Justin Chambers as Alex Karev on Grey's Anatomy
Credit: Getty Images

As one of the O.G. cast members on Grey’s Anatomy, fans were rightfully shocked and angry when Alex Karev left the long-running medical series in Season 16. Why did Alex Karev leave Grey’s Anatomy and what happened to actor Justin Chambers? We’ve got the answer, below.

Grey’s Anatomy is ABC’s popular medical drama that follows the lives of surgical interns, residents and attendings at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital (previously known as Seattle Grace Hospital and Seattle Grace Mercy West) in Seattle, Washington. Since its premiere in 2005, Grey’s Anatomy has become an international phenomenon, with more than 38 Primetime Emmy nominations (including two for Outstanding Drama Series) and more than a decade on the air. Variety confirmed in March 2023 that Grey’s Anatomy was renewed for a 20th season by ABC.

Actor Justin Chambers portrayed Alex Karev, one of the original surgical interns. He later became the Chief of Staff and Surgery at Pacific Northwest General Hospital and the Head of Pediatric Surgery at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. He starred on the show from the series premiere in 2005 until his surprise exit in January 2020.

Alex Karev and Izzie Stevens on Grey's Anatomy

His character was married twice, first to Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl, who left in Season 6) and to Dr. Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington), an obstetrics and gynecology resident at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital (who he divorced in Season 16). Alex was fired as the Department Head of Pediatric Surgery after he participated in Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo)’s insurance scheme.

As ABC’s most-watched and highest-rated series, why did Justin Chambers leave Grey’s Anatomy after 16 years? See the real reason behind the actor’s exit and how the showrunner approached writing off the beloved Alex Karev.

Why did Alex Karev leave Grey’s Anatomy?

Justin Chambers

Justin Chambers as Alex Karev on Grey’s Anatomy

Credit: Getty Images

Why did Alex Karev leave Grey’s Anatomy? Alex Karev actor Justin Chambers left the show to “diversify his acting roles and career choices.” Chambers unexpectedly announced that he was stepping down as Alex Karev in January 2020. In a statement to our sister publication Deadline at the time, the actor said that he was leaving a character that’s impacted a huge chunk of his life. “There’s no good time to say goodbye to a show and character that’s defined so much of my life for the past 15 years,” he said in the statement. “For some time now, however, I have hoped to diversify my acting roles and career choices. And, as I turn 50 and am blessed with my remarkable, supportive wife and five wonderful children, now is that time.”

Chambers also acknowledged ABC/ABC Studios, the show’s creator Shonda Rhimes and the three remaining original cast members (Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens) who he has worked closely with from the beginning. “As I move on from Grey’s Anatomy, I want to thank the ABC family, Shonda Rimes, original cast members Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens, and the rest of the amazing cast and crew, both past and present, and, of course, the fans for an extraordinary ride,” he added.

After it was revealed that Chambers was leaving Grey’s, his fellow costar Ellen Pompeo responded to a (now-deleted) tweet about the news, which stated ‘#GreysAnatomy is about to feel one of its biggest losses yet.’ Pompeo replied, according to E! News: “Truer words have never been spoken,” about her former castmate who she worked alongside for a decade and a half.

How was Alex Karev written off Grey’s Anatomy?

Alex Karev and Jo Wilston Grey's Anatomy

How was Alex Karev written off Grey’s Anatomy? When Justin Chambers unable to shoot additional episodes of the show, showrunner Krista Vernoff explained to TV Line in April 2020 that she had a few options when it came to writing off Alex Karev. “In the end of the day, there were three choices… Kill Alex off camera; have Alex be alive and in Seattle — and still married to Jo — and we just never see him; or [reunite him] with Izzie.”

In the March 5, 2023, episode, “Leave a Light On,” it’s evident that Vernoff went with option number three: reunite Alex with Izzie. While we originally thought that Karev was visiting his mother in Iowa, that turned out not to be true. Karev sent four handwritten letters to Jo, Meredith, Bailey and Webber, explaining that he left Jo for his ex-wife Izzie Stevens, In a shocking announcement, he also revealed that he and Izzie have twins together that were conceived with frozen embryos after her character departed the show. Although the actor’s last in-person episode aired in November 2019, he provided voiceovers for the flashback-heavy scenes for Season 16, Episode 16. “I love Jo deeply, still. I think I always will and if it was just about two women I love, I’d choose my wife. You know I would, but it’s not just her. Izzie made our kids,” he wrote in the letter. “She had our embryos.”

Alex Karev and Meredith Grey on Grey's Anatomy

He explained that they now live on a farm, Izzie works as an oncologist and he’s applying for a job at the hospital near them. He told Bailey in her letter that he’s actually up for chief of a pediatric hospital. “You always said Christina as was your person, then I was your person, but you’ve always been your own damn person,” he wrote in Meredith’s farewell letter. “You are my best friend and I will miss the hell out of you but I’m finally exactly where I should be. I never had that before.” Finally, in his letter to Jo, he said that he felt like things weren’t unfinished between him and Izzie. “When I asked you to marry me, I meant it. When I told you I loved you, I meant it. But Izzie has our kids,” he wrote, adding that he already signed the divorce papers.

Vernoff said that killing off Justin Chambers ”would’ve been “cruel to everyone — particularly Meredith [his best friend] and Jo [his wife],” she explained in the interview. “There was no way to not put those characters through gut-wrenching, ongoing grief if we had killed Alex off camera.”

Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

Check out the real-life partners of your favorite Grey’s Anatomy stars in the gallery below.