Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Canon #10: Gilmore Girls - "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais" (2004)

The Canon is a recurring feature that looks back on outstanding movies, TV episodes, albums, books, etc.; inducting them into an imaginary canon of all-time great things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great.)

Everybody has bad days.  Sometimes when you're having a particularly rotten one, all you want to do is talk to the one person who can make you forget about it all and feel better.  For Rory Gilmore, that person is her mother Lorelai, and vice versa.  The first three seasons of Gilmore Girls were built on the foundation of their unbreakable bond, and the notion that no matter how bad things got, they always had each other to lean on.  (This idea was often used literally -- just think about how many episodes ended with the two of them embracing in some way.)  Consequently, season four of the show was a big risk, since Rory going off to Yale stood to alter the dynamic between her and Lorelai.  Although they were close enough in proximity to still see each other in person, they were far enough away that they couldn't always immediately be there for each other.  Instead of avoiding the shift in Rory and Lorelai's relationship, Amy Sherman-Palladino decided to lean into it and tackle the idea head on.

In "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais," the 13th episode of season four, Lorelai Gilmore is having a no good, very bad day.  It doesn't start off that way though: the episode begins with her, Sookie, and Michel marveling at the progress of the Dragonfly Inn, the new bed and breakfast that they're starting on their own.  It's almost time for the grand opening, and they're happy because the phones have just been hooked up, allowing them to log their first reservation.  But Lorelai gets the first bit of bad news shortly after that, as Tom, the head of the construction crew in charge of building the inn, informs her that the money is running short and his men won't be able to do the work much longer if they're not getting paid.  Once the seal breaks, a whole deluge of problems start to flow through.  She then gets into a rare fight with Sookie, who forgets to be there to sign off on an expensive sink needed for the Dragonfly's kitchen, causing it to be shipped back to Canada.  As if that weren't enough, she has to deal with the arrival of her grandmother in Hartford, who sees through Lorelai's problems and susses out that she's hemorrhaging funds.

Lorelai is a person who has made it her mission to be as independent as possible, starting from the day she had Rory and decided raise her without the help of her parents or Christopher.  So asking for a handout -- from Luke, she ultimately decides -- is a big deal for her.  Her business failing is one thing, but the embarrassment of having to seek another's help makes it worse.  But even worse than that is that she keeps trying to call Rory -- her rock, the one person who's always there to make her feel better -- but can't reach her.

Little does Lorelai know that Rory is having a no good, very bad day as well.  Aside from Lane staying at Yale due to a squabble with her mother and Paris being embroiled in a squabble of her own with Janet, Rory's going through a regular Yale day at first.  However, things take a turn when Paris finds out that Lane knows about the affair she's having with a professor, and gets angry with Rory for telling her.  When Paris confronts Rory about this, she also demands that Lane move out of their dorm, stating that their two other roommates agree that Lane has overstayed her welcome.  Initially, Rory doesn't believe it, but Paris's claims are confirmed when she later talks to Tana and Janet about it.  Much like with Lorelai, once the ball of bad news gets rolling, its momentum just keeps increasing.  The biggest blow comes when she visits her professor's office to get a paper back, and discovers that not only did she get a D on it, but that her professor thinks she should drop the class, out of concern that Rory is overworking herself.

Until now, Rory has always been the perfect student, not used to even the most minor academic setback.  Getting a D and having to drop a class is a major shortcoming for her, despite her professor's consolation that many freshmen struggle with the Yale curriculum.  The fact that her grandfather took the same course load and did just fine only makes her feel more inadequate.  And all she's got are voicemail messages from Lorelai; every time she tries to seek comfort from her mother, she can't get the real thing.

There's a beautiful symmetry to "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais."  Rory and Lorelai's storylines sit side by side, and the episode cuts from one Gilmore girl to the other, following both of their days as they decline at a similar rate.  The missed calls start off as a great joke, as we see Lorelai and Rory debate over an amusing story about an old horse through the exchange of voicemails.  But it quickly becomes clear that these failed connections are the structural elemental around which the episode is hung, and the way that they become more urgent the longer Rory and Lorelai go without hearing from one another is very effective.  Even their breakdowns mirror each other: they come back-to-back, involve both women crying in the arms of men, and have the words "I'm failing" buried somewhere in there.  It's no surprise that Lauren Graham knocks her scene out of the park, but Alexis Bledel's acting is particularly moving; it may be her best performance in the entire series.  At this point, Rory and Lorelai are close in proximity and on similar emotional wavelengths, yet they have no idea.  That's what makes the ending of the episode so brutal.  They're both listening to the last voicemail that the other left, and if one of them decided to call at that moment, they'd be able to reach the other.  But they're both so tired and upset that they give up and go to bed.

In a way, this is the episode that splits the series and informs everything that comes afterward.  It does that on a short-term level -- notice how Rory and Lorelai both cry in the arms of the men they hook up with in the season finale -- but for the long-term as well.  Although Rory and Lorelai's closeness is what defines their relationship, it was never going to remain as ironclad as it did during the Chilton years.  Rory's in the process of growing up and growing away from Lorelai, and the communication breakdown between them here foreshadows the fighting and drifting that they go through in seasons five and six.  "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais" is the best Gilmore Girls episode because it's a powerful story of two women unable to share their pain with the one they love the most, but it's also the most important in the way that it delineates their dynamic over the two separate eras of the show.

Gilmore Girls Week continues tomorrow at 8:00 AM EST with a piece on the many boyfriends of Rory Gilmore.  The series kicked off yesterday with an overview of the entire show.

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