TV series work when there’s a good villain; an antagonist who is a mental sparring partner for our leads but who is also known for scene-stealing entrances or line deliveries that light up fan message boards and Twitter timelines (and may even cause some shipping).
No matter how much Gilmore Girls might throw out some red herrings like the status-obsessed control freak Paris Geller (Liza Weil) or the supercilious rich boy Logan Huntzberger (Matt Czuchry), some characters on creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s much-beloved series would like you to believe that its one true villain is its matriarch: Emily Gilmore (Kelly Bishop).
Aloof and priggish, Emily is meant to be the antithesis of her daughter, the pop culture-spewing, coffee-guzzling and all-around perfect cocktail party companion Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham). That Lorelai, who was surprised to find herself pregnant at 16, chose to separate herself from her wealthy family and raise her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) on her own terms is supposed to be the utmost reason why we should root for her.
This is also something Lorelai, herself, never lets us forget during the show’s initial seven-year run on The WB and later The CW, and on into its follow-up four-part Netflix miniseries, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. We learn pretty quickly in the original series’ pilot that it’s taking a lot of self-control for her to come to her parents (her father, Richard, was played by Edward Herrmann) with the favor that they pay for teen-age Rory’s private high school education. A few years later when Rory begins to see a psychologist after she inexplicably drops out (and then returns) to Yale, her mother advises her to “blame it all on Grandma.” When Lorelai’s best friend Sookie (Melissa McCarthy) cries in one episode that she’s “the most horrible person in the world” for wanting a night off from her husband and new baby to curl up in bed with a Toblerone and reruns of Dark Shadows, Lorelai jumps at the opportunity to reply that “well, my mother will be sad to know she’s been dethroned.”
Emily is not necessarily someone with whom I, personally, might share an immediate bond. She is a staunch member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and refers to her hired help as “maids” as she forces them to wear ridiculous Clue-like uniforms. She also belittles or fires them for minor infractions like not cutting enough celery for Bloody Marys, walking too loudly, or not understanding the difference between the door bell’s chimes and the ding of the oven timer. In the same episode as the Dark Shadows and Toblerone confession, Emily tells a man she’s dating during a brief separation from Richard that she’s waiting for “a mysterious man with an exotic accent and a red coat to give me a ticket for my car.” She meant the valet. (This isn’t necessarily something that’s unique to Emily. Racial minorities on Gilmore were primarily relegated to, at best, supporting players like Rory’s oft-neglected friend Lane Kim and her terrifying, nameless, mother—a Korean-American and Korean character who, for what it’s worth, were played by Japanese-American actresses Keiko Agena and Emily Kuroda).
While she is a Republican who most likely would have voted for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney during their presidential runs, the Twitter jury is still out as to whether they think she’d have voted for Donald Trump (some theorists come with receipts).
But, for all her pursed-lip stoicism, there is a sadness to Emily. She has a history degree from Smith College, but came up at a time and in a family where she was expected not to hold a job but to work for the betterment of her marriage. While Richard went about building a prominent career in the insurance industry, she kept them in good standing with all the right members of Hartford, Connecticut society. On several occasions, the series demonstrated just how lonely and without purpose Emily felt while Richard traveled, or later during their separation. In the miniseries, she spends a year mourning his death (a plot point meant to honor Hermann’s own passing in 2014) before selling her estate and moving to Nantucket to be a docent at a whaling museum and co-habitating with Berta (Rose Abdoo), a “maid” who she finally has decided is satisfactory. But through all of this, and between the two iterations of Gilmore Girls, we saw these characters’ lives through nearly 160 episodes of television and yet never even learned Emily’s maiden name.
None of the issues with her marriage compare to her strained relationship with Lorelai, though. Emily is by no means the first parent whose beliefs in what she thinks is best for her offspring fail to coincide with what her child wants for herself. As much as Lorelai may joke that Emily has boxed up and shipped off “hopes and dreams for me,” Emily stood by her daughter during her biggest curveball: her unexpected pregnancy. With steely resolve, she shut down Christopher’s parents’ suggestion of an abortion, or shipping Lorelai off to have the baby in secrecy—all the while making sure to remind them that their teenager was as much responsible for this predicament as hers.
Emily seemed to brush off Lorelai’s impulsive decisions to go to the hospital alone when she was in labor, and to not be allowed in the delivery room—no matter how much that must have cut to know that her child would rather risk being alone and scared with strangers than allow her mother into one of the most emotional times in her life. But she could not hide her shock and hurt when Lorelai packed up a baby Rory and left her parents’ estate with only a goodbye note signifying their departure. How painful it must have been for her to see Lorelai and Rory’s closeness over the years, oftentimes with jokes at her expense; never mind the seventh season episode where she tags along with them to the wedding of their friend Mia (Kathy Baker), the woman who served as de-facto mother and grandmother to her girls after Lorelai ran away from home.
Paste has previously suggested that the Internet reconsider its malice toward Rory, whom Gilmore fans often write off as privileged and unheeding. Particular attention is given to a line from the show’s pilot when Lorelai, excited that her daughter has gotten accepted to a elite private high school, tells Sookie that “she can finally go to Harvard like she’s always wanted, and get the education that I never got, and get to do all the things that I never got to do, and then I can resent her for it and we can finally have a normal mother-daughter relationship.”
But really, how is this any different than what Emily might have wanted for Lorelai? And how hurt was Lorelai when Rory said she didn’t want to go to that school? Especially when Lorelai learned it was because of a boy (Jared Padalecki’s Dean)?
So perhaps we can’t fault Emily—unfairly the “forgotten” Gilmore of the girls—if she sometimes wants to take out her anger out via retail therapy and occasionally might try to buy a plane.
Gilmore Girls is currently streaming on Netflix; Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life will also air on the CW from November 23-26th
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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