself) is Cristina. They return to Seattle for the surgery, which Cristina performs flawlessly. Cristina and Burke have one final conversation about what happened the day of the wedding and after seven years, they both finally have closure, realizing their lives turned out how they were supposed to.
Burke returns to Seattle after seven years of self-discovery, which culminated in the realization that he is a gay man, and he now wants Cristina's forgiveness for skipping out on their wedding. Cristina, who is overcome with a tremendous sense of clarity at this revelation, lovingly accepts his apology and agrees to officiate Burke's same-sex wedding.
Burke has opened a wildly successful private practice in New York and offers Cristina a job. Realizing there is not much left for her in Seattle, she accepts, and never looks back.
Burke is only seen in new flashbacks that illuminate previously unseen moments from Cristina's past.
After a life-threatening accident, Burke is brought in to Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital as a patient, and Cristina demands she be the one to perform his intricate surgery. Complications arise and Burke is paralyzed as a result of the operation. Feeling guilty, Cristina retires in order to be his full-time nurse and they move to a lakeside log cabin. Years later, after decades of guilt-fueled servitude, she fills the pockets of her bathrobe with rocks and slowly walks into the lake, going full Virginia Woolf.
Burke is murdered by the ghost of George O'Malley.