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.