clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Gilmore Girls’ final words change everything we believe about Rory and Stars Hollow

That last plot twist may demonize Rory or Stars Hollow itself.

Gilmore Girls Wikia
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In the first-ever episode of Gilmore Girls, 15-year-old Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) impulsively decides, after meeting her future first boyfriend, Dean, that she doesn’t want to attend the elite prep school she’s been dreaming about.

Her mom, Lorelai (Lauren Graham), reacts to this news by pointing out how similar they are. “After all, you’re me,” she tells her daughter: “someone willing to throw important life experiences out the window to be with a guy.”

This similarity between mother and daughter isn’t just the narrative conflict that kicks off the story of Gilmore Girls. As the series’ recent four-episode revival, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life makes clear, it’s the fundamental question of the entire show: Will Rory will be her own person, or is she fated to reenact all of her mother’s life choices?

As it turns out, the answer isn’t what most viewers expected. As A Year in the Life’s final four words reveal, the Rory Gilmore we knew at the end of Gilmore Girls’ seventh season, the one who dove headfirst into her professional future, isn’t the same Rory Gilmore who came back to us, or to the beloved small town of Stars Hollow, in the revival.

Or is she?

Grappling with the import of those final four words — really the final two words — requires many of us to rethink everything we know about Rory. It also requires us to reckon with the vision of creator and longtime showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino, and even with the idea of Stars Hollow itself.

Rory’s actions in A Year in the Life only make sense as part of an alternate seventh season where she’s still 22

As Vox’s Constance Grady points out, the original ending that Sherman-Palladino envisioned for Gilmore Girls (which has now come to pass with A Year in the Life) was nothing like the one we got when the show left the air in 2007. Whereas the series finale saw Rory in her final year of college avidly pursuing a career in journalism, Sherman-Palladino would have given her a much different fate — announcing to her mother that she was pregnant with the baby of her then-boyfriend, the feckless Logan Huntzberger (Matt Czuchry). This ending would have decisively ended her career dreams, just as Lorelai’s life was derailed by her own teen pregnancy years earlier.

Sherman-Palladino’s big pregnancy reveal now takes place 10 years later, at the end of the revival, but it’s no less disturbing to realize that this was her vision for 22-year-old Rory all along. Such a pregnancy would have set Rory back, perhaps permanently: Not only would it have derailed her professionally, it would also tie her to a boyfriend who had consistently attempted to manipulate her emotionally, socially, and financially.

In A Year in the Life, it’s a 32-year-old Rory who returns to Stars Hollow pregnant with Logan’s child — but the 10-year delay doesn’t make this twist any less disheartening. This is mainly because Rory’s arc in A Year in the Life really only makes sense if we assume Rory is actually still 22. Where her character development is concerned, it’s as if she hasn’t aged, and as if the series’ seventh season — the one Sherman-Palladino wasn’t involved with — never happened.

The only significant career milestone that Rory has achieved since we last saw her a decade ago is that she’s published a single feature in the New Yorker. Instead of political reporting, she seems to be an indifferent and intermittent freelancer. Though she’s half-heartedly working on a book collaboration (that goes south over the course of the series), she appears to spend most of her time jetting back and forth between London and New York for extended booty calls. This Rory seems to have never undergone the emotional arc of season seven, in which she rejected, with finality, Logan’s money and influence and the strings attached to both. A Year in the Life has her experience all those beats again as if 2007 never existed.

The Rory who was eager to work for any major daily newspaper that would have her, who once jumped on bottom-dwelling assignments just to prove she could make them her own, apparently wastes an opportunity to write an article about long New York City lines for Condé Nast — even though the subject puts her potential editor in mind of David Foster Wallace. The Rory who eagerly leapt at the chance to write about politics for an online media outlet in 2007 is now so scathing and condescending about the idea of working for an up-and-coming lifestyle website that she doesn’t even bother to prepare for the lone job interview she gets. And her behavior in that interview is so unprofessional it’s difficult to imagine it from 22-year-old Rory, let alone a Rory who supposedly has a decade of work experience under her belt.

For all this to make sense, Rory must either become a millennial stereotype or lose her agency

What are we to do with these sweeping changes of character? We could posit that Rory’s professional indifference is the result of burnout or honest failure, but A Year in the Life offers no indication that she ever had a real career to burn out from, or that she was ever working toward concrete goals to begin with.

We might suppose that Sherman-Palladino wanted, understandably, to write the final-season arc she never had a chance to write, and did so at the cost of Rory’s character consistency.

Or we could assume that, despite what we were led to believe during Gilmore Girls’ original run, Rory genuinely never had the ambition, nor the drive, nor the talent, nor the passion to actually become a journalist. That’s a miserable way to view Rory; it’s a read that paints her actions throughout all seven seasons as being motivated primarily by her need for external approval and a wish to please others, rather than to heed her own wants.

Viewed through this lens, her success throughout the show becomes primarily an object lesson in millennial entitlement. Rory becomes a stereotype — a prematurely talented wunderkind whose belief in her own extra-specialness failed to prepare her for the harsh reality of real work in the real world; who ends up moving back home and relying, if only temporarily, on her harder-working parent for support.

Of course, as rough as this reading is to consider, it is perhaps still more comforting than the alternative, which is that Rory was always predestined to recycle her mother’s fate.

Rory’s fate may be predetermined in a Calvinistic cycle based on her mother’s mistakes (and her mother’s boyfriends)

Rory’s goals for herself never stood a chance against Sherman-Palladino’s larger narrative arc for Gilmore Girls. It posits that pregnancy is destiny, and that Rory herself is doomed to cycle through a series of romantic relationships that mirror those of her mother. This cycle predestines her to end up exactly where her mother ended up all those years ago: in Stars Hollow, unwed and pregnant by a rich and irresponsible louche.

There’s nothing that feels hard-won or even particularly complicated about this ending; it arrives for Rory with as little fanfare as every other pre-destined part of her life. The parallel is set up from the series’ very first episode, when, even before Lorelai points out how similar the two of them are, we learn that Rory’s full name is actually Lorelai. The revival makes it clear that Rory has been mirroring every one of her mother’s relationships with the men in her own life, plumbing them for karmic lessons.

Lorelai’s forgettable boyfriend Max; Rory’s forgettable boyfriend Paul.

The revival shows Rory revisiting moments with all of the men who represent milestones in her mother’s emotional development. Her first boyfriend, Dean (Jared Padalecki), represents safety and the comfort of home the way her grandfather did to Lorelai; he’s also a parallel to Max, Lorelai’s first boyfriend on the show, whom she essentially uses for his safety and familiarity but ultimately leaves heartbroken.

The parallels between Logan and Rory’s father, Christopher (David Sutcliffe), are striking; as Grady notes in her rundown of the entire series, Christopher’s abandonment of Rory in her childhood is a formative moment that leaves Rory constantly seeking his approval, and seeking to simulate the nuclear family she never had, all while resenting his emotional manipulation of her and her mother. She repeats this behavior with Logan throughout their relationship, enabling his irresponsibility while yearning for his validation and resenting him for his inability to commit. In the revival, Rory seeks closure from both of them about the role she’s played in their lives, and has to settle for ambivalence.

The revival leaves the door wide open for Rory’s unfinished relationship with Jess (Milo Ventimiglia), who is notably the only one of the boyfriends Rory never had sex with. This distinction may contribute to Jess’s continued ability to see Rory clearly and encourage her to pursue goals for herself — goals that he suggests for her, that is. Jess’s cantankerous, anti-social attitude mixed with his sensitive side are all parallels to Luke, Lorelai’s canonical soulmate — and, of course, he’s Luke’s nephew, which means he’s already a member of Rory’s evolving nuclear family.

Up until now, Rory’s passivity and yearning for the approval of all the men in her life has kept her repeating these relationship cycles. But she has never indicated she wanted motherhood for herself. What she has wanted is never to leave Stars Hollow. Throughout the series, though she feints in other directions, Rory expresses constant homesickness and longing to be with her mom and with the town. Every life accomplishment that could potentially take her farther away from home inevitably brings her back to it instead. (For instance, even though getting into Harvard has been Rory’s lifelong dream, she ultimately rejects it in order to stay in New Haven and attend Yale, only a short distance away from Stars Hollow.) In the revival, it’s only when she finally comes back home to Stars Hollow after a year spent largely abroad in London that she fully reenacts her mother’s fate.

And that makes sense, because the ultimate relationship Rory is replaying is her mother’s love affair with Stars Hollow itself, and everything the town represents as a seductive, irresistible illusion of idyllic Americana.

In this vision of Rory’s future, Stars Hollow becomes a weirdly Lynchian fairy revel from which there is no escape

Stars Hollow has often been viewed as a cheerful, inverse parallel to Twin Peaks (a connection the revival made even clearer with Kirk’s Eraserhead tribute). If David Lynch’s small town is a sinister distortion of the American heartland, Stars Hollow is its happier, idyllic model cousin. But in a universe where Rory is destined to repeat her mother’s narrative, Stars Hollow itself becomes a dangerous, inescapable dream of American life.

Stars Hollow’s small-town eccentricity and over-the-top charm feel deliberately removed from the rest of New England. It’s a place that feels uniquely suited for the Gilmores: a town where the oddity never stops. In a way, Stars Hollow is a kind of eternal fairy revel—the “blanket of friendly stars” that traps humans who wander in from the outside.

The human who wanders into a fairy rave may wind up being forced to frolic there indefinitely, often forced to dance into exhaustion. (Season three, episode seven.)
Gilmore Girls Wikia

To some degree, Lorelai knows she’s trapped in this revel. In A Year in the Life, after she witnesses a disturbing and Lynchian run-through of the Stars Hollow musical, she flees town, heading across the country to the Pacific Coast. But while she’s realizing she has to leave Stars Hollow to find clarity, Rory is returning to it. Despite her protestations that she won’t be staying long, the residents take it as a given she’s back for good.

Rory isn’t alone, of course. Rory’s best friend Lane (Keiko Agena) trades in her rock dreams to become a harried mother of two, living in Stars Hollow and working for her own mother in the same small-town antique store she grew up in. For both of these millennial women, children equal destiny, and destiny means becoming, to an extent, their mothers.

The revival shows us that both Rory and Lane are pretty much okay with this fate; Lane seems totally content with her part-time job, blue-collar husband, and raising her two sons on a steady diet of rock music. And given her behavior throughout the rest of the revival, we can be pretty sure Rory’s not going to get an abortion and hop on a plane to cover the Syrian refugee crisis. Rather, her decision to become the volunteer editor of the Stars Hollow Gazette puts her on track to become the next Taylor Doose (the local town selectman), not the next Christiane Amanpour.

Rory’s gig at the Gazette is an appalling detour for a former editor of the Yale Daily News that’s presented as a moment of take-charge resourcefulness on her part. It also neatly parallels the way she became editor of the Yale Daily News: by default, because there was no one else to do it. All of this paints Rory, again, as passive and barely motivated; it’s hardly the same spark of ambition we saw in the girl who once interviewed for an internship at the New York Times.

It’s almost as if Stars Hollow exacts a fairy changeling exchange from these women through their babies — except what gets exchanged are real ambitions for a simulacrum of fulfillment.

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.

Watch: How a TV show gets made

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.