Many viewers expected to see changes in the sixth season of ABC’s hit drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” but the biggest surprises in this year’s two-hour season premier didn’t come until the last few minutes of the episode.

HARD TIMES—Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) and Chief Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) are no longer a shoulder for Seattle Grace staff to lean on.

With many Americans still suffering from the recession, several television shows have been incorporating the dire economic conditions into their storylines. This season, “Grey’s Anatomy” will be no exception as Chief of Surgery Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) announced that Seattle Grace Hospital will be merging with rival hospital Mercy West.

“I know you all have heard a lot of rumors, and I’m sorry for that. What I’m about to say will be hard to hear, and I’m sorry for that as well. The economic climate is…well you all know what it is. In the coming weeks Seattle Grace Hospital will be merging with Mercy West,” Webber said. “I wish I could tell you you’ll all survive the merger, but there are only so many jobs. And the board and I have some tough choices to make.”

This decisive move comes after Webber discovers the hospital’s board of directors have offered longtime friend Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) the position of chief of surgery. The merger means Webber’s job is safe, but many of the hospital’s staff could now be in danger.

So far this season Webber is almost unrecognizable. Gone is the hospital’s patriarch, who always stood as the voice of reason, but also the voice of compassion. It seems he’s only looking out for himself as he refuses to talk to anyone about his decision, even Shepherd.

“Look, I said when I’m ready to tell my staff about decisions I will be making I will. When I’m ready,” Webber said. “So, don’t come barging in here like I owe you. I don’t owe you a damn thing, Derek. You work for me. I’m still the chief of surgery at this hospital.”

It doesn’t take long for the Chief to make his first round of cuts and by the end of the third episode several nurses, residents and interns receive their notice via e-mail. Luckily, all of our core characters are safe, but surviving the first round doesn’t put anyone at ease.

The merger almost overshadows the main focus of the premier, the death of fan-favorite Dr. George O’Malley (T. R. Knight). Although his death weighs heavily on everyone at Seattle Grace, the grieving process is dealt with swiftly as we are taken through the 40 days after O’Malley’s death in two hours.

Perhaps the only ray of sunshine so far this season is that Dr. Isobel Stevens (Katherine Heigl), though on the brink of death in last seasons’ finale, is recovering beautifully from cancer. She even goes back to work to fight alongside the other residents, paranoid of losing her job.

The recent tragedies are a source of turmoil for another one of Seattle Grace’s leaders, Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson). Previously known for her stone-cold demeanor, Bailey has softened over the past five seasons and it looks like she is working to reverse that.

Bailey is also in the midst of a divorce and her own struggles cause her to be distant from her former interns. She is quiet and short-tempered for most of the premier until she finally opens up about her detachment.

“Look, I am an attending. And, I am a single mother. And I lost O’Malley. And um, I just can’t. I can’t care anymore. Stevens is not my child. O’Malley was not my child. I have to stop treating them… I just have to stop caring so much,” Bailey said. “Cause I can’t keep feeling… feeling like this. Not at work. I have to save the feeling for my son, who needs it. I just can’t keep giving it away here. I can’t. I won’t.”

Only time will tell what’s in store for Seattle Grace’s leaders, but hopefully Webber and Bailey return to their position as the pillars of the hospital.

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