Jo (Camilla Luddington) finally got answers about her family history on Grey’s Anatomy last night, but they were not the answers she was expecting.
All she knew was that as a very young baby, she had been dropped off at a firestation, and from there she never had the family she always dreamed of as she was shuffled around orphanages and foster families. After a DNA test and some sleuthing, she found the woman who was likely her birth mother, and she took a trip to Pittsburgh to find her.
When she found her living in a nice house with a whole family, Jo was angry, but she had no idea what she was about to learn. Her mother had been date raped, had a baby, and knew she couldn’t handle raising the baby who reminded her of the most traumatic moment of her life, so she gave that baby up and never looked back.
The entire episode became a story of consent as back at the hospital, Jo treated a patient who had been sexually assaulted, and we discovered just how much consent goes into what happens after a person is raped as they have to say “yes” at every extensive step of a rape kit, which collects evidence needed to convict someone of a rape or sexual assault. At the same time, Ben was teaching Bailey’s son about the basic levels of consent as he was beginning to date.
It was a heavy episode, and Camilla Luddington tells E! News that it was all born out of Brett Kavanaugh’s supreme court hearings, which addressed multiple accusations of sexual assault against him. Originally, the story of Jo’s family history was not the one we saw last night.
“I knew that there was going to be a standalone episode about Jo, and I knew that she was going to meet her mom, but there was a completely different storyline, which I won’t say because maybe it will go to another character. It was a great storyline, but just completely different. And then the Kavanaugh hearings happened, and I felt a certain way about them.”
Luddington says she emailed showrunner Krista Vernoff “really emotional, actually, really fired up” and suggested the idea of Jo being the product of rape, and turning her story into one about consent.
“I didn’t know when I sent that off that she, at the same time, had just had a writer’s meeting and said, we have to do an episode about consent,” Luddington says. “And so when I wrote that it was like kismet. She wrote back and she was like, oh my god, yes yes yes, this is what we’re going to do.”
It also just so happened that three years before, Elisabeth Finch, who wrote the episode, had visited the rape treatment center at UCLA Santa Monica and had seen the process of what it was like to be treated after rape.
Vernoff and Finch got together to put the episode together, and Luddington learned of exactly what would play out about two months before filming.
“It was super intimidating, because for me, the subject matter of course, I knew it was going to be really powerful, but so difficult. It was a very intimate experience, honestly, filming that episode, more than any episode I’ve ever shot.”
Jo already has quite a story to tell. After her years of being bounced around foster homes, she lived in her car, and eventually worked her way through medical school. She married a man who abused her for years and was forced to run away and change her name, and she eventually watched that abusive ex-husband die in her hospital. Adding the fact that she was left at a fire station because she was the product of rape was tough, to say the least.
“There was a point that I joked, like halfway through filming, why did I pitch that?” Luddington says. “She definitely hasn’t had it easy. It’s going to be really interesting, because Jo fought her way through a lot of the cards that life has handed her, but what you’re going to see in the aftermath of this episode is a completely different Jo that we’ve never ever seen before. She sort of implodes, and we’re going to be dealing with the trauma of finding something like that out, and depression.”
As Jo explained to her birth mother in the episode, she had a fantasy in her head of this woman who was working hard to keep herself afloat, and she never ever imagined that her mother would be happy in a nice home with an entire other family, so it was a shock, and it led to her starting off that conversation in a very different way than she might otherwise have done it.
“I think that showing up to a beautiful house and perfect life, and knowing what Jo has been through, just sparked like deep pain in her and that came out, that manifested as anger in the beginning of the conversation, and of course her mom wasn’t giving her any answers. It seemed very cold, until that moment that she says how she was conceived,” Luddington explains. “And then it’s just a whirlwind of like, a lot of pain over that too, manifested in a different way. It’s a complicated scene.”
Luddington and Michelle Forbes, who played her birth mother, had a really tricky relationship to portray on screen, and didn’t really get to know each other as well as they might have in other circumstances.
“A lot of times when you work with an actor, you want to get really close to them, and I almost didn’t want to because I felt like it helps this scene to not be buddy buddy, like hey let’s go grab lunch on our break together. Because the chemistry between them is two people meeting for the first time and unsure of the other person and what they want, so it helped that we kind of were strangers going into it together. And of course, we ended up bonding because it’s really crazy, intimate material.”
Luddington says it was “nerve wracking” because of the pressure on the scene.
“I’ve been speaking about my mom for a long time, and then to see this actress in front of me…I’m like, you’re my mom. Like I had a feeling about it anyway, you know.”
Jo’s return to the hospital after her visit with her birth mother was already difficult, but made all the more intense when she encounters a patient who has been sexually assaulted. Jo becomes the only person the patient, Abby, really trusts, and has to convince Abby to let the doctors do the rape kit. What followed was a sequence that has never really been seen on TV before as viewers saw just how much work goes into collecting that all-important evidence.
“I didn’t know how extensive it was either, to be honest,” Luddington says. “So when we’re reading a script, it’s written in a way that’s very much a montage. But then we got to set and we had medical professionals with us who took us through everything they did, it just felt, in its own way, invasive, and that’s why you have to keep saying yes, and yes, and yes. So like that in itself felt like, wow, I can’t believe that after this trauma, you have to then be vulnerable and do this. That scene was really difficult for us.”
Luddington says it was a very “intimate” shoot, and one that became very emotional for everyone involved.
“We were rehearsing, and [director] Debbie Allen is taking us through it all, and we just started crying,” she says. “It was just devastating. It was powerful.”
The rape kit scene was a sensitive topic for ABC, who didn’t want to show “certain parts of it,” Luddington says. “And that’s where the story is that Shonda Rhimes stepped in and said this is important to show people what does happen in the aftermath of a rape and what that looks like, and what people have to go through. And it was really important to us, just because it is such a sensitive, intimate thing to be doing right after trauama like that, to show that someone is constantly giving consent, and getting their power back by saying yes, yes, yes for anything that we were doing to her body. So I’m glad that was shown, even though it’s really, really difficult to watch.”
That rape kit scene was followed by another, very different kind of scene, in which a whole army of women lined up along the hallway as Abby was taken to the OR for the surgery she needed. The “wall of women” is a particularly emotional part of the episode, and it was quite the group effort.
“All of the women in our cast and crew and production and editing and everywhere wanted to be in that,” Luddington shared on E!’s Daily Pop this morning. “This is like all the people behind Grey’s Anatomy wanting to stand and be in this scene and be part of that moment and symbolism of solidarity with women.”
After helping Abby and walking through that Wall of Women moment, it was clear that Jo was not OK, and Luddington confirms she’s not, and it that it will take more than just an episode or two for her to find her way back to being OK.
“I don’t yet know what she has to do [to move forward],” she tells us. “Probably, at some point, speak about it, and reach out for help. But it can take a person hitting rock bottom before they do that.”
Jo currently doesn’t want to talk to her husband Alex, who has absolutely no idea what his wife has just learned and no idea how to help her. In the promo for next week’s episode, we see Alex encouraging Jo’s old friend Link to talk to her, but that’s probably not the right move either.
“She didn’t get that moment where I felt like she could walk away and feel like, OK, I can let go of it. She can’t let go of it. She knows she’s never going to get what she wanted out of it, and now there just the pain of half of her genetics and who she is, and all these questions she has and how that makes her feel,” Luddington says. “And how do you tell your husband that too? That’s a very painful thing to tell somebody else.”
“I don’t think it’s possible for her to never tell him,” she continued. “But she is processing it herself right now, before she can tell him. So in his need to be there and make everything OK and have her talk to him, and her need to take time to herself just to even realize what this is and what it means to her and how she feels about it, there’s going to be a disconnect.”
Luddington has made it clear that she hopes Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t end before Jo and Alex have kids (“No, please God, no!” she said when we brought it up), but that’s definitely not happening any time soon given what Jo has just been through.
“I don’t think that pregnancy will be in the mix right now, because I don’t think that there’s probably intimacy to be quite honest in the mix in this relationship right now,” she says.
Jo did that initial DNA test in the first place because Alex had started talking about kids, and what she found out in the end was “like an earthquake to her, just shaking the ground she was walking on.” Starting a family kind of fell away in that earthquake.
“I think that’s probably the furthest thing from her head,” she says. “In order to feel like you want to be a mom, I can imagine for her especially, she wants to provide this safe atmosphere, and for her to be feeling this way, I think she feels like she can’t be a mom in this moment.”
As for what Luddington hopes people take away from the episode is that first, help is available, even if all you’re doing is calling the help line provided at the end of the episode and the end of this article, and second, there are conversations that need to be happening.
“One of the things that I hope that people take out of it, because it was a very difficult episode to watch, is we have the side story of Tuck and Ben [and their conversation]. Have the conversation with people around you about consent and what that means, to your sons and your daughters and your family and friends,” she says. “And I think that just putting that out in the world, it feels like you’re doing something.”