Saturday, November 26, 2016

What Gilmore Girls Teaches Us About Passion and Dreams

I was among those looking forward to Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life with great excitement. But I was also looking forward with tempered expectations. I didn't expect the reboot to be able to capture the magic of the original series, and I don't think I was wrong. (Spoilers for the entire A Year in the Life from here on out). I was disappointed with some of the delivery (what was with that forever-long musical sequence, for instance?), and I was left perplexed by those last four words, but that's not my central focus in this response.

The four, ninety-minute episodes had a lot to love. The characters felt mostly true to their development, and I didn't feel like the actors were phoning it in. There were plenty of moments tucked in with clear appreciation for the fan base (hello, Mr. Kim!). It was, to put it one way, clearly a  project of passion: the actors', the writers', and the fans'. Perhaps that's why approaching an analysis of it as a way to understand passion seems like a natural fit to me.

Tara Seetharam wrote an Atlantic piece about the reboot's potential to show a full-circle Millennial arc. She smartly places the show as a whole in conversation with its pop culture descendants and concludes with a hopeful tone about what A Year in the Life can provide:
But the return of Rory Gilmore—a textured, early-aughts character who mostly preceded the scrutiny of her generation—will be a fascinating contribution to this developing narrative. Her arc will link her generation’s foundation with its emergence into adulthood in an unprecedented way. In doing so, A Year in the Life could help make the case for seeing other Millennial stories through, from their awkward beginnings to their, hopefully, more enlightened ends.
The show definitely handed this "Millennial arc" directly, often in a ham-fisted way. The "Thirtysomething Gang," which is featured in one of the promos for the show and never develops past that caricature, represents Rory's worst fears: that she has "come back" home a "loser" without any prospects for the future. The Thirtysomethings are infinitely mockable, doe-eyed and lost, spending their nights re-enacting movie scenes while clinging to one another for comfort. Sure, they're supposed to be a joke, but it's a joke whose punchline has been repeated again and again in the culture at large: "Kids today! Am I right?"

We don't get any detailed looks at what has placed the members of the Thirtysomething gang in their predicament. Babette tells us they went out in the world, got chewed up by it, and returned. So were they rejected from jobs? Were they unable to make ends meet on their own? Were they crushed by student loan debt? We don't know.

What we do know is that Rory Gilmore's similar crisis is mostly of her own making. She is not facing a shortage of opportunities. She has worked steadily, but unsatisfactorily. We see that she's gotten some great writing opportunities (most notably a well-received New Yorker piece) which she is unable to successfully transform into a more full-time gig. We watch her struggle through attempts at co-writing a book, pitching pieces to GQ, and even taking over the Stars Hollow Gazette as volunteer editor. In each case, she starts out excited by the possibilities and then dejected by the less-than-fantastic reality.

This is not new territory for our youngest Gilmore. She faced a very similar choice in the final season when she turned down a solid reporting job in the hopes of getting the coveted Reston Fellowship, a fellowship she did not get. When she tries to double back and take the job, it has already been filled. Her decision to chase the passion project instead of taking the safer-but-still-rooted-in-her-field choice was a point of contention between Logan and Lorelai. Lorelai insisted that hedging your bets and making some choices out of concern for stability was a smart move. Logan, himself freshly having rejected his father's dynasty for his own idealistic dreams, insists that passion is more important. We could boil it down to "Follow your dreams" vs. "Use your dreams as a guide, but do it while you're awake with both eyes open."

When the original series ended, following her passion (and Logan's advice) instead of playing it safe (as Lorelai wished) seemed to have steered Rory into a good position. She's excited about following Barack Obama's presidential bid and seems to have the world at her feet. The reboot, though, shows us that things weren't exactly as they seemed.

For one, we get a closer look at Logan. His bucking the yoke of his father's dynastic intentions seems to have been much more temporary than the conclusion of the series suggested. In A Year in the Life, he's right back on his father's path, including marrying a French heiress who we never see and who operates as a symbol of Logan's subservience to his destiny. While I think we can (and should) debate what this portrayal means through a feminist lens, I'm more interested in this discussion in what it means about Logan's previous advice to Rory. He told her to follow her dreams no matter what, and he used his own gutsy move as a model, but now we know that at some point he came back in line with his father's demands. Did his business fail? Did his father have to bail him out . . . again? It's a lot easier to say "fuck the system" when you know that you can always fall back on daddy's money and a life full of safety nets when it goes wrong.

Rory, too, has safety nets. The brief scene with Christopher shows him offering her money. The Chilton Headmaster offers her a job "in any discipline" teaching at a prestigious private school. She has friends across the world willing to put her up (often in luxurious surroundings) for free.

Perhaps, then, she's not the best case study for how one should handle the balance of passion and practicality. What, instead, can we learn from those around her?

The theme to Gilmore Girls as a whole is just this: What happens when passion meets reality? When do you bend and what happens if you break? Virtually every character represents this theme in some way or another, and a closer look at how the show wraps up their story arc might give us a clearer idea of what overall message we're to receive.

Like Logan, Jess and Dean exist more as conduits into Rory's story than fleshed out characters of their own. With that in mind, what can we learn from their reappearance?
When Rory sees Dean in Doose's Market, she lays out very clearly what he represents to her. "The perfect first boyfriend" functioned to teach her "what safe felt like." We see that Dean has gone on to represent that to someone else: a wife now pregnant with her fourth child. His representation of a status quo protectionism is both familiar and comforting, but Rory rejected what he represented, and I get the sense that (even if she's nostalgic for what it might have meant) she's still glad that she did. That kind of safety came with more sacrifices than she was willing to make, sacrifices not just of opportunity but also of identity. 
Jess, on the other hand, is there to ignite a flame of identity in Rory. He's the one who suggests the Gilmore Girls book project that seems to be Rory's raison d'ĂȘtre at the end of the reboot. His longing look at her through the window after his insistence that his love for her is "long over" suggests that she still represents a kind of "one that got away" for him, but what does he represent to us? He, like Luke, followed a passion that others didn't see as worthy and made it into a comfortable, if modest, existence. His main role, though, is to be what he has always been: Dean's foil. If Dean represents the safe and boring extinguishing of Rory's individuality, Jess represents the steady and bright burning of it. 
The other supporting characters in the show seems to function as some kind of lesson in what following your dreams can entail. Here are the lessons they teach as I see them.
Lane and Zack 
Lane and Zack are also Millennials, and Lane, like Logan, bucked a lifetime of tradition and expectations in order to follow her dreams. We see in the original series that those dreams are immediately tempered by the realities of having to make a living (she's waitressing to pay her bills) and family obligations (she finds herself pregnant with twins immediately following her wedding and gives up the opportunity to go on tour because of the logistical nightmare). We already knew, then, that Lane represented a cautionary tale when it came to following your dreams.  
A Year in the Life gives us an endearing revival of Hep Alien. Domestic life, financial responsibilities, and commitment to rock and roll have braided together to give us Zack with a day job he doesn't seem to like ("I didn't ask for this promotion!") and a literal changing of persona in order to go back to his "real" self as a rock star ("Is he him yet?"). We see them playing at The Secret Bar at night, so presumably they are managing the balance in a way that offers some kind of fulfillment, but it certainly isn't the world tours and life of fame that Lane dreamed of.  
The lesson here: Scraps of your dreams are better than no dreams at all.  
Probably owing more to the real-life dreams of Melissa McCarthy than anything else, Sookie's story is . . . odd. She has abandoned her dream of the Dragonfly to live an experimental life of tasting dirt (really!) and growing things. She is presented as having followed her passions to the extreme, and she sacrifices a lot to do it. She loses out on her friendships and is incensed to see that "her" kitchen has been sullied by other chefs in her absence. I guess you could see her arc as a success if you squint, but to me it felt mostly like a sad warning: follow your dreams too closely and you'll end up giving up everything you gain along the way.  
Michele's story is complicated. He has married, and his husband desperately wants children. Michele admits that he is going to give in to this demand without passion. He says that fatherhood, for him, will always be an act.  
Perhaps that's why it becomes so important to him that his work life fully represent his passions since his home life no longer can. He is set to leave the Dragonfly unless Lorelai finds a way to expand it and give him more responsibility and power. She ultimately ingratiates herself to her mother (something we all know she hates) in order to meet these demands. 
I guess the lesson from him is something like this: You can't compromise everything. If you give in here, you have to stay firm there.  
Luke, in my eyes, is the biggest success story. He literally did exactly what he wanted with his life. He built a diner, rejected anyone else's attempts to make it more than he wanted it to be, and married a woman he loved to spend his days with.
His lesson: Don't let anyone else tell you what your dream is.  
Paris is probably the biggest on-paper success. She runs a fertility empire, and she runs it with her signature iron fist, leaving anyone who dare cross her physically shaking.
As we see from the scene in the Chilton bathroom, though, she isn't particularly satisfied with the life she built. Her divorce from Doyle is taking a toll on her, and she even accuses Rory of having an affair with him, a clear sign of insecurity.  
What was Paris' passion? In the original series, we see her equally willing to be a lawyer or a doctor, largely based off of the prestige of the institutions willing to accept her. We find out that she has stitched these opportunities together and handles legal and medical issues in her role as fertility director. At the end of the day, though, Paris' definition of success has always been determined by someone else. She is the foil to Luke, and her ultimate "success" may look a lot better than his, but it rings hollow when struck.  
Her lesson is the same as Luke's but told as cautionary tale rather than role model: Don't let anyone else tell you what your dream is. (And if you do, you may end up with no dream at all.) 

Obvious omissions from my list are Lorelai and Emily. As the other titular "Gilmore Girls," they seem like a good place to close.

Lorelai Lorelai is obviously a case study in success through adversity, and she is clearly struggling with the outcome in A Year in the Life. After a scrappy, individualistic life of doing things her own way, she got exactly what she said she always wanted. There is a very overt, direct discussion of how she refuses to compromise. Her mother mocks her for it, and she points out to Luke that everything from how they live to who controls the closet has been decided by her.  
Her Wild moment (gag me; my least favorite part of the reboot) has her reflecting on this in a very direct way, and when she returns, she marries Luke and agrees to expand the inn, both attempts to put her apparent newfound attitude into action. 
Emily has always done what everyone expected of her. Her role as Richard's wife was largely about keeping up appearances. Her home, her clothes, her long list of volunteer duties, the food she prepares, the maids she fires, everything about her is a representation of that role. In the reboot, we see it all come apart when Richard is no longer there to anchor it.  
Emily, who famously never kept a maid for longer than an episode and once fired one for walking too loudly, now has one maid's entire family living in her home. In fact, they have largely taken over the place. She gives a "bullshit"-laden rant to the DAR and is effectively removed from her duties before selling her house and retreating to her presumable final act as a lively (and kind of scary) docent at a Whaling Museum.  
It is absurd, but it is also my favorite part of the show. Here is a woman who has worn the weight of other's expectations for her entire life. She has passed that weight along at every chance she's gotten, and now, suddenly, she has decided to rid herself of it all together.  
Marie Kondo's tidying tips are lightly mocked in the show, but Emily ultimately puts her core principles into practice in a way that goes far beyond ditching some clothes and furniture. If it doesn't bring you joy, get rid of it. In this case, the "it" turned out to mean virtually every part of her life. 
So what does it all mean? Every character, major and minor, followed an arc of dream-seeking with varying degrees of success. What are we, the viewers, supposed to take away from it? And what do those final four words have to do with it?

One of Lorelai's dreams was to give Rory a life different from her own, but when Rory reveals that she's pregnant (with either Logan's child as he goes off to marry into his destiny or the child of a nameless one-night-stand dressed as a Wookie), what happens to Lorelai's hopes for her? Rory has come full circle and brought us right back where we started. Sure, she has more resources than her teenage mother did. She has an education, at least the sprouts of a career, and a whole town full of support. She gets to start out with the things that Lorelai had to fight to weave into her single motherhood.

Lorelai's destiny was to become Emily, a persona we now know functioned more as a trap than a success. Becoming pregnant with Rory was the catalyst for removing herself from that trap, and even though it brought about challenges and delays, Lorelai ultimately used her identity as struggling single mother to build the life she wanted. Her main lesson is now how to go back and let other people in, to compromise some of those dreams to allow other people's dreams to overlap with hers. Rory was never confined to such a destiny. Her path was always wide open, so perhaps her own impending single motherhood functions in the opposite way. Will she now have a reason to focus? A reason to stop casting off opportunities as insufficient because she finally has some definition?

I wish there were some neater message to take away from a show that I have always loved, but ultimately A Year in the Life left me with more questions than answers. I don't think that was its intention. There were too many on-the-nose lectures and symbols around, but I don't think they ultimately worked.

If Rory is supposed to stand in as a Millennial lesson (a lesson to my generation) on how to live in this world, I don't feel particularly optimistic. (Considering how the rest of 2016 has gone, perhaps that's fitting--if disappointing--after all.)

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