If Michael Ausiello is right and Katherine Heigl will leave Grey’s Anatomy without filming another episode, it brings up the question: how will they get rid of her character? I don’t mean whether they’ll kill her off or have her move out of town, but how the news will be conveyed.
Sometimes, actors leave a show with advance notice, and stick around to film the scenes where they leave. But sometimes actors leave very suddenly and acrimoniously, and the writers have to get rid of their characters without ever showing them onscreen. M*A*S*H had famous examples of each method in the same year. McLean Stevenson announced while the third season was still filming that he wasn’t coming back for another season, so the writers gave him an episode where he actually leaves. But they also killed off his character, offscreen, without telling him. After that episode, they wrapped production on the third season, and during the break, Wayne Rogers (Trapper) decided he wasn’t coming back. So in the next season premiere, Trapper leaves without ever actually appearing onscreen.
It can’t be fun for the writers to come up with that kind of episode, because they have to find a way to make someone’s departure dramatic and convincing even though we never get to see them. M*A*S*H handled it about as well as they could, but it was still pretty contrived; Hawkeye comes back from vacation, discovers Trapper has been discharged, and spends the episode trying (and failing) to find him and say goodbye. But at least there’s a certain amount of truth in that, since it’s the army, where people come and go abruptly and friendships are temporary.
Other shows have used the army the other way, as a convenient reason to get rid of somebody. You may remember that when Ron Howard suddenly left Happy Days, the excuse the writers came up with was that his character had been drafted. That show also used the method many shows use with departed, unavailable characters: the one-sided phone call. (Richie actually got married to his longtime girlfriend over the phone, without ever being seen or heard by us.) The one-sided phone call allows the characters who are still there to fill us in on what happened to the person who left, or even try to have some kind of emotional conversation with the now-nonexistent character. So Meredith could have one of two conversations:
1. “Oh, Izzie, I’m so glad to hear that you’re doing so well at your new job in the distant, faraway land of Spokane!”
2. “What’s that, hospital person? You say Izzie was in a car crash and is dead? Sob! Well, at least she’s with her ghost boyfriend now.”
I don’t know if you have any bets on what will be done if Heigl has to be written off without appearing on the show (I guess it has a lot to do with what’s been happening with her character lately, and I haven’t been following it closely enough to know). But the writers must be really sad that there is no longer a draft, because this would be the perfect opportunity to inform us that she’s been pressed into service as an Army doctor.