We know from the get-go that we are expected to be on Lorelai’s side. We are directed to support Lorelai as she struggles to stand up to Emily, her snobbish, controlling, manipulative, interfering mother.
Well, when you put it like that, why wouldn’t we side with the plucky single mother-of-one’s determination to remain her own woman and to exercise her right to live by her own values? Go Lorelai!
But there are emotional truths beneath the comedic aspects of this generation gap. When she is with Emily, Lorelai becomes a whimpering child again (Lorenz Hart lyric), locked in a behavioural pattern of sulks, taunts, challenges and defences whose familiarity makes you laugh and at the same time sends a shiver up your spine.
As so often in Gilmore Girls, the nature of their relationship is revealed through coffee-based references. Why does Lorelai so often turn up at her parents’ house clutching a cup of coffee? Where does she get it from? Luke’s diner is 30 minutes’ drive away. Even Luke’s superior brew would grow cold in that time.
Does she deliberately hang on to the cup to make a statement — Hey, look at me, mom! I’m a freewheelin’, coffee-drinkin’, way-out independent woman. Deal with it! — and to present Emily yet again with the little housekeeping niggle of how to deal with the carton?
Emily, of course, is barely ruffled by her daughter’s jibes. Emily, with her college education and dazzling array of social and organizational skills, is secure enough within the social conventions and restraints of her particular caste system.
The least appealing indication of her social superiority is the running gag about the appalling way that she treats her maids, a new one every episode.
The nicest hint at the kind of life Emily values is her rather wistful comment, occasioned by the awkward silence at one of the first Friday night dinners, that the Kennedys were known to have had lively intellectual conversation at their dinner table, and that the Gilmores could easily do the same. Lorelai’s reply, about how much money a ‘butt model’ makes, has you squirming in sympathy and embarrassment at her clumsy attempt at a put-down.
In a previous life, Emily would probably have liked to be best buddies with Jackie Kennedy. They could have worn toning (not matching — matching is déclassée, as Emily was to say later) knit suits, Emily in her favourite from Saks and Jackie in one of her designer numbers. Emily might have prepared her signature Bloody Marys or Mojitos for them to drink. Oh, they would have had so much in common, give or take the odd political difference.
Lorelai’s legendary verbal dexterity wilts in the face of her mother’s quick-wittedness. ‘I’m looking up aneurism in our medical dictionary to see if I’ve had one’ is Emily’s crisp response to the news that Lorelai is going to a cat’s funeral but will not attend that of a distant relative.
When Lorelai (rather feebly) mocks her father Richard’s German business connections with a reference to insuring Nazis, Emily deftly picks up that ball and runs with it. Her offhand reference to ‘a Nazi we knew…Nice old man. Interesting stories’ is beautifully placed to elicit Lorelai’s gasp of ‘That’s despicable.’. Emily scores the goal: ‘No, dear, that was a joke.’
She gives a neat verbal swipe at Richard’s former girlfriend Lucinda, saying she looked a little like Errol Flynn, who Emily admired. ‘I should have married her,’ says Emily. ‘It would have been very modern of me.’
But Emily has her own mother-figure to contend with, in the form of her mother-in-law Trix, as only Richard fondly calls her.
Faced with Trix’s manipulative and downright rude behaviour, Emily diminishes in just the same way as Lorelai feels she shrinks when in the company of her parents.
Emily, the hostess par excellence, becomes nervous and forgetful, an open target for Trix’s carefully aimed barbs. She doesn’t handle her help properly, she offers inappropriate deserts, she forgets plates and napkins. Everything Emily does and says reveals her to be not good enough for Richard, Trix’s beloved son. In the same way, Lorelai feels that nothing she does will meet with Emily’s approval.
Trix’s offer to release Rory’s trust fund highlights the part that money plays in the mother-daughter relationships.
Emily has to buy the right to see Rory. The Gilmores pay the school fees, Lorelai and Rory come to dinner every Friday. That’s the deal.
When Emily is faced with the possibility of Rory being able to pay her own way and maybe disappearing from her life, she is devastated. Lorelai calls her petty and controlling for wanting the money to be withheld, but Lorelai herself has a moment or two when she is faced with the possibility that a financially independent Rory would not be dependent on Lorelai.
Emily’s remark that ‘It’s terrible not to be needed’ has resonance for both Emily and Lorelai. It’s a dramatically powerful moment which is perhaps too weighty for its context, and the issue is fudged as Trix decides to retract the offer.
But the emotional truths hit home.
Emily’s lines here and elsewhere in the season show the heartache and loss she has experienced. ‘You took that girl and completely shut me out of your life,’ she tells Lorelai.
Both mother and grandmother use Rory in their fight with each other. Emily’s comment to Lorelai that everything is a joke to her, everybody’s a punchline, alerts us to the way that Lorelai uses humour as a shield. ‘Let her go,’ she advises Lorelai. She’s referring to Rory attending a dance, but the words have a deeper impact, as does the line, ‘You’re scared Rory will have a good time without you,’ an observation which comes very close to piercing the bubble which Lorelai has so carefully constructed to house herself and her daughter.
They have more in common than they realize, these witty, stubborn, forceful, opinionated, needy women. No wonder they fight.