Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life Makes It Clear Who The Show's True Protagonist Is
And Nick Rheinwald-Jones is not a crackpot, but he's sure it isn't Lorelai or Rory.
So. We've reached the end of the strange, bumpy ride that was Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life. We've seen what Amy Sherman-Palladino had up her sleeve all those years, including the fabled Final Four Words. (I still don't understand why they weren't "Take some Plan B," but hey, I'm not in charge here.) On balance, I'd say I mostly enjoyed the ride. It would be foolish to say that it remotely lived up to the hype -- not because it didn't (although it obviously didn't), but because the whole point of revivals like this one is to generate as much unchecked hype and Pollyanna-ish nostalgia as possible. That fluffy cloud of amplified expectations that we fans rode on between the non-announcement announcement and the actual premiere date? That was the real prize, and it was always going to be. And maybe I'm part of the problem for saying this, but I wouldn't want to give that prize back, even though the revival itself was a decidedly mixed bag.
But there's one aspect of A Year In The Life that really did live up to the hype -- if anything, it exceeded it, since it wasn't even something for which I was hyped, and it was so well-executed that it made me realize a fundamental truth about the entire series. Brace yourself; here it comes.
Emily is the true protagonist of Gilmore Girls, and she always has been.
Before you freak out, let me explain what I mean -- or, rather, what I don't mean. I don't mean that Emily is the most likable or relatable character (even though she certainly gets all the best lines in "Fall"). There are plenty of times throughout the original run of Gilmore Girls and even in the revival where she's positioned as the villain: she's a frequent obstacle to both Lorelai's and Rory's goals, and even when she helps them, she typically does so with serious ulterior motives. The reason that "Emily and Richard will pay for Chilton" makes such a good hook in the pilot is because, as far as Lorelai's concerned, she's just made a deal with the devil, and certainly that deal comes back to haunt her in all sorts of ways throughout the subsequent years.
But here's why Lorelai isn't the protagonist, at least not in the traditional sense: by the time Gilmore Girls begins, the most important part of her story has already ended. She got pregnant at sixteen, struck out on her own, and supported herself while raising an impressively well-adjusted daughter. If you compare the Lorelai guzzling coffee at Luke's in the pilot with the Lorelai sitting on the gazebo steps at the end of "Fall," there isn't a ton of difference. Sure, there were complications aplenty between those two moments, but for the most part the battles she fought were about preserving the things she'd already won.
Emily is a different story. When we meet her in the pilot, she's trapped in a decades-long (or very possibly lifelong) rut. Sure, she's wealthy and popular and married with a grown child, but she's also deeply unhappy. It's hard to see all this at first blush, in part because Emily probably doesn't know, at this stage in life, what happiness even looks like. She knows the things she's supposed to want as a blue-blood socialite, and she has them all, but they certainly don't -- to coin a phrase that Emily will aptly use later -- bring her joy. Even so, her life makes sense to her as long as she can obey all the rules of her world and demand that everyone around her obey them as well. Bringing Lorelai and Rory back into the fold for Friday night dinners seems, at first, to be a win for Emily, because now she gets to see her estranged daughter and granddaughter on her own turf, where she can arrange them as she sees fit; they're like the last two figurines she's been missing from her Hummel collection.
But the huge chasm between her world and their world becomes clear a few episodes later -- specifically, in "Rory's Birthday Parties," when Emily and Richard finally see Lorelai and Rory on their turf, causing Emily bluntly to tell her husband, "We don't know our daughter at all." From that moment on, we know that everything is not okay in Emily's world, no matter how hard she tries to comfort herself by retreating into her world of rules and customs and DAR tea parties. She's worse off now than she was in the beginning, because now she knows there's something terribly wrong but she has no idea how to fix it. (And Richard, as supportive and well-meaning as he can be, will never be the one to help her; he truly can't see a world beyond his own oak-paneled bubble, and when it comes to Lorelai, he's utterly incapable of seeing himself as anything other than the injured party.)
Like Lorelai, Emily spends the next several seasons fighting to maintain stasis and normality in her life, except her situation is always worse because we can see she has more than an inkling that her stasis is bullshit and unfulfilling.
And then...crisis. Emily's world is turned upside down by Richard's death, which is sudden and tragic and completely outside her control. There is no stasis anymore; there's only familiar misery and unfamiliar misery.
So, she works up the courage to take a stab at the unfamiliar kind. And despite all initial indications to the contrary, she makes progress.
She starts sleeping in. She gets rid of her stuff. She finally keeps a maid for longer than twenty minutes, and what's more, she lets the maid's whole family into her life (even if she can't understand a word any of them are saying). (Guest nitpick from my Spanish-speaking wife: none of Berta's subtitles were accurate.)
And, in one of the biggest stand-up-and-cheer moments in the entire series, she lets the whole DAR board know exactly where they can stick their bylaws.
It's a testament to how well Emily's always been written -- and how holy-shit-amazingly Kelly Bishop has always played her -- that none of this feels like a cheat or a retcon. Instead, it feels like unlocking something that's always been inside her but that she just couldn't access. It's a hero's journey worthy of...what's that guy's name again?
Oh, right. But Emily's real triumph isn't the ability to let her snark flag fly (although "I guess 'Vagina House' was taken" belongs in the Library of Congress). It's happiness -- true, unfettered happiness that's based on no one else's terms but her own.
Here's the moment where we see that. Emily's on Nantucket (or wherever's standing in for it -- Palos Verdes, maybe?), enjoying her weekend with new boyfriend Jack. Then, all of a sudden, Jack tells her he has to head back to the city. And Emily? Is fine with it. More than fine. She won't even say she's going to miss him. She walks through the house alone, utterly comfortable with the freedom and the silence and the lack of a die-cast social schedule. She is the person we'd all kill to be at age seventy -- hell, she's the person we'd all kill to be now.
As for her relationship with Lorelai, well, it's probably still got a ways to go before it's on the cover of Parents Of Adult Children Monthly. But things have warmed considerably between them, and it wasn't through some drawn-out verbal marathon where they both had a chance to re-litigate every single perceived slight over the past four decades; it was simply that Emily managed to make herself into someone Lorelai was no longer scared of. When all was said and done, it wasn't really that hard; it just required major changes in every aspect of her life.
Ladies and gentlemen: Emily Gilmore, the true protagonist of Gilmore Girls. And if you want my final four words, here they are: I'm Not A Crackpot.