"It was a clever stunt, bringing back Washington," PEOPLE's TV Critic writes

Credit: Ron Tom/ABC

Isaiah Washington, absent from Grey’s Anatomy since the end of season 3, made a controversial return to the ABC hit Thursday night, two episodes before the season will end with Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) exiting the show.

Once again in the role of Dr. Preston Burke, Washington was introduced as a voice in an auditorium at a Zurich hospital, where Cristina was making a presentation.

Dr. Burke spoke from the dark: “Does the difference in tensile strength between a patient’s tissue and a bioprinted conduit increase the risk of turbulent flow at the anastomoses?”

Or something pretty close to that.

Burke and Yang had been engaged, of course, and their overwrought disaster of a romance ended with Cristina abandoned at the church, tearing off her gown and weeping – one of the best moments in the show’s history. So was Burke’s question, viewers wondered, really a medically prolix flirtation – a search for an opening?

Was the question setting up the denouement of Cristina’s extremely knotty 10-season arc?

Cristina, whose inward tumult at Burke’s presence was conveyed by Oh with a subtle lifting of the eyebrows, certainly wondered that too. There was even the hint of doctorly foreplay when Burke, escorting Yang around the gorgeous, gleaming hospital under his control, showed Yang his amazing new medical device – it presented, floating magically in the air, a 3-D hologram of the heart.

It was like that beautiful glowing soul lantern in the movie The Tree of Life. Cristina couldn’t resist reaching out and caressing it.

I don’t find it at all implausible that a doctor can be wooed with a hologram of an organ.

And yet we learned that Burke’s intentions, when he finally got around to speaking plain English, were professional: He wanted to retire from the hospital to devote time to his wife (a brilliant doctor, as well, but retired) and their two children. He was offering Cristina the keys to his state-of-the-art kingdom (which happened to have 49 3-D printers): She would replace him and find a medical home worthy of her genius.

The show may very well pull some sort of switcheroo on the May 15 finale and leave Cristina deprived of Emerald City Memorial, but the poor woman certainly deserves something after being shamefully cheated out of that Harper Avery Award. There are few characters in prime time so deserving of a drop of happiness, even if Cristina’s problem is that she’s laminated herself so the drops bounce off.

But is this what such a complicated character deserves? This arbitrary, fairy-tale ending? In Zurich? Surrounded by what appear to be picturesque mountains borrowed from The Sound of Music Live?

It was a clever stunt, bringing back Washington, who was dropped from the show under career-damaging circumstances after using a homophobic slur on the set. Burke was a good character, a good partner for Yang – and Washington, in his scenes with Oh Thursday night, had the confident allure of a super doctor.

Cristina Yang, however, is a great character, and a great performance by Oh. I want something better for her.