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Ellen Pompeo Reflects on Her Grey’s Anatomy Journey: ‘How Do You Walk Away From a Hit?’

With the Grey’s Anatomy midseason premiere around the corner, Ellen Pompeo can’t help but reflect on her journey the last 15 seasons — and what’s in store for Dr. Meredith Grey’s future on the medical drama.

“Obviously I never anticipated the show still being the No. 1 show on the network,” Pompeo, 49, exclusively told PEOPLE. “How do you walk away from a hit? The fans will dictate when the show ends. As much as we think we’re in control, we’re not. It’s the fans’ show at this point. They control how long the show goes. We’ll see. I kind of just take it year by year and see.”

Last week, ABC ordered three more episodes of Grey’s for the 2018-19 season, bringing the total order to 25 — and leaving fans in a frenzy. Could this be the end? Or could there be a major tragedy brewing?

“The extra episodes was not at my request,” showrunner Krista Vernoff told PEOPLE. “It makes me laugh that people think, ‘Oh Krista wanted to add extra episodes so she could kill somebody.’” She continued, “The extra episodes are because the ABC schedule allowed for extra episodes and because our numbers are so strong across all platforms. We just have a lot of stories we want to tell this season.”

Pompeo, who has starred as Dr. Meredith Grey since season 1 of Grey’s Anatomy first premiered in 2005, said her time on the show has “been so significant” to her personal and professional life.

“I think the biggest lesson is what something can be if you give it the chance to turn it around,” she said. “We had so much drama in the early days. The show was so strong and so solid and so amazing, then we had all these behind-the-scenes drama and then it would’ve been really easy to walk away and say, ‘I don’t want to deal with that anymore.’ I guess it’s a weird message, because I guess if you’re in a relationship that’s abusive, that’s something you should walk away from. How long do you stick with something that doesn’t make you feel good?” She continued, “But I’ve had the incredible experience to be able to turn this around and be the steerer of the ship and right all of our wrongs and get a do-over and get to change the environment and change the atmosphere. It was a conscious decision from Shonda [Rhimes] and I to continue to do this but do it differently. It’s been an evolution. That’s been the biggest lesson, growing up and getting older and coming into our power and feeling more comfortable with our power and our leadership, changing things that we thought we were powerless to change before, we now have the power to control and change our environment and make it the place we want it to be. It’s very satisfying.”

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Ellen Pompeo May Not Bid Farewell to Grey’s Next Year After All: ‘I Keep Saying I’m Ready to Move on But… ‘

Last fall, Ellen Pompeo sent Grey’s Anatomy fans into cardiac arrest when she intimated that she’s itching to bid Meredith adieu next season when her current contract expires. But during an interview on the ABC drama’s set earlier this month, the actress was singing a slightly different tune.

“I keep saying, ‘I’m ready to move on and I want to stop the show before the ratings go down,’ but the ratings never go down!” she exclaims with a laugh. “They go down a little bit, but the fact that we are able to hold our [title as ABC’s No. 1 series] is kind of [incredible]. It’s very cool to have these kind of ratings and be on a hit network show in this [Peak TV] landscape.”

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Last fall, Ellen Pompeo sent Grey’s Anatomy fans into cardiac arrest when she intimated that she’s itching to bid Meredith adieu next season when her current contract expires. But during an interview on the ABC drama’s set earlier this month, the actress was singing a slightly different tune.

“I keep saying, ‘I’m ready to move on and I want to stop the show before the ratings go down,’ but the ratings never go down!” she exclaims with a laugh. “They go down a little bit, but the fact that we are able to hold our [title as ABC’s No. 1 series] is kind of [incredible]. It’s very cool to have these kind of ratings and be on a hit network show in this [Peak TV] landscape.”

Pompeo — who is approaching the midway point of her blockbuster two-year, $20 million deal — says she knows she has a good thing going at Grey’s. “It’s pretty nice place to work,” she admits. “I like my situation here. As much as the idea of something new appeals to me… the truth is I have three kids. I don’t really want to travel and leave [them]. I don’t want to be a circus traveller and live in hotels. And the network and studio continue to incentivize me and just make me offers that I can’t refuse.”

It’s also not lost on the actress that should she decide not to re-up with the show in 2020, it would likely bring about the end of Grey’s altogether. (Her character’s name is in the title of the show, after all.) “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about how many people have stable jobs [at Grey’s],” Pompeo notes. “In this town you don’t get a lot of 24-episodes-a-season shows. So the fact that this crew gets to film 24 episodes – that’s 10 months of work – and they get to stay in LA [is remarkable].”

Translation: Pompeo remains undecided about her Grey’s future. “I’m contracted through Season 16,” she states. “And beyond that… I don’t really know. I take it day-by-day.”

Grey’s Anatomy resumes its current 15th season this Thursday at 8/7c.

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15×09 – ‘Shelter from the Storm’ Stills

The windstorm continues to blow through Seattle; and after the power goes out at Grey Sloan, the doctors are left scrambling to save their patients’ lives, including Meredith who desperately needs to get to Cece for her heart transplant. Meanwhile, Owen, Amelia and Teddy confront their complicated situation.

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Grey’s Anatomy Boss Talks Mer/DeLuca Elevator Fallout, Drops Big Clue About ‘The One’

And then there were two. Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff confirms that Meredith’s crowded Season 15 dance card now contains just two names: DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) and Link (Chris Carmack).

“Her dating adventure has boiled down to [that] triangle,” the EP tells TVLine. “I can’t reveal more than that.”

As you will recall, Vernoff over the summer teased, “The question this season is not ‘Will Meredith Grey find love again,’ but ‘With whom will she find love?’”

Considering that the fall finale ended with Mer being trapped in an elevator with DeLuca, conventional wisdom suggests the surgical resident has the upper hand heading into the Jan. 17 midseason premiere. And while Vernoff promises that the maybe-couple will emerge from captivity “with a deeper understanding of each other” (and, in Mer’s case, some kickass Princess Leia braids; see below), she notes that Link will soon get some one-on-one time with Grey as well. “In Episode 10, Meredith will get to know Link better,” Vernoff previews. “She gets to know DeLuca better in [Episode 9, aka the midseason premiere], and she gets to know Link better in 10.”

And to those fans who grumble that neither gentleman caller has the life experience to truly go toe-to-toe with Mer, Vernoff argues, “Viewers don’t yet know all of DeLuca’s life experience. And they don’t yet know all of Link’s life experience.

“And if life experience is code for age, then I would ask those viewers to look at the double standard,” she adds. “Because they never questioned Meredith for Derek even though there was an age difference.”

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