I’ve always had a sort of love/hate relationship with Rory Gilmore. Although I am only a few years older than Rory, I didn’t start watching the first season of Gilmore Girls until its penultimate season was already airing, so despite the fact that we were close in age and similar in many ways–I too was shy and bookish in high school, loved pop culture references, and talked a mile a minute when I was around people who felt safe–she never felt like a peer to me, but more like a kid sister who mirrors you just enough to drive you crazy.
Which is perhaps why it irritated me so much when, despite a series of shockingly bad decisions–chief among them, stealing a yacht and dropping out of Yale–the consequences of Rory’s choices never seemed to really stick to her. No matter what she did, the options available to her–private school, an Ivy League education, acceptance by society’s elites, a writing-based career, a varied selection of doting love interests–never wavered. Nothing was ever taken off the table. Sure, there’d be a hiccup here and there, but at the end of the day, Rory never had to seriously examine, question, or adjust any of her major plans or goals for her life, because every door (until–maybe–the final four words, whose aftermath we will probably never see) remained open to her.
It was like being a kid and watching as your siblings wormed their way out of trouble for the same sort of behavior you know would’ve gotten you grounded. There were always grandparents with connections, or a boyfriend with money, or a town who worshiped the ground she walked on just waiting to bail her out of whatever sticky situation she
found herself in got herself into. Although Rory was permitted to stumble, she was never allowed to truly fall.
Standing in stark contrast to Rory was her mother Lorelai, whose fall from grace had always been the juicy center of the Gilmore story: her teen pregnancy prompted her to move out of her parents’ house, give up the life she’d always known, and strike out on her own. Rory was effective as the catalyst that pushed her mother out of her comfort zone and forced her to reinvent herself, but as a character in her own right, she always fell a little flat. Despite sharing a name and some personality quirks with her mother, she was set up from the start to be the anti-Lorelai, and most of her personality seemed specifically tailored to challenge and enhance her mother’s. Lorelai was boisterous; Rory was quiet. Lorelai watched TV; Rory read books. Lorelai was impetuous; Rory was careful and considered. Lorelai spent most of her adult life not knowing what she wanted to be when she grew up; Rory had her whole life mapped out by the time she was in middle school.
Despite both characters getting equal standing in the show’s title, Gilmore Girls was a show built around Lorelai, and when it ended, the 22-year-old Rory that went off to join Barack Obama on the campaign trail was not so different from the 16-year-old Rory who got accepted to Chilton. All the odds seemed to be in her favor, as, honestly, they always had been. On the off-chance that she ever faltered, we knew there would be a whole host of people waiting to pitch in and help her regain her footing.
When A Year in the Life was first announced, with the show’s original creative team at the helm, I was hopeful that maybe this version of Rory would finally be allowed to unequivocally fail at something, anything, and from the ashes of that failure, rise as a wiser, stronger character than the largely stagnant girl we’d followed for seven seasons. It’s not that I wished Rory ill, but rather that I’ve watched her be comfortable and praised and adored, and I was ready for something new. I wanted her to be challenged. I wanted her to have to grit her teeth and use that ambition, intellect, and determination that have always defined her to face new trials with greater stakes than which Ivy League school to attend or which beloved multi-millionaire to ask for help.
Perhaps, I speculated, Rory had failed as a journalist (which, even during the original run of Gilmore Girls, seemed likely), blown through her inheritance from her grandfather, and was forced to take a job she didn’t want in order to make ends meet. Perhaps she would mirror her mother’s determination to do things on her own and reinvent herself in her 30s; or perhaps it would be more that she wouldn’t want to burden her grandmother with her money woes while she was grieving Richard; or perhaps the adult Rory would simply be more open to paths that were not, at first glance, the ones she would have chosen for herself. Perhaps she would have found that the dreams and passions of a 16-year-old don’t have to–and, in fact, rarely do–define a person for their entire life, and would’ve been more open to shifting her focus to a career better suited to who she was at 32 than who she wanted to be at 22.
Perhaps–and it’s bizarre that this was even a thing I had to hope for, rather than a foregone conclusion–Rory would have grown up.
However, as the premiere of A Year in the Life grew closer, I began to temper my expectations. Once it became known that the final four words of the revival would be the same ones Amy Sherman-Palladino had intended for the series finale a decade prior, it seemed to follow that, despite the characters being much older, their journeys would mirror what they would have been in the alternate universe version of season 7 where the show never changed hands. (One has to wonder if the reason that Emily’s arc was the strongest of the revival was because Edward Hermann’s death forced Amy Sherman-Palladino to deviate significantly from her original plan.) But I still hoped, perhaps foolishly, that she would allow for at least some growth in her central characters. They were, after all, ten years older. Surely they couldn’t have remained stagnant for ten years.
However, once the four episodes of A Year in the Life dropped on Netflix, it quickly became clear that that’s exactly what they–and especially Rory–did. She had, as I’d expected, failed as a journalist, but instead of that teaching her any lessons, she stubbornly dug her heels in and refused to take any job that she saw as settling, turning down an offer of literally any job she wanted at Chilton (???) and instead pursuing a celebrity ghostwriting gig on spec (could there possibly be a less reliable career move?) while holding out for a regular staff reporting job to be handed to her–but not the one available to her, a better one.
Rory did indeed come back home–but only to store her stuff at her mom’s and long-suffering best friend’s homes so that she could fly back and forth to London for an affair with her engaged college boyfriend (presumably on his dime, since she claimed she didn’t even have enough money to buy underwear for over six months). She showed up completely unprepared to a job interview, only to become deeply offended that she was not offered the job anyway. She literally forgot that she had a boyfriend for the better part of three years, until he finally (much too late) broke up with her.
This sort of selfish, destructive behavior would have felt like a stretch even for 22-year-old Rory, but from 32-year-old Rory, it’s more than unfortunate; it’s infuriating. In A Year in the Life, the Palladinos had a chance to not only give their characters the send-off they deserved, but to right the wrongs of the past. This was a prime opportunity to show that Rory had learned from her mistakes, that she had decided to see the ridiculously good hand she was dealt in life as the gift it was and not as a permanent crutch, that she had come to realize that there is something to be said for cleaning up your own messes, that all her hard work as a kid and her potential as a young adult had not been utterly squandered on a glamorous life of entitled narcissism.
But I should’ve known better. The Palladinos may not have been responsible for Gilmore Girls’ largely disappointing final season, but they were the ones in charge of the six seasons leading up to it, in which Rory was always a stagnant prop used to advance her mother’s plot. They’ve never known what to do with her, never truly challenged her or taken away her safety net, never put her through the same sort of trials by fire that her mother and grandmother have been forced to face.
Let me be clear, the problem isn’t that Rory made mistakes or questionable choices. Everyone, whether they are 16 or 22 or 32, screws up now and then, sometimes in major ways. Rory should mess up sometimes. She should make bad calls. She should have complicated relationships. She should stand her ground even when she is dead wrong. Life is messy, and Rory should be allowed to be messy along with it.
The problem is that life should change you, yet on every side of the mess, Rory comes out exactly the same.
In A Year in the Life, Richard’s death puts Emily put through the wringer, and she comes out the other side a changed person. Lorelai is forced to confront her unresolved feelings about her father and her tempestuous relationship with her mother, and unpacks her own fears and insecurities through grief and therapy. But Rory is permitted to simply drift listlessly through the revival, taking no stands, making no big decisions, experiencing no revelations. By the end of the revival, she is no closer to any of her goals than she was at the beginning, and aside from the reveal of the final four words, has undergone no significant changes.
While my feelings toward Rory have always been rather conflicted, in A Year in the Life, my biggest disappointment wasn’t in her, but in the sinking realization that no matter who was running the show, there was never any intention of letting her deliver on her potential. The intent was always to take a smart, funny, ambitious girl and do absolutely nothing with her. Rory’s intelligence, her wit, her drive and determination, none of that was ever more than set dressing.
In the opening scene of A Year in the Life, Lorelai puts on a show of acting irritated that Rory looks perfect after getting off a plane. Anyone else in those circumstances, Lorelai insists, would look haggard. It’s laughed off as a bit, but she has a point. Rory has a habit of going through situations that would and should leave her scarred, yet emerging without a metaphorical hair out of place. It’s been a running joke ever since Paris and Rory were Puffed back in season 2, when Paris was a horror show of zit cream and ratty hair, and Rory looked like she just stepped out of a Delia’s catalog. In hindsight, it should’ve been a clue: don’t expect anything she faces during the course of this show to affect Rory, for Rory does not change, even when she should.
It’s a shame, for she could’ve been so much more. Whether she achieved her dreams or failed spectacularly, her storyline had the potential to be rich with fresh new challenges and character growth. But alas, it was never meant to be. What A Year in the Life made abundantly clear is that while Rory Gilmore had all the trappings of a great character, she never stood a chance to actually be one, because her creators don’t see her as a person, and never have.
One thought on “The Wasted Potential of Rory Gilmore”