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Does it matter if Rory Gilmore is the worst?

(Photo: Netflix)
(Photo: Netflix)

Note: This article discusses plot points from Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life.

Esther Zuckerman: There is a consensus online: Rory Gilmore is “the worst” in the Gilmore Girls revival, A Year In The Life, and her sins are many. The first sign of this comes in “Winter” when we learn that she chronically forgets that she has a kind, considerate boyfriend, Paul. It gets more pronounced as we find out she’s also sleeping with Logan Huntzberger, who happens to be getting married. And that’s just her love life. Professionally, she’s flailing. That might be the fault of the journalism industry, or it might just be that Rory herself is whiny, entitled, and refuses to play ball with editors.

That’s not the Rory Gilmore we loved. Or is she exactly the same Rory we were introduced to in the pilot? Looking back on it, Rory was always sort of a bad person; it just could initially be chalked up to teenage naiveté. In season one, Dean poured his heart out to her and she couldn’t say “I love you.” Was that the fear of turning into her mom or just early signs of her terribleness? After all, when Jess swaggers into the second season, she immediately begins to treat Dean like shit. As the series goes on, her terrible decision-making becomes more pronounced.

The “Rory is awful” argument is nothing new. Margaret Lyons wrote about the fact that both Gilmores were “flawed,” to say the least at Vulture back in 2014. At the time she wrote, “At least Rory still has time to grow out of it, though. Lorelai’s locked into her stunted, oblivious ways, so she’s officially worse.” That feels almost prophetic: The Palladinos clearly believed Rory would not grow wiser with age, and would ultimately surpass her mother in awfulness.

Alexis Bledel and Matt Czuchry in Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life (Photo: Netflix)

Erik Adams: That Vulture piece dates back to the internet’s last major Gilmore Girls freakout, when the original series came to Netflix in the fall of 2014. I recall reading it with an arched eyebrow, and then slowly lowering that eyebrow while re-watching all seven seasons over the course of a few weeks. Memory tends to fog perception, and watching that much of the show in such a short span of time dispersed a lot of Rory-related fog. I remembered being shocked by the stolen-yacht plot when season five first aired, but all it took was a little bit of bingeing to connect the dots between Rory’s flirtations with marine larceny and the way she jerked Dean around years earlier. (Not that I want this to turn into a defense of Dean—that guy’s a putz.)

I think this too has to do with my personal history with the character, and it’s a little bit embarrassing: God, I had such a crush on Rory Gilmore when I was younger. We were the same age, had similar tastes, both enjoyed the solitude of headphones; she also happened to be played by a conventionally attractive actor with eyes the color of the sky at the beginning of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was a match made in ABC Family afternoon-rerun heaven. But as tends to happen when we feel these emotions toward real people, the ideal is diminished by hindsight. Or, in my case, by watching all of Gilmore Girls with my wife, who, when she wasn’t ribbing me about my dual crushes on Alexis Bledel and Lauren Graham, provided a valuable counterpoint to Stars Hollow’s Rory reverence.

As I watched Rory fritter away A Year In The Life, I didn’t feel betrayed by a character I once had tremendous affection for, but I didn’t feel vindicated for changing my mind, either. Mostly, I felt bad for her, stuck in patterns that Gilmore Girls suggests are hereditary (the callow disregard for others, the unplanned pregnancy) and uniquely her own (the echoes of the Jess/Dean triangle with Logan/Paul). I don’t know about you, Esther, but I felt a little bit of pity when Rory chose to move back to Stars Hollow full-time. Sure, the most magical Gilmore Girls moments happen when Rory and Lorelai are sharing a zip code, but Rory, no matter how unformed she is as a person, wasn’t meant to stay in Stars Hollow. It’s a little bit like catching up with an old friend or a former classmate, only to find that they’ve fallen on hard times.

It’s a distinctly adult disappointment, coming from a character we’ve never known as an adult. When your life is unfolding in real time alongside Rory Gilmore’s, it’s easier to overlook certain slights and indelicacies. You’re a kid—you’d do those things, too! In retrospect, Gilmore Girls was never wholly sympathetic to Rory’s (or Lorelai’s) whims, and their imperfections made them interesting characters. But A Year In The Life turns the tables if you haven’t already had those tables turned before: The character you might’ve hoped was your reflection in the TV screen is no longer a person you’d want to be. (Or discuss the new Belle & Sebastian over coffee with. I should’ve had a crush on Lane. I did always aspire to be Dave Rygalski…) Esther, you have a good theory about viewers who saw themselves in Rory, and who their actual figure of identification was. Can you share it with us?

Alexis Bledel, Liza Weil, and Dakin Matthews in Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life (Photo: Netflix)

Esther: Indeed! But before I do I want to double down a little bit more on my identification with Rory. I’m not sure that I ever wanted to be Rory so much as that I felt a kinship with her. Though I was a bit younger than the character when I started watching the show, I was headed down a similar path. I would ultimately go to a competitive private school where the pressure to get into an Ivy League college was extremely high. And, like Rory, I had a specific school I was desperate to attend. It was Yale. I did end up going there, and I did work on the Yale Daily News. This all sounds terribly obnoxious when I actually type it out, but I felt like my ambition was linked to hers, and that is why I was mainly angry at her when she moved back to Stars Hollow in the revival. Unlike you, Erik, I didn’t really pity her, because by the time that happened I was convinced that she had thrown away her opportunities out of a sense that she was owed her success. One of the most painful scenes to watch was the one in “Spring,” in which she goes to interview at a HelloGiggles-type site run by Bunheads’ Julia Goldani Telles. Not only is Rory openly disdainful of the company, she’s befuddled by the prospect of pitching ideas. Even if her ideas weren’t particularly right for Sandee Says, shouldn’t she have a whole host of them in her back pocket? Or does she expect to coast through life accepting assignments from other people? Didn’t the horrendous “lines” idea from Condé Nast remind you of that time Paris made Rory cover Chilton’s parking lot re-pavement? Only, teenaged Rory actually made lemonade out of lemons in that situation. Adult Rory falls asleep when talking to a source.

And that brings me to my theory. It’s mostly anecdotal, but I’m noticing that my peers are more invested in Paris than Rory. Just look at pieces like “In Praise of Paris Geller and Her Anger” and “Paris Geller: 2016 Style Icon” (both admittedly written by friends of mine). Before A Year In The Life was released, Vivian Yee was interviewed by Cosmopolitan about her time as editor-in-chief of the YDN. (Full disclosure: I was online editor during that same period.) Asked what she thought Rory would be doing in the reboot, Yee responded: “I don’t know. Honestly, I’m more interested in what Lorelai is doing. [Pause.] Actually, I want to know what Paris is doing. Scratch that. I think she’s on her way to becoming the next Supreme Court justice slash neurosurgeon.”

In retrospect, I’ve realized that Paris and Rory have always been separated by their work ethic, not just their respective levels of academic intensity. Though Paris arguably had a more privileged upbringing than Rory did, she never assumed she would automatically be accepted into Harvard. She worked her butt off in order to make sure she was the perfect candidate. Meanwhile, Rory seemed surprised whenever she was told she would have to put effort into her application. Recall her shock when she figured out she might want to have some extracurriculars on her resumé or when she was told that Hillary Clinton wasn’t an especially original topic for an admissions essay. Paris’ indefatigable energies may not have gotten her into Harvard, but they apparently served her well as she reached adulthood. She probably only runs a surrogacy clinic for plot-related reasons, but she does a damn good job of it. I wouldn’t say the reboot totally does right by her, but I admire her far more than I do Rory.

Erik: And maybe that’s been the idea all along? If I put myself in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s shoes (and under one of her whimsical hats), I don’t know if I’d want to write a show about admirable people. Admirability is for the characters who color Gilmore Girls in shades other than kooky, your Parises or your Richards. This isn’t The West Wing: The reassurance I seek from Gilmore Girls isn’t from intrepid people making the right decisions because that’s the way things should be. I look to Gilmore Girls for a heightened representation of the way things are. The way things are is messy, and this is a messy show that recognizes its characters need to suck sometimes in order to find messes worth telling stories about. Rory had designs on being the next Christiane Amanpour, but Christiane Amanpour tells other people’s stories. Rory—selfish, impulsive, entitled—is really only qualified to tell her own story, which A Year In The Life acknowledges.

Esther: As I became more aware of Rory’s faults—the ones that were always present—upon rewatches I came to appreciate the show even more. Sherman-Palladino was writing about complicated women who challenged notions of “likability” long before that topic was discussed to death thanks to the likes of Girls and Amy Schumer’s career. I still wonder if A Year In The Life went a tad overboard when it came to Rory. I would have hated for the revival to romanticize her, pandering to nostalgia, but it was frustrating to be faced with the demon version of the person I admired all those years earlier. I don’t really want another set of Gilmore Girls episodes, but I do take solace in the fact that Rory demonstrates—if not growth—then at least some self-recognition in the final installment. Perhaps she just needed to analyze herself.