Original Airdate: March 2, 2004
Writer: Jane Espenson
Director: Marita Grabiak
Executive Producer: Amy Sherman-Palladino
Cast: Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel, Kelly Bishop, Edward Herrmann
“Gilmore Girls” was expert at making the ordinary seem extraordinary. Simple conversations about a pen or a shoelace were regularly turned into five minute monologues that served not only as a really good illustration about why pens are so darn great, but also might serve as a metaphor concerning the Clinton administration. If there is a consistent argumentative point between those who love and loathe this series, it’s that “no one really talks like that!”
But obviously there really isn’t a Hellmouth over some town called Sunnydale either. And I’m fairly certain Carrie could never afford that apartment and those shoes in Manhattan on her salary. Similarly, the dialogue in “Gilmore Girls” is merely a fantastical element in a series grounded in character and emotion. It’s more than just the speaking style of “Bringing Up Baby” spread out over 178 hours of television: It’s the way the characters combat one another and dance around their emotions because they are not ready to process them. If you’ve seen more than one episode of the show, you know there’s a much harder edge to the relationships than its detractors believe. At its best, the dialogue crackles and the characters battle in the same way characters do in a David Mamet play.
|Seriously, that was her hair.|
“The Reigning Lorelai” was broadcast during a huge transitory period for the show. Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Luke (Scott Patterson) were in awkward relationships that floundered with viewers. The marriage between Emily (Kelly Bishop) and Richard (Richard Herrmann) was about to hit the skids. Rory (Alexis Bledel) was beginning her studies at Yale (with a haircut I’d rather not discuss) and the show groaned as it adjusted. And then this masterpiece of an episode came along. If the show’s gift was making the ordinary extraordinary, it became transcendent when something extraordinary came along that the Gilmore clan had to deal with. Think about Rory’s car accident in season two or Richard’s heart attack in season seven.
Here the Gilmore Matriarch, Lorelai “Trix” Gilmore (Lorelai and Rory’s namesake), dies of a heart attack and the family must cope. This being “Gilmore Girls,” no one copes very well. Lorelai has a verbal vomit-fest in a lingerie shop after realizing she forgot to give the undertaker underwear. Richard disintegrates into a robe-wearing, man-hugging mess. Rory wonders if her non-reaction to the news means she’s a horrible person.
And then there’s Emily.
At first she seems to be handling the news better than anyone else. As usual, she’s all business, trying to do right by the mother-in-law she never liked and adhering to all of Trix’s intricate, complex funereal instructions. But then Emily discovers a letter…a letter sent from Trix to Richard the night before his wedding that begged him to reconsider marrying Emily. The letter is very forceful (Lorelai: “Man, she sure used a lot of exclamation points.”), and Emily immediately flies off the handle in a way the audience had never seen before.
Emily’s emotional breakdown is brilliant and gut-bustingly funny. She stops all funeral planning and decides it’s a great time to catch up on her book club reading. She begins drinking, smoking and starts saying things like:
“Throw the old harpy’s carcass in a ditch. Let a wolverine eat her.”
“Personally, I think we should just toss some cheese cubes in the coffin, stuff some toothpicks in her mouth and let the people go to town!”
Okay, one more:
“You want a drink? Today, I learned how to make mojitos!”
Bishop takes Emily’s character all the way to the edge of caricature, teeters on that edge for a bit, and then understood the exact moment to reign it back in before she lost the audience.
Despite Emily’s arc, writer Jane Espenson knew not to tilt the episode all the way into humor. There’s a beautiful moment, possibly the most stripped-down of the entire series, where Lorelai first visits her father after the news of Trix’s death hits. Richard is genuinely overcome with grief and Lorelai is genuinely overcome by her inability to deal with her father’s grief.
If there’s a weak point to the episode, it’s the romantic interludes. Lorelai’s current beau Jason (Chris Eigeman) shows up to talk about how he’s so emotionally stunted he cannot attend the funeral, and there’s a subplot where Luke and Nicole (Tricia O’Kelley) fight for what seems like five minutes of screen time. I’d gladly trade these scenes in for one small scene where Luke tells Lorelai he’s sorry about her loss, but that was not to be.
Each of the Gilmore family gets to interact one-on-one for at least one small scene here, and my favorite is the one between Rory and Richard. Rory’s relationship with her grandfather was always the most unforced in the show; the actors had an easy chemistry with one another and you got the feeling that the scenes wrote themselves (speaking as a writer, this is obviously not true, but it still feels that way). In this scene, Rory helps Richard with his bow-tie and Richard talks about how he could never again wear the same suit he wore to the funeral of his father. It’s beautiful, understated and heartbreaking all at once – a “Gilmore Girls” trademark (okay, trade “overstated” for “understated” and it’s a “Gilmore Girls” trademark).
Watching the episode again, I must say I was shocked that it was not written by creator/showrunner Amy Sherman Palladino or her husband Daniel Palladino (a vast majority of seasons 1-6 were written by one or the other). For a show with such a particular voice, Espenson matches it marvelously. “The Reigning Lorelai” represents the moment “Gilmore Girls” got its mojo back, seeming to re-energize the series all the way to its crackerjack season finale (that’s the one where Lorelai opens the Dragonfly Inn and finally makes out with Luke). This will certainly not be the last entry I write about the show, which is one of the reasons I wanted to become a writer in the first place.