This essay is part of our series Episodes, monthly column in which TV Critic Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This time she’s looking at Gilmore Girls and “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?”
The Bracebridge Dinner. The Bid-A-Basket Festival. The Old Muddy River Bridge Knit-A-Thon. Some TV shows one-up themselves with cliffhangers or action scenes: Gilmore Girls one-upped itself with cheerfully ridiculous town events. Across its eight-season run, the breathlessly charming dramedy series had plenty of memorable moments, and nearly all of them were set against the ever-changing New England backdrop of Stars Hollow.
By a certain point, the near-mythical town–with its troubadours and town meetings, snow-globe-like winters, and coffee-fueled summers–became the show’s greatest, weirdest, and at times most insufferable character. Sometimes Stars Hollow felt like a daydream. Other times, the WASPy, Hallmark movie-like town felt like a fever dream. Few episodes captured that strange, occasionally magical dichotomy quite like season three’s dance marathon outing, “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?”
The episode’s central event is clear from its opening shot: the camera drifts over a sign championing a 24-hour dance marathon this Saturday. Jazzy music sets the scene as we hear Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Luke (Scott Patterson) bantering about passers-by who look like they might have Mad Cow Disease. They’re trying to find Lorelai a dance partner for the marathon she’s almost won four years running.
The scripts for Gilmore Girls famously ran as much as double the length of most, and series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino had a knack for getting the show’s cast to speak in a motormouthed, near-constant flow of dialogue. The result is a series that rewards rewatches more than most, as conversations fly by so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to catch every punchline and pop culture reference the first time. Before diner owner Luke has even finished handing Lorelai her coffee, she’s already told him a high-stakes story about how her previous dance partner, Henry “Ho-ho” McAffee, lost to town oddball Kirk (Sean Gunn) at the final moment when the latter waved a McDonald’s apple pie in his face.
The rest of the dance marathon’s set-up flies by as effortlessly as Lorelai’s Ho-ho story. Obnoxious town leader Taylor Doose (Michael Winters) pushes Luke into offering free coffee at the upcoming event, despite the latter’s grumblings about the pointlessness of the endless infrastructure fundraising. “You would kick Tiny Tim’s crutch out from under him, wouldn’t you?” Taylor scoffs at Luke.
At the Gilmore family’s weekly dinner, Lorelai can’t stop smiling. Her mother, Emily (Kelly Bishop), recalls sending the girl to her room ahead of her first homecoming dance because she was just too happy. Lorelai’s grin is because she found a perfect dance partner. Only the show’s mile-a-minute twists of fate mean she’s lost him by the scene’s end. Poor hardware store worker Stanley has a jealous wife who won’t let him dance with Lorelai. At some point, Emily and Lorelai’s daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) started comparing her to Elizabeth Taylor. “You’ll find another one,” Rory says sympathetically. “Elizabeth Taylor always did,” Emily quips.
When the dance marathon finally arrives, it’s teenage Rory who’s been suckered into accompanying her mom. The pair wake up before the sun and slouch their way to the event hall, dressed to the nines in 1940s-style outfits and hairstyles. When Rory says she can’t even open her eyes, Lorelai paints a hilarious visual picture of the town men in assless chaps and Speedos to get her attention. So far, so good. But when the dancing starts, so does the drama.
At its best moments, Gilmore Girls utilizes its surreal, whimsical town and the emotional truth of its characters. The show is frequently capable of getting real about topics like income inequality, teen parenthood, and first love. It makes each pivotal moment feel one-of-a-kind by setting it against the backdrop of this funky little place.
“They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” turns out to be a pivotal episode of the series: by the marathon’s end, Rory’s relationship with jealous first boyfriend Dean (Jared Padalecki) will have ended, Lorelai and Luke will have talked over their feelings on having kids, and Lorelai’s best friend Sookie (Melissa McCarthy) will have inadvertently agreed to raise a whole gaggle of them with her own partner, Jackson (Jackson Douglas). All of this, though, unfolds against the silly faux-tense backdrop of the dance marathon.
The rules are explained at the outset: 156 couples will spend the large majority of the next 24 hours on the dancefloor and must keep moving unless the group is on a designated short break or using their emergency card. There’s a first aid kit, a coffee stall where Luke sneaks the girls a warm thermos, and a lunch spot where Rory’s best friend Lane (Keiko Agena) hands out egg salad sandwiches and handmade Christian pamphlets called Dancing With The Devil (“Boy, her flames are getting really good!”).
At one point, Lane’s beau Dave (Adam Brody) drops in, saying that he had to see the event because “it sounded very Blue Velvet.” It’s not, really, but maybe Dave’s using the Film Twitter, squint-extra-hard-to-see-it definition of Lynchian. Still, the episode knowingly pushes up against the boundaries of the show’s rom-com world, blending celebration and tradition with an event that seems like sheer torture. At one point, the dancers stumble through a spontaneous “runaround,” where the last five couples to cross the gym floor finish line are instantly eliminated. One pair stalks off after a boyfriend is offended to find out his girl once dated Liam Neeson. As the night wears on, others faint dead away and are often caught delicately by their partners before they can hit the floor.
High School Musical filmmaker Kenny Ortega directed the episode, and although it features very little choreographed dancing, it has a satisfying visual flow. The dancers’ energy ebbs as the night wears on, signified by a disco ball shot transition. Doose sleep talks about being a magician, Sookie and Jackson bow out to discuss their parenting plans, and referees wander by on roller skates, making sure everyone’s still shuffling their feet a fraction of an inch at a time. The night’s biggest disruption, though, comes in the form of Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia).
Luke’s leather-jacket-clad nephew has been a magnetic provocateur since the minute he stepped off the bus in Stars Hollow, and by the show’s fiftieth episode, he’s become an unstoppable force in good girl Rory’s life. He clearly knows this, as he shows up to the event in crowd-stopping fashion, walking straight through the dancefloor to Doose’s chagrin to perch himself on the bleachers. For the next several hours, he alternates between giving Rory his best smoldering gaze and aggressively making out with some poor girl named Shane (Jessica Kiper), who’s not much more than a prop in his plan to make Rory jealous.
His plan works, and everything comes to a head at the climax of the dance contest. Lorelai breaks a heel (“These are brand new shoes, too.” “They were made in 1943.” “Well, I just bought them Tuesday!”) and uses her emergency card to call upon Luke to help her fix it. While she’s gone, Dean stands in for her but quickly loses patience when Rory starts complaining about Shane. Jess hears and confronts Dean about it. In the end, their breakup is swift, which is a relief given how many machismo-laden confrontations Dean and Jess had before this. “You’ve been into him since he got into town,” Dean spits and leaves Rory on the dance floor.
Despite its memorable central event, “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” doesn’t end with Lorelai finally winning the dance contest. It ends with the feeling, familiar even to those of us who have never entered a competition like this one, of a dance that’s worn on too long. Rory dashes out of the event hall, where she ends up sitting waterside on a dock, upset and closed in on herself. When Jess finds her, it’s not a moment of sweeping romance but something more complicated and adult that hints at what the show will become in its back half.
“He was right,” Rory says, admitting her feelings to the boy for the first time. Jess is silent, and the wave of shame that washes over Rory is almost visible. “Well, wasn’t he?! Fine, he was right about me then.” Jess is always staring intensely, but after he does the tiniest possible shrug and admits that, yes, Dean was right, that intense stare softens in microscopic increments. To the uninitiated, it looks like Jess’s typical aloof expression, but for Jess fans, it looks much like love.
Instead of staying to comfort her, he leaves to break things off with Shane. When Lorelai returns to the dance floor, Rory is nowhere to be found, and Kirk takes the trophy once again. The episode ends not with a triumph, but with a moment of downbeat hilarity, as Kirk races around the empty dancefloor, trophy in hand, while everyone else sleeps. This episode may not be Stars Hollow at its finest, but it’s Stars Hollow at its truest: funny, messy, exhausting, and somehow winningly charming despite it all.