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TV Corner: Alex Karev and the Clash of Watsonian and Doylist Dynamics

In fandom discourse, there exists the concept of Watsonian vs. Doylist reasoning. The terms are thought to originate from the Sherlock Holmes fandom. Simply put, a Watsonian interpretation of canon attempts to explain events from an in-universe perspective, while Doylist reasoning explains these same events from a real-world perspective, thereby treating the events as created objects. Essentially, a Doylist understanding of media acknowledges the intents and actions of creators and actors, while Watsonian interpretations do not. Sometimes, these two opposing dynamics will clash in a way that leads to character assassination. There is no better example of this than the departure of Alex Karev from Grey’s Anatomy.

Alex Karev is one of the OG Grey’s Anatomy characters, who been with the show for sixteen years, since its inception. Though he started out as a selfish, sleazy, and generally unlikable character, over the years he has undergone significant development that led to his transformation into a fan favorite. When Justin Chambers, the actor who plays Alex, made the decision to leave the show, the writers had to decide what to do with his character.

In a perfect world, the actress who plays Jo Wilson, Alex’s wife, would have wanted to depart the show at the same time, and the two characters could have had any excuse to leave together – new jobs, fellowships, early retirement, what have you. Unfortunately, the Grey’s Anatomy writers found themselves having to justify Alex Karev’s departure not just from the show, but from Jo, his wife, who has been integral to Alex’s development into likable human being.

There are no good options here. Justin Chambers wanted a clean exit, so it’s not as though Alex could have been turned into a minor character with some guest appearances. The only other clean option would have been to kill Alex off, a strategy that Grey’s Anatomy used to employ with plenty of enthusiasm, only recently seems reluctant to do so. In the end, the writers committed to something completely out of left field, and one that undermined years of character development: they chose to have Alex leave Seattle, leave his wife, to live on a farm with Izzie Stevens, his ex-wife, who it turns out has had his two children.

It’s a bizarre about-face from Alex. Looking at this from a Watsonian perspective, it’s an upsetting character regression, one that upends Alex’s arc and sets it back about six years, especially given the way he chose to leave. Rather than face his wife and his friends, he simply sends them letters; the Watsonian reasoning is that Alex is a coward who wants to take the easy way out – despite the fact that he hasn’t been this person for years. Of course, the Doylist explanation is that Justin Chambers filmed his last episode way back in November, so the writers had to find a way to write Alex out without having him there. It’s odd – did Chambers really need to leave so suddenly? Could he and the writers not have negotiated a more timely exit?

And so the Doylist reality struggles to conform to the Watsonian interpretation, resulting in the ramshackle breakdown of a beloved character. That the entire sequence occurred off-screen in a single episode, through voice-overs and flashbacks, did not help matters in the slightest. It’s a bitter departure for Alex Karev, one that doesn’t neatly close off a character arc, but upends it entirely.

5 thoughts on “TV Corner: Alex Karev and the Clash of Watsonian and Doylist Dynamics

  1. i havent watched greys anatomy before but the concept of watsonian vs doylist dynamics is so interesting!! something similar go what happened to alex karev also happened in downton abbey, where they needed to write off a character because the actor was leaving and it ended up being a bit of a mess narratively lol

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    1. Yes!! With both Sybil and Matthew right? It happens so often with the departure of an actor; it recently happened on Harlots too, one of my favorite shows, and the way they did it was so bad I put the show in indefinite pause. I wish showrunners could come up with better ways to negotiate an actor’s departure!

      I love the concept of doylist vs watsonian reasoning! The first I heard of it was when reading about Willow (from Buffy) and her queer identity, and I thought it was such an intriguing way to frame characters!

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      1. YES!!! with matthew especially it made no sense and it was so frustrating after all the buildup they did to his and mary’s relationship over the first 3 seasons…and that sucks to hear about harlots 😦 its been a show thats been very much on ny radar for a while

        i think theres definitely a way to reconcile the actor wanting to leave with a good sendoff for their character. i love the way parks and rec did this with ann and chris. they got a nice goodbye without the reason for them leaving the show being super out of character or narratively unbelieable 👍

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  2. Oh my gosh, THIS is the Alex drama?! I loved Grey’s Anatomy and would someday like to binge the entire series, but I got tired of trying to keep up episode by episode and haven’t been watching regularly since season 11, maybe. Obviously I’ve missed some things, but they are kind of known for dramatically killing off characters as a write-out tactic; that would have made so much more sense here, and likely would’ve brought less criticism. I was not really an Alex fan, but this is just sad.

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    1. I don’t know why they’ve shied away from killing characters off! I don’t know that I necessarily would have wanted Alex to die, but I just wish that his exit had been more skillfully negotiated. It makes me wonder if the actor sprung up his departure on them or something? It’s just such a weird way to leave. I really, really enjoyed Alex these last few seasons (hated him in the beginning!), especially his relationship with Jo, so I was really disappointed that he just left her for Izzie.

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