Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life




Estate and Main

[Spoilers ahead, look out!]

Dear Television,

In 2007, when Amy Sherman-Palladino didn’t get to finish Gilmore Girls, the show she created in 2000, something was lost that the 2016 revival cannot fix. This is and isn’t a bad thing. It might actually be my favorite thing about the show’s Netflix reprise, in fact, the way nostalgia goes sour and you can’t actually go home again, the way the story—as it should have been told—can’t be. After all, stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, they have set-ups and conclusions, and they stage complex problems and offer satisfying conclusions. But life just has seasons, years that go on until they don’t. It’s time, time, time, as Tom Waits sings, over perhaps the most affecting portion of the revival: the funeral of the departed Richard Gilmore.

If stories offer resolution, reconciliation, and catharsis, time never will. Time just continues until it stops: after winter, there is spring, but after summer, there is fall.

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The show’s original run was built around a narrative promising redemption and reconciliation: from a backstory in which Lorelai’s pregnancy tore the Gilmore clan apart—their hopes for her dashed, her escape from them complete—the show began with a new story of familial reconciliation. What brought Emily and Lorelai back together, at last, was the hope that Rory would be everything Lorelai never was, that every wound would be healed and that all, at last, would be well: Rory would go to Chilton, and then Harvard (or Yale, as it turned out), and then, success and happiness. All would at last be well.

That story did not get told, in part because life turns out to be more complicated than a family dynasty’s hopes for their child. But it mainly didn’t get told because Sherman-Palladino (and her husband Palladino) left the show, and we never found out how it was even supposed to have ended: when contract negotiations broke down, the wife-and-husband duo that made the show had to leave the final season of the original run for others to finish. And so, the show ended, but not how it was supposed to have. For years, Sherman-Palladino maintained that they had had a plan for the ending, that there were four words they had wanted to finish with, fade to black, and run credits. When it didn’t happen, those four words became a kind of scabbed-over scar, the absence of the thing that would have resolved the story, but didn’t. (Sherman-Palladino has claimed that she has never even watched the final season).

We now know what those words were to have been. The four words have been revealed; the long deferred ending has come:

Rory: “Mom?”

Lorelai: “Yes?”

Rory: “I’m pregnant.”

But instead of being spoken by a 23-year old Rory, she is 32 when the show ends the way it should have, the same age her mother was in the first season (when Rory herself was sixteen). Instead of following in her mother’s footsteps, then—instead of getting pregnant at a young age and putting her career at risk—the 32-year old Rory we see in A Year in the Life has already spent nine years failing at the profession that the untimely-impregnated 23-year old Rory would always have wondered if she could have made it in: journalism. And because her pregnancy comes after she has nominally failed at life—not before it—we see the costs of a life lived in anticipation of the happy ending, of the wounds inflicted on youth forced to carry the burden of promise and redemption. Far from having it all, Rory has nothing.

Let me put it this way: there are two different timelines in play, or even three. (Westworld does not have a monopoly on this.) There’s how the show should have ended; there’s how it did end; and there’s the second chance to do it right, with Sherman-Palladino back at the helm. But there’s nothing like going home again to show that you can’t go home again. If A Year in the Life opens with the promise of nostalgic return—and redemptive restoration—the opening re-tour of Stars Hollow that Lorelai gives Rory at the start only demonstrates that nothing stays the same, especially a place defined by its stasis. As the creators acknowledged the other day, after all, it’s likely that Stars Hollow would have voted for Trump: backwards-looking nostalgia means something just a little bit different, this year, than it did before. What should have happened, didn’t; but trying to go back and correct it only makes it much, much worse.

Let’s start with the first timeline, the original plan, where season seven ends with those four words. It would have been cyclical time, the return of the repressed possibility, a Lorelai Gilmore getting pregnant at a young age, an almost Grecian tragedy. As it had for her mother, an early pregnancy would have transformed Rory’s life, top to bottom. Her grandparents would have been as mortified as they were when Lorelai left school to raise Rory, and so many of her dreams—and the dreams she had personified for the Gilmore clan—would have been deferred, transformed, or lost. It would have been a fascinating ending, ambiguous and complex.

We didn’t get that ending; instead, in 2007, we got a second timeline: Rory said no to Logan, remained unpregnant, and instead went off to cover the presidential campaign of a first-term senator named Barack Obama. It should have been Hillary Clinton, I think, but that’s less important; the basic point is that she defers family to pursue her own profession. Since Rory and Lorelai exist in a world where neither reliable contraception nor abortion seem to—science fictional universes have their own rules, and you have to just roll with it—this deferral is presented as a choice, the zero-sum dilemma of the professional woman. It’s not a great ending, but if she can’t have it all at the start of her career—if she must say no to Logan in order to say yes to journalism—then at least time promises the possibility of recovery, and the ending of the show encases that possibility in amber: career now, family later.

In the third timeline, A Year in the Life, Rory has backtracked. She’s gone back to Logan, but they aren’t married (he’s marrying someone else); she’s a journalist, but after nine years struggling to succeed, she has become more cautionary tale than promising up-and-comer. And the irony is that, at age 32, she has achieved so little of what she would have hoped, at 23, to accomplish, that managing not to get pregnant at 23 (and not to get married) is about all she has done; Luke’s naïve reverence for her New Yorker article brutally mocks that accomplishment. But Rory is also changed: her hard-working ambition has become a kind of wounded entitlement, and she is—as the Atlantic pointed out—a bad journalist. In the show’s first run, we saw a working-class student get a shot at the Ivy league; in the revival, we see a ruling class scion of privilege fail on her own merits: as obsessed as she is with the “stench of failure” on her, she does nothing to fix it, nothing to right the ship. She is basically awful. As Lili pointed out, we’ve seen “Bad Decisions Rory” before—a big part of her arc, in the show, is growing up by fucking up—but it’s one thing to make bad decisions at 20, and another to make them at 32. Teenagers learn by failing, but there comes a point where that needs to stop, and we call that point “adulthood.”

Why hasn’t Rory grown up? She’s the age her mother was when the show started, sixteen years after her mother got a true reality check and plunged into the terrifying adulthood of teenage motherhood. Rory, by contrast, finds herself pulled into the orbit of the “thirtysomething gang,” the town’s population of failed millennials who live with their parents. (As Babette describes them, they are “A group of kids, all about your age. They’ve been to college and then out in the real world. It spit them out like a stale piece of gum and now they’re all back in their old rooms.”)

Not only is Rory not special anymore, her failures are not even tragic: this is simply what kids her age do. They fail. The reference to the old ABC show thirtysomething only accentuates what has changed since 1987-91, when (educated white) baby boomers got their generation’s chronicle of being Young Urban and Professional. But we don’t talk about “Yuppies” anymore; they don’t exist. They are Millennials, a generation understood through their lack of everything that the cast of thirtysomething had.

Now, generations are never the best stories for understanding time—“lazy, useless, and just plain wrong,” as Rebecca Onion puts it—but the rise and fall of different generational narratives does tell us a lot about how time is changing us. In 2007, for example, the “millennials” hadn’t yet become the story of pathology and dysfunction that it has ever since; before the financial crisis, Rory was a member of Generation Y, or the “Echo Boomers,” a generation understood to mirror their parents. She had a second chance to do what her mother hadn’t, because her life-conditions, and her mother’s, were effectively the same: she could choose to do what her mother—because of the nonexistence of birth control or abortion in the Gilmoreverse—hadn’t been able to do.

A Year in the Life is a show that happens after 2008, after this generational cohort inherited the fallout of the great recession. Terms like Generation Y and Echo Boomers fell out of favor because they implied a continuity that historical rupture rendered unavailable. The millennials would not echo their parents, nor follow after “Generation X”; they would live in their own millenarian future, a future in which history has somehow gotten off track.

In 2007, then, Rory’s choice was between family and profession; the terms of the show were still the terms of thirtysomething, the problem of what to do when you have it all. She couldn’t choose either, and she wouldn’t have. In 2016, by contrast, this is her only choice. She has not achieved what an untimely pregnancy would have prevented her from achieving, nor has she gotten pregnant: all the seeming successes that could have been hers—like the successes that could have been Lorelai’s, had she not become pregnant—well, she didn’t accomplish them anyway.

This is a very 2016 ending. Though the show was filmed before Donald Trump was elected president, Lorelai’s wedding takes place exactly three days before election day; if our own timeline were different, the show could have ended three days before the second President Clinton, before the Boomers’ generation was echoed in the present. Hillary Rodham Clinton was one of Rory’s heroes in the original series, one representative of the promises and hopes and ambitions that drove her. But the financial crisis foreclosed that outcome in our timeline, and so the 2016 version of Stars Hollow is, also, a place where nobody gets what they want. The real ending of this show is Trump becoming president, mercifully deferred by the ending credits.

So this is Stars Hollow, in 2016, so very much bleaker than the pre-2008 show. There are no happy endings, no resolutions, no reconciliations. To return to Stars Hollow in 2016 is to find everyone the same, older but just as flawed and self-sabotaging, and, thus, unforgivably so: Luke and Lorelai still can’t communicate, Rory is still selfish, the town’s quirkiness has metastasized, and Emily Gilmore’s exacting judgments are as harsh and cruel as ever. This is a problem, because time has actually passed: they haven’t changed, but they should have. It’s been nine years, after all! A 32-year old 23-year old is a disaster; a couple that hasn’t learned how to communicate in the first nine years of their relationship is a couple that needs to divorce. And Daniel Palladino is right: Stars Hollow—based on Washington, Connecticut, in Litchfield County—probably voted to make American great again.

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The person who has changed the least, and most, of course, is Richard Gilmore. His problem used to be his absence, whether his retreats to his study or the banal way he’d check out from his family, mentally and emotionally. In the interim, the situation has gotten much worse: he’s not just absent, he’s dead. And this, I think, is the most sobering aspect of the Gilmore Girls year in the life: time doesn’t solve any problems. It just kills you.

If the show had ended when it should have—if Rory had grown from being a young woman starting school to a young woman leaving school—then we’d never have seen what time, and time wasted, can do to people. We’d never have seen how the remorseless forward motion of event after event can make a personality defined by her promise and potential, in its frustration, into the sort of casually cruel person that would: treat a partner the way Rory treats Paul, make fun of fat people for no reason, or do any of the legion of actually-awful things that the Gilmore girls are still doing.

Sometimes, at its best, Gilmore Girls punishes its protagonists for their awfulness, or at least acknowledges the damage they do: Logan’s “Life and Death Brigade” cohorts, for example, are both exactly as charming and fun as they were at Yale, a decade ago, and Trumpishly abhorrent, for the same reason. They are 32-year old men acting exactly like drunken teenagers, and it’s not cute; the show, to its credit, emphasizes that, and Rory leaves them behind. And when the show teases itself for its insularity or heteronormativity, it can still be pretty cutting: the “borrowing gays” riff and the international cuisine scene are amusing because the point is how weird the Stars Hollow “normal” is. They are not America; they are charming grotesques.

It’s when the show loses itself in its own narcissism—when it forgets that its protagonists are not heroes, just family—that it lapses into making their mistakes. Emily Gilmore’s “hilarious” Latina maid is one of the worst examples: the ongoing joke is that you can’t understand her, she has a big family, and they’re taking over the house. It’s hilarious. The show’s continuing misuse of Lane and Mrs. Kim is another: along with the “fresh off the boat” Koreans who are confused by electricity that stays on at night (how long have they been on that boat?), Lane’s story continues to be the site of the show’s profoundest indifference.

There’s another timeline, I suppose. If Edward Herrmann hadn’t died, the show couldn’t have been about what happens to the patriarchal family when the patriarch is dead, or suggested—as the final episode does, first with Logan and then with Christopher—that the best thing the father can do for his daughter is get out of the way, and let the mother take control. The show suffers by Edward Herrmann’s absence; his Richard Gilmore was always such a treat to watch, such a wonderful, impossible mix of kind gentility and ruling class power. But the story A Year in the Life tells is improved by the absence of the patriarch, or made possible by it: that the father is dead forces movement onto a cast of characters that has been becalmed in stasis for nine long years. The show begins with his funeral, since every plotline flows out of it—more or less—and by the space his absence makes thinkable.

Our reality is different; in our timeline, the patriarch has come back to horrible life, legitimizing every one of the show’s ugliest missteps. Donald Trump’s America is everything that’s worst about Stars Hollow, and the things that the Gilmore girls tap-dance hardest not to see about themselves. In the Gilmoreverse, there is no Trump; there is only Richard Gilmore, the kind of ruling class you could make peace with and understand to be family. We’ve been stripped of that comfort. And the most powerful thing the Gilmore Girls could say about our en-greatening America, it turns out, was to see that they would be stripped of it too.

Litchfield County, 100% of precincts reporting,

Aaron


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