Gilmore Girls: That Would Have Been So Much Better!
The name is taken from a moment several years ago. I was in the Netherlands with two friends from graduate school. After dinner, I agreed to continue their first time watching a show I once knew inside and out. As we (mostly) enjoyed an episode from the fourth season of Gilmore Girls, Clara Biesel (of books and questions) made a prediction. I practically pulled a muscle keeping myself from shouting, "That would have been so much better!" so as not to spoil the series for her.
This is not the first time I have had this thought about a work of art. It's hard, because you can't go and do the same idea, but just a bit better, now. And it's far too late to find the author and convince them to do it your way.
It's hard enough when creators ruin something that was great and miss the mark horrendously, like the Gilmore Girls' seventh season. There's something even more frustrating about getting something ALMOST right. Coming SO CLOSE to making something magical. When they had it in their hands, and you think you can see it all turning out that way...and then something else happens. And instead of being a wonderful surprise twist...it's just that they missed an opportunity.
I thought then that it could be a great way to exorcise these frustrations to write out what could have been.
1. No full-scale rewrites. No taking a cool initial premise that was driven into the ground or completely re-conceiving the central premise of a show.
2. It must be a change that seemed at least momentarily suggested by the story as originally framed. Basically, it needs to be something I or someone else thought might be coming or that I gives a fitting end to the story as written.
The Build Up: Gilmore Girls Season 4
The fourth season of Gilmore Girls deconstructed much of the perfect world that the previous seasons had established for Lorelai and Rory.
First is their drawn out separation as Rory leaves the safety of Stars Hollow and Chilton, at which she has thrived, for Yale. Rory's move to college messes with the Rory as Perfect Student dynamic of the show's first three seasons. Her first days at college spook her (4.02 "The Lorelais' First Day at Yale"), her first year throws her dramatically off her game academically (4.06 "An Affair to Remember") and romantically (4.05 "The Fundamental Things Apply"), and forces a distance with her mother both physical and emotional. Lorelai can even hide her money woes from her daughter entirely (4.12 "A Family Matter").
Lorelai also has the staples of her life systematically stripped: the Independence Inn, any financial aid from Yale, and almost the chance to buy the Dragonfly Inn at the tail end of season 3; her daughter living in her house (4.01 "Ballrooms and Biscotti"), a catering job (which proves to be the last or nearly the last of its kind) for her parents (4.06 "An Affair to Remember"), her unquestioned relationship with and ability to rely on Luke (4.11 "In the Clamor and the Clangor"), Luke as an available romantic possibility (4.01 "Ballrooms and Biscotti"), financial stability (4.12 "A Family Matter"), a reliable partner in Sookie (4.14 "The Incredible Shrinking Lorelais"), financial independence (4.14 "The Incredible Shrinking Lorelais"), and regular contact with her daughter (4.14 "The Incredible Shrinking Lorelais").
Emily is also going through several rounds of upheaval as Richard's new business and young business partner, Jason Stiles, repeatedly challenge the value of her role as society wife. Both men make her life's work feel trivial and obsolete. Her entire identity is questioned at every turn as the world she expected and thrived within unravels on her husband's whim. Her marriage itself comes under threat from the one-two punch of Richard's continuing friendship with Pennilyn Lott (4.09 "Ted Koppel's Big Night Out") and the discovery of Gran Gilmore's letter begging Richard not to marry Emily (4.15 "The Reigning Lorelai").
Lane's double life also finally self-destructs, leading to Lane's separation from Mrs. Kim, several weeks of itinerant wandering, and finally a new apartment and life with her band (with a brief rocky start that ends in a group hug).
With all this upheaval, the show seems primed to remake itself again and completely upset its established dynamics.
Instead, of course, the show brings the characters back into their original alignment (although not all make it back to their places until halfway through the 5th season). Instead of transformation, there is restoration.
The Moment That Suggested Better
Over dinner, my friends and I watched episode 13 "The Incredible Shrinking Lorelais" and, after the obligatory deconstruction of what Rory's academic woes really stem from and suggesting that she is simply bad at managing her time (say constantly driving over an hour round trip from Stars Hollow), we focused on Lorelai's money problems.
And the utter ridiculousness of being willing to beg your It's Complicated for money before: a) ditching the horses and buying them after a year or two of successful inn-running or b) asking your parents for a loan again, especially considering you are already going to Friday Night Dinners.
After dinner, we continued with "Scene in a Mall" where Richard's denigration of Emily's lifestyle and choices reaches its (first) boiling point and Emily descends on the (Hartford?) Mall just as Rory and Lorelai learn that they are doing window shopping entirely incorrectly* and consider leaving.
*It's actually great when you go to bizarre or incredibly pricey places where you have no real temptation to buy something but can just see the beautiful or strange and ridiculous things available for purchase. Laugh at their existence, their price, or just covet a world where such things are viable purchases then laugh at yourself. What's terrible is to go to stores you would usually real-shop at and think about how poor you are. It's particularly annoying considering later in the episode they mock "useless rich people things" that apparently they could have been looking at instead all that time.
After Emily has rampaged through the store buying ridiculous and ridiculously priced things for some time, Lorelai and Rory finally all-but manhandle her out of the store and into a seat at the Food Court.
After the girls, who have repeatedly described themselves as "skint" and too broke even for the merry-go-round, buy literally more food than they can carry (and from every single place in the Food Court), they return to the table.
Emily compliments Lorelai on her forceful (but still just within the realm of polite) handling of a vendor for the Dragonfly Inn. She admires Lorelai's spunk and business sense, and the following conversation takes place with the heartbreaking deftness of Kelly Bishop:
Emily: Very in command. I liked how you handled it.
Lorelai: Well, I learned from the best.
Emily: From whom?
Lorelai: ...From the woman eating her hamburger with a knife and fork. That's whom.
Emily's surprise is palpable and heartbreaking. She stops eating in shock and, after a flustered moment (in which I hope she feels at least a smattering of pride), she sets the record straight:
Emily: Oh please. I order maids and salespeople around. That's different. I've never done anything.
There's a sad little pause before Lorelai starts trying to comfort Emily in earnest, and that's when it happened. Clara turned around to me and said, "Is Lorelai going to go into business with her mother?"
What That Would Have Been Like
Oh how I wish that had happened.
There are even hints that would have led us there. Big things like Lorelai's money woes (although unfortunately, Luke has already given Lorelai the check at this point) and Gran Lorelai berating Richard and Emily for not helping Lorelai with her business venture. Emily's famous taste being continually challenged to update as "society parties" are growing "stale" suggests that they might find a home in the nostalgic world of the tourist industry in a sleep town like Stars Hollow.
Emily even exclaims in an early scene,
"Maybe I should get a job so I can have my own life. I could sell shoes just as well as Eduardo. I should get an application. Get me an application. Go, go!
Selling shoes is obviously a poor fit for a woman like Emily Gilmore, but financing and advising a high end Connecticut inn like the Dragonfly? Kind of perfect.
Earlier in the season, Emily makes the argument that Lorelai could use her input when she informs her that her catering company The Independence Catering Company has an unfortunately close name to the infamous Independent Catering Company, which could be costing them business. Emily could not only steer Lorelai away from similar mistakes, but Emily could single-handedly ensure the continual booking of the Dragonfly Inn for that crucial first year*. Probably without even referring to her extended rolodex. *Plus, Sookie could have kept her lunches, with Emily's friends brought in for regular DAR-meetings and socializing (5.06 "Norman Mailer, I'm Pregnant!")
It would be a brilliant idea.
Of course, as a viewer of the television show, I also wish it had happened because it would have of course gone horribly so quickly. The growing pains episodes of this new partnership would have been fabulously entertaining as Lorelai freaked out, but after the dust settled -- I would strenuously argue that it would work beautifully.
Sookie and Emily get along very well and have mutual respect for each other's aesthetic tastes and for their personal poise.
Michel would fall over backwards to work hard for and impress Emily, who could help Lorelai rein in her most recalcitrant employee.
A steady stream of high-profile and thus high-paying events, both charity and wedding, would flow through the Dragonfly and establish them as a premium destination.
Lorelai and Emily would finally see the ways in which their areas of expertise are similar and perhaps learn that they share much, much more than they are capable of realizing even by the series' ending. Emily might realize that Lorelai is, in fact, her heir in very important ways.
And Emily would be integrated into something approaching the Stars Hollow community.
Can you imagine if the Dragonfly Inn had finally integrated and unified Lorelai's worlds? Slowly, obviously, starting with the Dragonfly Crew and expanding outward as she sees the value of the community events to the success of the inn. Can you imagine Emily Gilmore facing off with Taylor Doosie? That scene may well go down in history as the best scene of a television show that never happened. Emily could have learned not only to respect the life her daughter built in Stars Hollow (as she and Richard do by the series finale) but to see a place for herself within it.
That is the central conflict, whatever the characters believe, between Lorelai and Emily. From her mother's perspective, Lorelai chose a life not only differs from her own but is incompatible with Emily's presence. Her attendance of Rory's birthday party in Season One almost destroys the event and leaves both Emily and Richard feeling isolated even when the townsfolk are kind.
What might their relationship have been if Emily could have found a comfortable, if not easy or easily-won, place in Stars Hollow? If Emily could have seen herself as truly a part of the life her daughter chose?
Ripples: Good and Bad
I'm not as sure how this development would have affected other elements and plot points of the series. Would the Emily and Richard separation have proven unnecessary if Emily had a job, and thus a distraction to prevent her from going stir crazy? If she were less dependent on Richard's life choices? Would she have come to sympathize with the demands on his time and the new things he must do to adjust to the workplace? Or would she have been even less sympathetic to his betrayal of Jason and its threat to their relationship with Lorelai, her recently crowned business partner? Or would Emily be more confident in her ability to hold on to her daughter, despite Richard's choices? Would Richard have recognized that he needed Emily sooner or later if she weren't around and instead busy with her own business pursuits? For that matter, how would this have changed Lorelai's love life? Would Emily have simply been in a better position to subtly sabotage her daughter's burgeoning relationship with Luke? Or would seeing the daily happiness that Luke brought to her daughter have reconciled Emily to his presence in their lives?
In the Season Five episode "Come Home" (5.12), Emily declares to Christopher that Luke is "not an acceptable stepfather to Rory" and adds "at least you won't hold her back." Could Emily have maintained that willful blindness to Luke's established father-like role to Rory, if she were being slowly integrated into Stars Hollow life and hearing, no doubt for the first time, of Luke's care for Rory during the chicken pox, his presence at her graduation, his consistent advocacy on her behalf, on and on? Would she have been able to justify her claim that Luke would hold Lorelai back from "greatness" or would she simply have more "proof" that Luke would clip her daughter's wings if she saw Lorelai flying so gracefully every day at the Dragonfly? Speaking of holding a Gilmore girl back, would Emily have been in a better position to see Rory's relationship with Logan Huntzberger clearly if she actually saw Rory dissolve in insecurity and Founder's Day punch (5.18 "To Live and Let Diorama")? Would a working relationship between Emily and Lorelai have prevented the ruptured family of the Season 5 finale or simply severed Emily and Lorelai's growing partnership at the Dragonfly, making the Great Divide even more heartbreaking? I don't know -- but I can imagine so many things both wonderful and terrible coming out of this partnership. How I wish I could have seen it play out. I imagine it would look much like the arc we DID get through Lane and Mrs. Kim, when Lane's mother finally sees a true and useful place for herself in the life that Lane has chosen by becoming her band's tour manager (5.22 "A House is Not a Home") and continues to embrace to elements of Lane's life from that point forward.
Of course, the biggest potential problem is reconciling this partnership with Lorelai's identity as a self-made woman. A quick scan of literary criticism on the series (I particularly recommend the essay collection) will reveal that the discerning viewer already sees Lorelai as a child of privilege and far more reliant on her family's vast wealth than she wants to acknowledge.
The real problem then would be Lorelai's ability to let go of her self-image as independent of her parents. A cosmetic patch on this would be treating Emily (at least initially) as a formal investor with highly restricted rights. This would essentially be turning Emily's tactics in "An Affair to Remember" back on her mother -- wrapping their business relationship in all the formal trappings a mother and daughter could typically skip. After all, Lorelai's suppposed independence could withstand her meltdown at the prospect of begging money from Luke and making her It's Complicated an investor. She could formalize the mother/daughter relationship with a contract and be willing to enforce it. Is it so different than asking her father to take over as her insurance provider, as she does later in Season Five (5.16 "So...Good Talk")? I argue that ultimately it would have been good for the series to explicitly address the privilege that Lorelai is afforded by Emily and Richard's wealth and social cache amongst the elite rather than papering over it and hoping we don't notice (or respect Lorelai less for turning a blind eye to it).
What Happened Instead
Lorelai takes $30,000 from Luke less than a month before he finally begins pursuing her romantically. Emily and Richard's marriage falls apart in the aftermath of Gran Lorelai's death, Richard's merging of his business with Jason's father to the detriment of Jason, and their disagreements about money and Lorelai. And what does Emily do? Does she double down on the opening of the new inn, in which she has purchased herself a vested interest? Does it propel her into Lorelai's life more and into Stars Hollow specifically -- ha, of course not. Emily falls back on what society wives do when scandal comes. She runs off to Europe with the newly adulterous Rory* and comes back to reassemble the life of a charity-running, DAR-dominating Gilmore wife without her husband officially in tow. *Oy with the poodles already! Would Emily staying at the Dragonfly Inn instead of whisking Rory away to Europe have escalated the demise of that ill-advised relationship? Could Emily have played the bad guy and broken Rory and Dean up all the sooner if only she'd been around and known just what a mess her granddaughter was making of her romantic life?* Emily course-corrects back to society wife so thoroughly in Season Five that she is the only character in the entire show who is proud rather than horrified by Rory, Yale Drop Out, picking up the life of a DAR superstar (5.06 "We've Got Magic to Do"). In losing this chance to reach for more, the show closes Emily within the spacious and elegant box she has built for herself. In this box, Emily goes through a significant period of believing that she has lost her daughter and granddaughter both when Rory finally moves out of her grandparents' house. In fact, this may be the secret turning point of the series -- instead of launching forward into a new era of worlds colliding and bringing the lives of all three Gilmore girls into a surprising, conflict-ridden, but empowering alignment...everything instead regresses. Season Five resets the board in many ways. Emily returns to controlling Lorelai's life by sabotaging her relationship with Luke and begins to dress Rory in the trappings of her own lifestyle when Rory nabs Logan Huntzberger. By the end of the season, Rory has moved into her grandparents' poolhouse and become, as Lorelai describes her in the premiere episode of season 6, "a new and improved Lorelai." The Cold War between Lorelai and her parents that existed before the events of the pilot returns in full force, and Emily starts over with Rory -- slowly making all the same mistakes that drove her daughter away. This pattern becomes absolutely undeniable after the Freudian slip, "Just you wait until your father gets home" during an argument with Rory (6.08 "Let Me Hear Your Bailalakais Ringing Out"). Rory vanishes, just as Lorelai did, Christopher swoops in with a fortune to allow his daughter to sever financial ties with her grandparents, and only Lorelai's insistent intervention keeps the family from once more cutting all emotional ties. Lorelai and Luke's relationship self-destructs once because of Emily's actions and then a second time due to external forces that ?coincidentally? culminate on Emily and Richard's driveway when Lorelai finally talks to a therapist about how her engagement to Luke makes her feel. This second collapse sends Lorelai into the arms of Christopher, and Season Seven sees Lorelai acting out a belated parody of what her mother believes is the better life her daughter turned away from. Only once this marriage has proved as hollow and unhappy as Lorelai always knew it to be can all three of the Gilmore women once again struggle back to the balance of romance, independence, family, mutual respect, and self-respect that they have achieved by the end of Season Three. I had hope that the new Netflix series would disrupt the patterns of the Gilmore Girls once again -- and this time provoke them to change, integrate, and fly higher and in surprising new directions instead of slotting them back into their elaborately decorated little boxes. That's...not quite how it turned out, but I'll leave that for another time.
Do you have any suggestions for shows/books/movies that could have been better with an easy change? Reply with a comment below, and if I agree, I will write up the implications!