When you stop to think about it, "Grey's Anatomy" is a series that covets death. With very few exceptions -- like Yang, or Addison, in her case for the purposes of a spin-off -- characters don't merely shuffle off the mortal coil but shred it. They are expunged, never to return to Seattle Grace, as ghosts (which - yes - has sort of happened, with Denny) or in flashback.
Okay: We have another exception, which happened just last night, Thursday, with the return of the great Kate Burton -- daughter of Richard -- who long ago played Meredith's sad, lost and brilliant mother, Ellis Grey.
Death works for "Anatomy" because death does stalk the surgical profession, but there's also an essential finality to death in this show. The characters that went to the great hereafter were beloved, and core to the overall mission of helping Meredith understand her own psychic anatomy. They go...but Mere struggles on, attempting to find out who she is and why she is the way she is, without an assist from them.
Most important case in point: Mom, Ellis Grey, who slipped into senility, then death, eight seasons or so ago in one of the standout arcs during the show's early run. Burton's (and Ellis') final appearance I believe came in a dream to Meredith, as she lay in a coma after attempting to save a little girl's mother from drowning.
The little girl -- again, if memory serves -- witnessed Mere's attempts, and she told someone who then found Meredith unconscious in the water.
I bring all this up because memory and loss are vital to the show, and were vital to Thursday's episode, "Only Mama Knows.” Burton appeared in flashback a few times while Sally Pressman -- another fine actress -- played Ellis as a young woman, pursuing her long-ago affair with Richard Webber (Richard Pickens Jr.) (And sorry, don't know the actor who played him as a young doctor...)
The plot: Meredith finally remembered key details from a dimly lit memory about her mother’s breakdown (and subsequent suicide attempt) when she was a little girl, who had just gotten off a merry-go-round.
Finally...she accepted, or seemed to accept, her long-lost sister, Dr. Maggie Pierce (Kelly McCreary).
The merry-go-round was a nice touch: Both an innocent and under normal circumstances happy childhood memory, but a metaphor for that truth that old wounds don't go away, but just keep on recurring. Meredith of course once had another sister, Lexie, who died in a plane crash. More death, more unfinished stories.
Thursday night's episode was a good distillation, it seems to me, of what "Grey's" has always really been about: The relationship between mothers and daughters, and how that relationship is the most vitally important one in human life, and when it's fractured, or damaged, or parts of that relationship go missing, then the ripple effects last not just a lifetime but for generations.
Mere once had not just one mother but two (played also memorably by Mare Winningham). Both were the mirrors held up to Meredith, or that Meredith held up to herself, and both weren’t just cracked but shattered.
And memory? Memories dim, or fall away like pieces of a puzzle falling on the floor, or disappear tragically into senility, leaving behind only raw emotion, with nothing left to explain that emotion.
Meredith recovered some lost memories Thursday night -- memory being so essential to her journey. She moved forward for a change, instead of backward.
"Only Mama Knows" was good for a lot of other reasons: That her sister is black, smart and beautiful to Mere's white/smart/beautiful is part of this series' meta-racial or post-racial balancing act. That her mom, even in that playback scene where she's speaking so proudly of the method she pioneered, could give Meredith another missing piece was a fine touch too -- even nicer when her mom ended with that quizzical and cold, "any more questions?"
But especially good because "Only Mama Knows" reminded viewers that after all these years, "Grey's" still has a beating heart and working brain.