Gilmore Girls: An American Tragedy

This whole thing is dead to me, anyway. It died with Richard.” – Emily Gilmore, Fall.

Was the death of Richard Gilmore the death of White America?

It’s not that the Gilmore Girls revival is less White than the original show; it’s that it’s more honest. The original Gilmore Girls was a White liberal utopia: a single mother raising her young daughter in an idyllic, wacky, all-White village in Connecticut (except for some Koreans and one disdainfully snobbish mulatto Frenchman—we’ll come back to him). Known for its snappy dialogue and charming absurdity, it was a difficult show not to like—anecdotally speaking, I know almost as many men as women who quietly enjoyed Gilmore Girls, usually introduced to it by their daughters or girlfriends.

But of course, the original Gilmore Girls was a lie. In the real world, a sixteen-year-old pregnant rich girl who ran away from home wouldn’t stumble upon a Brigadoon-esque village and grow up to become a successful businesswoman while her genius daughter/BFF goes to the equivalent of Choate and then Yale. In the real world, women who make as many bad decisions as Lorelai Gilmore does aren’t happy, nor are they seemingly rewarded for all of them. But the world of Gilmore Girls was a world set apart, a frozen episode that looked like early 2000’s America on the surface but really hearkened back to a more idyllic time.

I went into the revival expecting more of the same. In the final episode of the original series, we’re left with a Lorelai who has finally gotten back together with Luke the diner owner, and a Rory who has turned down a marriage proposal from her long-term boyfriend Logan Huntzberger, in order to pursue a career in journalism. This latter decision was one of the more signal-y moments in Gilmore Girls history: the girl-power ending where she proved she didn’t need no man! I predicted a revival that showed a plucky reporterette, fully satisfied with her career; a script that covered over the reality of culture that tells women they don’t need marriage, of the sick society in which we live where ‘empowered’ women slowly eat themselves to death after returning from their desk job every evening, alone except for a cat or two.

But I was wrong. The Gilmore Girls revival, wittingly or otherwise, reveals the rot of American society—especially in comparison with the original. The difference is so striking that I have to believe it was not entirely intentional on the part of the show creator; rather, it is indicative of a distinct change in social mood that has taken place between when the show ended, in 2007, and today.

The new Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life takes place over the course of a year, broken into four 90-minute episodes: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. (Obligatory disclaimer: I am going to spoil the ending.)

In the original show, there was very little political propaganda. This was one of the most appealing things about it. Lorelai made the occasional George Bush joke, sometimes mocked her wealthy WASP parents for being Republicans, and Rory had a Planned Parenthood poster in her dorm room, but that was basically it. (Of course, the original premise of the show was pro-life, so they had to balance it out somehow). In general, this was incredibly refreshing compared to the constant political signaling in network television shows at the time, and compared to what’s on television now it’s like a different world. But the reboot is a different story. Suddenly, the town of Stars Hollow is engaged in gender activism, with earnest plans to put on a gay pride parade that never materializes due to a lack of homosexual town residents. (Hard to believe given the sudden prominence given to homosexual townsfolk.)

But far more striking is the change in the character of Michel Gerard. Michel, an overbearing, impeccably-dressed Frenchman with a thick accent and a penchant for Celine Dion, is a White-presenting mulatto who works at Lorelai’s inn, The Dragonfly. The original character of Michel was infamously sexually ambiguous; he of course fit a certain gay stereotype, was a little too close to his mother, etc. Nevertheless, there were occasional references made in passing to dating women, and never any made to male liaisons. Within the first 20 minutes of the reboot, in the first scene involving his character, Michel is discoursing scornfully about his male partner Frederick’s desire to adopt children. Why the dramatic change?

The answer is pretty simple: the original Gilmore Girls was a break from reality, while the reboot is almost unbearable in its reality. The past 8 years have been dramatic in their psychological effect on American society, and it is reflected here. But it’s more than that, in the world of the show. The mirror has crack’d from side-to-side; Richard Gilmore is dead. And with the patriarchal Gilmore gone, the order of things begins to break down, especially for the three female Gilmores.

Emily

You don’t move or change ever. There’s a picture of you in the attic that Dorian Grey is consulting lawyers about.” – Lorelai to Emily, “Spring.”

The change in Emily is the most dramatic over the course of these four episodes. Unlike the two younger Gilmore girls, Emily is marble-constant, an American matriarch to make Tocqueville proud. As she points out to her unwed daughter Lorelai, who has been “roommates” with Luke the diner owner for 8 years, she, Emily, was married to the same man for fifty years. Her loss at his death is incomprehensible to someone like Lorelai. Ever her husband’s champion, after Lorelai makes a characteristically embarrassing scene at her father’s funeral, Emily chides her thus: “Your father was a great man, a pillar of the community, a man amongst men. And you dishonored him today like this in his own house." None of the other males in this world come close to Richard Gilmore. The implication runs throughout the show: we shall never see his like again.

Much like the unappreciated WASP patriarchs who held America together for so long, but who also oversaw its slow doom, Richard died having paid for his illegitimate granddaughter’s education at his alma mater, Yale, where she learned—what, exactly? Richard died without having to seriously confront the fantasy he built around Rory, Yale, and ultimately, America itself.

Over the course of the year, Emily is in a tailspin. “I don’t know how to do this,” she says to Lorelai at one point. “Do what?” “Live my life.” It is a jarring thing to watch: Emily Gilmore, the woman who knew every customary form, the woman of exquisite taste, who could never bear to let anyone see her falter: spiraling.

Even her beloved Daughters of the American Revolution chapter holds no joys for her now. (This is where I think the show breaks continuity with the original character, but for the sake of argument, we may chalk it up to grief.) The DAR, of course, represents another aspect of the collapse of the American regime; we may recall that it was one of the only national organizations that fought the 1965 Immigration Act tooth and nail, alongside the American Legion. And if there is one thing Emily devoted her life to, besides her family, it was the DAR. Finally, in an outburst at a DAR meeting, Emily says the most un-Emily line of them all: “I can’t spend any more time and energy on artifice and bullshit.” This betrays more about the script-writer than about Emily, for Emily Gilmore before this would never have really considered her work for the DAR to be artifice: the seemingly frivolous work of choosing curtains and tablecloths and china patterns was an expression of an attempt to hold a fraying society together. As Emily says before she walks out the DAR doors, “This whole thing is dead to me anyway. It died with Richard.” Without Richard Gilmore, there’s no point in trying to save America anymore.

Lorelai

"You never do anything unless it's exactly what you want to do. You never have. You go through life like a natural disaster knocking down everything and everyone in your path." - Emily to Lorelai, “Winter.”

Fact check: True.

Lorelai is as flighty and selfish as ever, so there isn’t much new ground to cover here. She and Luke have lived together since the end of the series, never married, and apparently never even discussed having children, so it suddenly becomes an issue now. With Lorelai nearing the age of fifty, she can’t have children, and so surrogacy becomes a plot device that goes nowhere (but allows for some great scenes with the inimitable Paris Gellar, who breathed life into the whole depressing mess). Between the surrogacy drama and going to therapy with her mother, Lorelai works herself up into a real midlife crisis, deciding to go and hike the Pacific Crest Trail a la the book and movie Wild. Granted, I know nothing about either, but while the whole adventure seemed out of character—until she doesn’t actually go through with it—there was a certain pathos to the conversations she had with other women seeking solace in the wilderness. As the lonely ladies sit around a fire drinking boxed wine, one of them says, “I’m so glad I’m doing this. I almost did ‘Eat Pray Love,’ but my miles were blacked out. So here I am.” She later adds: “God, I hope this hike works. I need a new life so badly.”

Lorelai realizes that she doesn’t actually need a new life, and goes home to Luke having discovered that all she wants is to get married to him, leading to one of my favorite lines of the show: “I've gotta tell ya, before this thing goes on, the only way out is in a body bag.”

As infuriating as Lorelai is, she finally grows up enough to marry the man she loves. That’s something.

Rory

You’re glowing! You must be in love.” – Emily to Rory, “Winter.”

But Rory isn’t in love.

She’s not in love with her boyfriend Paul, whom she has dated for two years and whose existence she regularly forgets. (The callous treatment of forgettable Paul is supposed to be funny, but comes off as cruel.) She’s not in love with her work. She doesn’t even seem to be in love with her lover, Logan Huntzberger, who, it turns out, she has been having an extended sexual relationship with, we can assume for many years. Logan is engaged to a French heiress, but Rory stays with him whenever she’s in London, which seems to be quite often. In the series finale Rory turned down his offer of a diamond ring and a life together—apparently only to exchange it for the life of a mistress, a high-class call girl. This is why it is almost impossible to have any sympathy for the girl when Logan tells her that his fiancé is finally moving in, and that they’ll have to conduct their liasons in a hotel in the future. It suddenly dawns on Rory that she is, indeed, the other woman—and that rather than romantic, her life looks tawdry.

Lacking sympathy for Rory is the popular thing to do in reviews of the reboot, but for the wrong reasons. Sure, it’s true that Rory comes across as a spoiled child who has never been called to account for her poor choices. And yeah, her career isn’t going well. But it seems to me that that’s not because she’s arrogant or entitled: it’s because her heart just isn’t in it anymore. Even when she steels herself to get something done and goes out into Manhattan to interview people for a ridiculous story, instead of successfully completing her task we are treated to the cringiest scene of the entire show, when she returns to tell her mother that she’s had her first one-night stand with a man in a Wookie costume. (Yes, at this point she’s still supposedly dating Paul and sleeping with Logan.) She expresses no horror at her own disloyalty, but only at her choice of partner.

So who, or what, does Rory love?

She expresses a sincere nostalgic love for her ex-boyfriend Dean when she runs into him in the grocery store. And she drops everything to save the Stars Hollow Gazette from extinction, even taking over as editor—a truly thankless task.

It’s clear that Rory is in love with her childhood. Stars Hollow, her first boyfriend, and her mother are all emblems of this. Other reviewers see this as a failing; I do not. There’s nothing wrong with loving a place and trying to make it better, even sacrificing more prestigious dreams in order to do so. In some ways, Rory makes peace with this over the course of the episodes. She finally makes a clean break with Logan; she begins writing a book about the story of her relationship with her mother; and of course, in the shocking final scene, she tells her mother, “I’m pregnant.” While the show creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, has suggested that Rory might have an abortion, the reviewer at Vox was horrified that Rory might actually think of keeping the child:

“Is this really what Rory wanted for herself? Or is she too deeply wedded to the mythos of Stars Hollow to know what her own desires are at this point?

The narrative’s cheerful, almost totally uncritical sublimation of millennial women’s individual agency to the cause of more babies is utterly enraging. To accept this plot as a natural conclusion to the show means either rewriting Rory herself into a passive noncommittal bore, or twisting Stars Hollow itself into something unrecognizable: a distorted version of American life where individual dreams and goals are repressed and subsumed into the larger collective. Stars Hollow, in this view, becomes a pro-life argument for the need to continue the legacy of Stars Hollow at any cost — even if it means dismantling the dreams of one of Stars Hollow’s finest.

It’s an abysmal, bittersweet way to part with a beloved fictional town. Rory will have the illusion of happiness, surrounded by community and family. But if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that false comfort won’t make America great again, and it definitely won’t make Rory Gilmore great again.”

You see, the real tragedy would be having a community and a family, and thinking of yourself as happy. The horror!

Conclusion

The transformation of the town and its characters shows us that nothing is free of politics after the era of Obama, not even Stars Hollow.

Emily Gilmore is never really going to recover, because her world is gone.

Lorelai is getting married but isn’t going to have a child, while Rory may have a child, but isn’t getting married. It’s unclear whether or not she’ll have her baby, but either way, it won’t be raised with a father, just as Rory wasn’t raised with one. It’s a fatherless world. No fathers, no kings, no Richard Gilmores.

And yet the show isn’t really capable of pretending that everything is fine. The darkness shines through the charming humor, which isn’t as charming as it used to be. The gods left the earth a long time ago, but this seems to be a world entirely bereft of men. The result isn’t a feminist fantasy: it’s just sad.