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Smart Pop Classics: Coffee at Luke's

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Smart Pop Classics: Happiness Under Glass from Coffee at Luke’s

In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. This week, in her essay from Coffee at Luke’s: An Unauthorized Gilmore Girls Gabfest, Jill Winters compares Stars Hollow to a snow globe, a picture perfect place full of eternally content characters . . . and Lorelai Gilmore.

RORY: It’s a Friday night. We should be out, I don’t know, partying with the homies.
LORELAI: Our Stars Hollow homies are all in bed by now.
(“Keg! Max!” 3-19)

It always looks like October in Stars Hollow, Connecticut. Picturesque New England town that it is, Stars Hollow seems unfailingly temperate, colorful, and pretty. It’s never cloudy. No one’s hair blows wildly in the wind; no one’s umbrella flips inside out during a torrential downpour. No one appears plagued by the standard, oppressive humidity of a northeastern August. Populated by people who are quirky but kind, Stars Hollow exists as a cozy, idyllic place, free of crime and malice, and full of simple charm.

So it’s really no wonder that Lorelai Gilmore chose to raise her daughter and build her life there. Or even that she would prefer it to the affluent and more socially conscious world in which she grew up.

When Lorelai fled from her parents’ home in Hartford, she was still a teenager, and had a very young Rory in tow. It was only natural that she found sanctuary in Stars Hollow when the quaint Independence Inn took her in and gave her a job. But long after she’d had her daughter and become a self-sufficient woman, Lorelai still embraced Stars Hollow as her home, without question and with an implicit and unwavering allegiance.

Or so it would seem. She is an active member of the community. Her best friendships (with Luke and Sookie) and her professional ambitions (to run her own inn) both rest snugly inside the town. The diner that provides most of her meals and feeds her coffee addiction is only a walk away. (As is the pancake joint that serves stellar Chinese food.) Between lovable neighbors and local movie nights, Lorelai embraces Stars Hollow as unequivocally superior to the life that came before it.

But if that’s the case—then why has happiness so often eluded her?

Over the course of the show, Lorelai has found herself in suffocating debt to her parents and gone from one failed relationship to the next. It would be tempting to blame her disappointments on the varying circumstances that accompanied them, but to do that would be to ignore the larger pattern of Lorelai’s behavior—which reflects an acute ambivalence toward Stars Hollow.

Emily Junior

Despite Lorelai’s vocal disdain for her parents and the wealthy trappings of their lifestyle, she is more like Emily and Richard Gilmore than she would ever admit. Especially Emily. In fact, while she may be wittier and more gregarious than her mother, Lorelai comports herself with an equivalent amount of self-importance. Lest we get seduced by the cult of personality, we need to set aside Lorelai’s general affability and look at her through unfiltered glasses. When we do, we see that she is vain.

Sure, she might mock her mother for her preoccupation with “appearances,” but conveniently, Lorelai herself is always stylishly put together. Her clothes are trendy. Her hair is curled. She usually wears makeup and she never repeats an outfit.

More importantly, she is arrogant. Where Emily is restrained, Lorelai is chatty—but either way, they are two sides of the same coin. Both are pushy and self-absorbed. Like Emily, Lorelai exudes a supreme sense of entitlement in nearly everything she does. Whether it was demanding that she be the one to choose the annual town square movie, or the time she showed up late and made herself the center of attention at Chilton’s Parent Night, or the day she deliberately annoyed customers at Luke’s diner so they would be uncomfortable and leave—thus freeing up the table where Lorelai preferred to sit—her sense of entitlement has never wavered. (And, like Emily, Lorelai has instilled it in her daughter.) In fact, in some cases, Lorelai is actually worse than her mother; while Emily is dogmatic in her devotion to social graces, Lorelai makes her endless, and often inappropriate, quips the center of every conversation she takes part in, even peripherally.

But Lorelai’s resemblance to her mother goes beyond vanity. It’s been nakedly apparent in the things she has wanted for Rory since the beginning of the series, which included admission to Chilton (an elite private high school), followed by a top-notch, ivy league education. (And she may have paid a lot of lip service to the idea of “only Harvard” and “never Yale”—which was her father’s alma mater—but Lorelai’s loud protest against her “parents’ world” was hollow at the core. As if sending Rory to Yale would be an admission that she embraced her parents’ values, but sending her to Harvard was an act totally independent of them.)

So it was not a cruel quirk of fate that Lorelai ended up in debt to her parents. Rather, it was to be expected. Despite her endless derision for Emily’s elitism, Lorelai clearly shared an admiration for the prestige and exclusiveness of institutions like Chilton, Harvard, and Yale. so much so that she was willing to let her parents have the satisfaction of financing both.

The Outsider Within

Despite Lorelai’s tendency to reach outside of Stars Hollow in her aspirations for her daughter—and more often than not, reach back toward her roots—she remains sentimentally attached to the town. Comfortable. Determined not to leave. So every time she chose a boyfriend outside of the town, she was simply continuing on a recursive loop in which her romantic relationships were preordained to fail.

It was no bizarre accident that prior to Luke, all of Lorelai’s romances were with men who lived a good thirty-minute drive away. Men who were more representative of her parents’ social set than her own—men who would never and could never fit seamlessly into life in Stars Hollow. Not an accident, but rather a pathology—a telling one. Despite Lorelai’s affection for Stars Hollow, she constructed her romantic life in sync with an underlying, yet persistent, desire to pull away from it.

First there was Max Medina, Rory’s (pompous and unattractive) English teacher at Chilton (who had sloped shoulders and Eddie Munster’s hairdo). Then there was Lorelai’s on-again, off-again flame, Christopher Hayden, who is Rory’s biological father. Interestingly, (arrested adolescent) Christopher is part of the same privileged Hartford set that Lorelai rejected—yet time and again, she has been drawn back to him. Next up, there was (nasal-voiced) Jason Stiles, who could not have been more ingrained in Lorelai’s parents’ world—he was Richard Gilmore’s business partner! Nevertheless, Lorelai began a serious relationship with him, only to have it fall apart later when Jason threatened to sue Richard. On the surface, Lorelai’s breakup with Jason was rooted in family loyalty, but I can’t help but note that it came not long after Jason visited Stars Hollow, turned his nose up at Luke’s diner, and took little interest in the town. Even regular-guy Alex Lesman, whom Lorelai dated briefly, was yet another outsider. Lorelai met him at a seminar she attended out of town, and their most significant date was spent in New York City.

So what does it all mean? so Lorelai happened to date men who lived outside of Stars Hollow. So she never considered dating anyone in town—a town with a population of 10,000—except for her longtime friend, Luke Danes. So that relationship fell apart, too—and she went running right back to Christopher. So what?

So, nothing just “happened.” Rather, Lorelai, quite unconsciously, set up a conundrum. She firmly rooted herself in Stars Hollow—by psychologically ascribing it as home—then secured her future in the town by purchasing the Dragonfly Inn. And then she set about choosing boyfriends who were incompatible with her world. Boyfriends who, ultimately, would be unable to compete with the lure and comfort of Stars Hollow.

It was particularly symbolic when Max Medina sent Lorelai 1,000 daisies along with his marriage proposal (after she expressly told him that she would have liked 1,000 daisies along with his marriage proposal— so imaginative, that Max). Sure, she was touched by the gesture, but she clearly found more enjoyment in going around giving out the daisies to her neighbors than in thinking about marriage to Max.

To understand Lorelai’s pattern, we need to understand what she has never articulated: her desire to be both an insider and an outsider in regards to Stars Hollow. From the series’s nascence through today, Lorelai has wanted to be fully embraced by both worlds—Stars Hollow and the affluent Other, the world of her parents—yet to retain her position slightly outside of each. Where she can be a critical spectator. Where she can hold herself a little apart—and above. Purporting to identify with Stars Hollow, yet always making sure to have “a life” outside of it, Lorelai has never really seen her neighbors as her peers or considered them to be on her level—an attitude that is mirrored in her daughter, Rory.

What better demonstration of this push-pull dynamic than the regular town meetings? Lorelai and Rory have gone to every single one—and then spent the entire time mocking the proceedings. When Mayor Taylor Doose selected Rory as the town’s poster girl, she railed against the honor. (Clearly she didn’t consider it one.) With constant sarcasm, Lorelai and Rory often seem to be stopping just short of blatantly making fun of whomever they’re talking to, whether it be Taylor, Kirk, Babette, Mrs. Kim, or any of the other Stars Hollow fixtures. (In fact, only their best friends, Sookie and Lane, have been consistently treated with respect.)

Like her mom, Rory has also sought romantic fulfillment in opposition to Stars Hollow. She broke up with Stars Hollow High basketball player Dean Forester in favor of (shorter, jerkier) “bad boy” Jess Mariano, who made no secret of his loathing for Stars Hollow or his eagerness to leave. He was irresistible to Rory really because he articulated her own restlessness, which had only just begun.

When Jess left, Rory eventually backslid to Old Faithful—but ended up breaking Dean’s heart again with her growing infatuation with (the perennially smug) Logan Huntzberger, a fellow Yale student whose extravagantly wealthy family had long been friends with Emily and Richard. There is a familiar pattern here—which is another way of saying, “like mother, like daughter.”

But even if Rory’s romantic interests could be satisfied in Stars Hollow, her goals and interests can not. Since high school she has aspired to be an investigative journalist. Before she’d turned twenty-one, she’d already been to Europe twice. In the latter seasons of the show, she’d even contemplated first a trip to Asia, then an extended jaunt to London.

Clearly Rory has striven beyond Stars Hollow in bigger, more dramatic ways than her mother, but . . . is the principal the same? Is there something missing in Stars Hollow? The same something that has kept Lorelai from committing fully to her life there—kept her just a little bit outside, looking in?

Which begs our original question: Why has happiness eluded her?

The Floating Jar

It would be easy to call Stars Hollow a “storybook world”—but it gets tricky when we begin to consider what story that book is telling. Apart from the Gilmores, Stars Hollow is its own narrative. Is it the story of small town New England? Or a deliberately implausible fiction? Is it constructed of events—or images? And where does individual “happiness” fit in?

When you consider Stars Hollow for what it is—pretty and self-contained—and when you consider that, aside from the Gilmores, the townspeople never seem to change much, Stars Hollow becomes like a scene inside a snow globe. Sure, there is activity among the locals. There are antics. People such as Kirk, Taylor, Babette, and Miss Patty swirl around, sometimes leisurely, sometimes frenetically—like little flakes in the globe, like objects in a floating jar—but they never really go anywhere. They don’t change; they don’t grow. And yet, they seem far happier than those who have tried to change their lives in a significant way while staying within the bubble of Stars Hollow, like Lane and Dean.

In fact, when the series began, Dean had just moved to Stars Hollow from Chicago. He was tall, cute, sweet, the ideal “catch” for any teenage girl. Yet, as the series progressed and Dean opted not to go to Southern Connecticut College but instead to get married and remain in Stars Hollow, he began rapidly losing his appeal.

It wasn’t long before he was a bona fide town fixture, working at the same local grocery store that he had since high school and all but wearing his malaise like a drab parka. He might have ascribed feeling trapped to his annoying wife, Lindsay—and his affair with Rory to a natural result of that—but in reality, Dean’s marriage was just a tangible thing to blame. He wasn’t the cliché of “trapped in a bad marriage”; he was just trapped, period, again forcing us to confront the disturbing truth: Stars Hollow does not seem to be a place where one can evolve.

Happiness in Stars Hollow has always been a kind of stasis. A lack of drive to move forward and a contentment, instead, to float. To stay somewhat suspended—to stay the same. Like a snow globe, it’s a beautiful scene and ideal only if a person does not strive beyond the glass.

Fittingly, most of the townspeople we have come to know don’t really have any discernible goals. Even Sookie is among the contented snowflakes. True, she got married and had children over the course of the show, but the changes in her life were natural, comfortable extensions of her day-to-day routine. The man she married was her long-time friend. And her personal goals simply have not taken her beyond the glass.

Though she eventually partnered with Lorelai in buying the Dragonfly Inn, when the two had an opportunity to do some exciting traveling, Sookie enthusiastically encouraged Lorelai, telling her it would be a great thing for her to do. It was automatic; Sookie didn’t even consider it as a possibility for herself. She simply had no drive for it, not even a remote interest in that level of change. But that absence of yearning is precisely what has made her happier than Lorelai throughout the series.

In my estimation, the happiest person in Stars Hollow has been the character who has most mirrored the town in terms of narrative expectation: Miss Patty, the overweight, unmarried dance teacher (who would’ve thought?). What have always defined Miss Patty are all the stories that came before. Like Stars Hollow, she came to us preset. Just as Stars Hollow is idealized, Patty’s stories are romanticized. As a former dancer, singer, and stage actress, she has always existed for us as a compilation of memories—of a rich past that allows her contentment in the present. (In fact, Gilmore Girls even gave a nod to this in the episode featuring Patty’s one-woman show, “Buckle Up, I’m Patty!”)

But Lorelai has always been an innately restless work-in-progress. As such, she has kept herself at a slight distance from the town, avoiding a serious relationship within Stars Hollow—until Luke, which turned out to be just as suffocating a prospect as perhaps Lorelai always feared.

To followers of the show, Luke and Lorelai’s long friendship-turned-courtship probably seemed fated. From the very beginning, there was an undercurrent of attraction between them. A near-flirtation in their daily banter. A special and resilient friendship. But when they finally got together as a couple . . . it fizzled. Their friendship suffered. Their communication failed at every turn. Even their chemistry was off. Resentment and awkwardness replaced their previously effortless rapport.

Granted, it didn’t happen instantly, but over the course of two seasons. Their first big obstacle to overcome was Rory’s dad, Christopher, whom Lorelai continued to spend time with while keeping it from Luke. As old habits die hard, so, apparently, did Lorelai’s stirring to have a life all to herself out of Stars Hollow. The next set of problems began when Lorelai became engaged to Luke, thereby fully committing to him. Committing to a whole world inside a snow globe.

In spite of Luke’s curmudgeonly disposition, he has always been more like Babette, Kirk, and Miss Patty than like Lorelai herself. Sure, he is amusing and sharp and not exactly a joiner—but he is also, unequivocally, a townie. He has never desired more than his day-to-day routine. He even had to be pressured and cajoled into putting a fresh coat of paint on his diner. No matter how grouchy he has been at the town meetings, townspeople have still remarked more than once that Luke would never leave Stars Hollow.

So where would that leave Lorelai—a woman who has kept just enough distance from the town’s grasp to retain her autonomy? Once she committed to a life with Luke, how her world would shrink.

Season six of Gilmore Girls took hits from critics for its sluggish pace and for straying from its most basic tenets—namely, that Lorelai and Rory are more than mother and daughter, they are also best friends, and that while both are flippant, Lorelai is bold and Rory is reserved. But in season six, that changed. Normally studious Rory decided to steal a yacht, then leave Yale and bum around her grandparents’ mansion. A totally uncharacteristic feud between her and Lorelai stretched on for episodes. Lorelai didn’t fight to break the silence between them, but rather waited around, depressed, for it to end.

Meanwhile, Luke started pulling back. He’d learned that he had a daughter with an ex-girlfriend and then kept it from Lorelai. When he finally did tell her, he refused to let her meet the girl. The Lorelai whom viewers had come to know would never have accepted that. But this was a distinctly less spunky Lorelai, one with dwindling confidence and a whiny kind of insecurity. At first glance, it seemed she was acting out of character. But then—she’d never been in a situation like this. She’d never been in a state of relying solely on her life in Stars Hollow for her fulfillment. This was merely the result.

Interestingly, Lorelai wasn’t the only character who changed with the circumstances. Rory seemed to compensate for her mother’s reticence with an over-the-top flamboyance that ran counter to the Gilmore formula. Luke struggled with what amounted to the inverse of Lorelai’s problem: Stars Hollow was swallowing her up, as the outside world was intruding in on him—on his comfortably closed-off world.

Or, to continue with the floating jar analogy, while one was stifled inside the glass, the other was panicking because the lid had been twisted off. Of course Luke felt affection for April, the daughter he never knew he had, but her existence still disrupted his life in a very unsettling way.

Unsurprisingly, by the end of the season, Luke and Lorelai had broken up. And even more unsurprisingly, Lorelai ran straight back to Christopher. Yet after spending the night with him, she lay awake with a pained look on her face. Again we had to wonder: What on earth does Lorelai want? What would make her truly happy? The answer has to lie somewhere between Emily and Rory, the two women closest to Lorelai—so close that they can’t help but reveal her true nature.

Okay. so Lorelai shares her mother’s frankness and her penchant for self-importance. At the same time, she feels a personal restlessness that Emily does not. Emily is urbane and well-traveled, but she has kept her personal world very small; she needs it to be small so that she can control it. Her friendships have more to do with social convenience than emotion. She keeps her husband, as well as her string of maids, on a rigid schedule of her own design. But for the fact that Lorelai can’t stand her, Emily would be quite content.

Lorelai, on the other hand, craves something bigger. Like her daughter, Rory, she strives for something more than her immediate surroundings. Yet unlike Rory, she hasn’t put a name to it. Her goals don’t, by their nature, necessitate a life beyond Stars Hollow (as Rory’s journalism career does).

Lorelai’s “dreams” aren’t grand or even clearly defined, but one thing seems certain: she is not prepared to swap goals for glass, no matter how pretty the snow globe. Looking at Stars Hollow as a narrative allows us to recognize its finite structure and that, as in any story, the textual landscape is what defines a “happy ending.” If happiness in Stars Hollow is a stasis, a kind of fluttering in suspension, and an absence, really, of longing and hoping far beyond the immediate, then Lorelai’s best bet for happiness is not in the text itself, but perhaps in the white spaces. She is not trapped. rather, in her defiance of Stars Hollow’s constraints—and yet her refusal to relinquish her own important place in the town—she has, in effect, created her own niche. A place that exists not quite in Stars Hollow, but close enough. Close enough for Lorelai to enjoy a central role in the Stars Hollow “story.” Undefined enough to give her freedom, power, possibility. And this seems to be the best position for a strong-willed, dynamic character like her. Because while the idyllic, almost surreal world of Stars Hollow may be the stuff of sleepy contentment—it’s an implausible place for dreams.

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