‘Into the Fire’: how one song defined a decade of Grey’s Anatomy

Jeannie Stanley explores the implications of the Thirteen Senses hit for the critically acclaimed American drama

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A punctuated set of piano chords, the sharp injection of an electric guitar, before the music retreats just a little, and a husky male soloist implores: “Come on, come on/ Put your hands into the fire”. So begins the 2004 single ‘Into the Fire’, by Cornish indie-rock quartet Thirteen Senses. Loyal viewers, who number in the millions, of the American medical drama Grey’s Anatomy have heard this beginning a remarkable four times over the last twelve years—remarkable, because the song itself only peaked at number 35 in the UK, product of a band which has never even cracked the top ten since the release of their first EP 14 years ago.

What, then, is the resonance that those three and a half minutes have acquired? Why would music producers on one of the most successful American dramas in recent history employ and re-employ four times over such a relatively obscure tune in the face of a wealth of adaptable pop songs? Can we even credit the repetition of such a song with meaning to any but the most committed Grey’s or Thirteen Senses fan, given the years which elapse between uses?

Perhaps it’s merely that the song is clearly stunning, on first and subsequent listens. It’s a soulful, soft, imperative kind of song, which celebrates both extremes and subtleties across the passage of two lines (like “From Samaritan to sin/ And it’s waiting on the air”). It is perhaps the awareness of how indelibly a song may colour a scene and a scene may colour a song so that neither may ever be fully extricated from the other, no matter how many episodes, years or songs shuffle past.

The first time the song is used it serves as the coda to the pilot episode. ‘Into the Fire’ sounds out as the protagonist, Meredith Grey, fulfils the promise of the episode (and of the series title) and assists in operating on the brain of her first patient. Everything that would come to define the success of Grey’s Anatomy—the operating room, the closing monologue reflecting on her identity as a surgeon, even the catchphrase “It’s a beautiful day to save lives”, as espoused by her love interest and attending surgeon, Derek Shepherd—is present in this moment, and it is all marked by this perfect, subdued anthem of a song by a little group from Penzance.

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Seven years later, ‘Into the Fire’ is reused as the penultimate song in alternate reality episode ‘If/Then’. In an episode where so much is changed, where relationships, deaths, and surgical positions have all been uncomfortably altered, it serves as the unconscious anchor to a beginning as simple as surgery, the relationship between Derek and Meredith and as the musical epiphany in which all that is wrong appears to root itself back to the Grey’s Anatomy we have become used to over eight seasons.

The demanding piano beginning is almost uncomfortably stretched out, the same repeating chords played over and over, until Derek’s wife confesses her infidelity to the introduction of that vibrant electric guitar. “Put your hands into the fire”, the song commands, capturing the terrifying, exhilarating, everyday existence of these surgeons, just as the scene shifts to Meredith and best friend, Cristina, together attempting to revive a drug addict in the Emergency Room.

In the latter years of the show, specifically seasons eleven and twelve, an era in which Netflix, Amazon Prime, and multitudes of illegal platforms have rendered streaming episodes and marathoning television series far more accessible in a shorter timespan than ever before, surely there must be a greater awareness of the lens under which these episodes are viewed, the numerous times each may be rewatched, and thus serve as a further justification for making these connections. In the most shocking scene to the veteran viewers who first watched Meredith and Derek in the pilot lock eyes in an operating room over ‘Into the Fire’, Derek Shepherd quietly dies on an operating table as an elegiac, almost soporific cover, sung by Erin McCarley, plays, and bids farewell to a character who first defined the song, surgery, and an enduring romantic relationship in the context of this television show.

In a circular moment, the song is reused just a year later, in its original form—no cover version, no elongated beginnings—as the patient under the knife in the song’s first invocation returns, eleven years later, for another brain surgery. Using this song with flashbacks of Derek, with Derek’s sister operating, with Derek’s name being invoked a season after his death: this is clearly meant to underline the grief of this loss again.

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More than that, however, it is a reminder of what the song first proved in 2005: Meredith, while rushing her current patient to a lifesaving surgery, for a brief second catches the eye of her very first patient, on the way to a different surgery. That brief glance to the thrum of ‘Into the Fire’ carries the weight of eleven years of history, of loss, achievement, joy, and despair on the small screen.

Just as the song is now truly a veteran to the series, so too is Meredith an accomplished, veteran attending surgeon, a fulfilment of all that began eleven seasons ago. Grey’s Anatomy truly demonstrates an awareness with just one song of the power of music to invite recollection, to signal change, to develop wordlessly what even good writing and good acting cannot fully explicate.