Contrasting the final words of Gilmore Girls with a different CW show’s final moments.
One of the greatest series finales of all time belongs to a cult TV show launched on The WB network and popular in the early 2000s. Few series-enders have been so deft at giving closure to the audience while remaining true to the themes and characters that defined the series. This particular show is notable for the final four words that put a period on everything and left fans reeling as closing credits rolled.
Those words? “Let’s go to work.”
Oh. I was talking about the Angel finale, aired May 19, 2005. Did you think I was referring to Netflix’s Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life revival of the classic WB/CW dramedy? Let’s contrast the two.
Angel’s finale has grown on people in the years since its debut, but I recall a bit of grumbling among fans in the immediate weeks after it aired. While many liked it, some bemoaned that the final scene felt more like a cliffhanger designed to say “screw you” to either the network, the fans, or possibly both. Others may have taken it less personally, but still opined that the episode felt like the first part of a two-part finale. For my money, I loved it.
The storyline concluded a year-long premise that had put Angel and friends in charge of the demonic Wolfram & Hart. There, their goal was to destroy the evil Senior Partners from the inside, even as those same forces did their best to corrupt Angel while they prepared the Apocalypse. By the time of the two-part finale, it appeared evil had won, with Angel so convincing them of his treachery that he was inducted into the secret society of The Circle of the Black Thorn.
The Circle is revealed as the Senior Partners’ agents on Earth. They’re the ones meant to set the plan for the next apocalypse. Angel’s concluded that you can never fully defeat the Senior Partners – evil of that sort is too powerful to be completely destroyed. But, he reasons, “If we wipe out the Black Thorn, we can tip the scales in our favor. Bring Wolfram & Hart’s gears and the Apocalypse to a grinding halt, even if it’s just for a moment or two… We can’t bring down the Senior Partners, but for one bright shiny moment we can show them that they don’t own us!”
That is the core of the finale, which sees Angel’s team take out every single member of the Black Thorn before meeting up in an alley. There, as the final seconds of the show tick away, a massive army closes in on them. They’re vastly outnumbered, with the odds so insurmountable that this can’t be anything other than a last stand. Brandishing his sword, Angel faces the opposing army and tells his men, “Let’s go to work.” CUT TO BLACK.
Though we don’t see the final battle, the rest of the episode has given us enough to make any continuation moot. The point isn’t if Angel or any of the rest survive. For that matter, to flip that, nothing further is gained by extending that scene long enough to see them all cut down in glorious battle. We don’t know for sure who lives or dies, but we know what we need to know, which is: they did what they set out to do. They derailed the Apocalypse, and when they faced an unstoppable evil in battle, they met it head-on because THAT is who they are. It encapsulates the entire series – it doesn’t matter how much of an edge the evils of this world have, real heroes always stand and face it.
People who think this is a terrible finale aren’t understanding what the show itself was telling them. To find the true meaning, you have to look beyond the abrupt cut to black and reconsider everything that came before it.
It’s a delicate dance that Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life struggles with. This four-part conclusion to the series that wrapped a decade ago was largely hyped as the “real” ending to the show. When the series began in 2000, it told the tale of 32 year-old Lorelei Gilmore, a former child of privilege until her teen pregnancy pushed her to runaway from home with her daughter Rory and live in the quirky small town of Stars Hollow. At the start of the series, Rory was 16, the same age her mother became pregnant, and her relationship with Lorelei often resembled two sisters more than it did mother/daughter.
Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Dan Palladino left the show before the final season due to a contract dispute, but in an exit interview, Amy let slip that she had always been driving towards a specific ending. She even teased that she knew “the final four words” of the series. The Netflix revival would finally see them put on-screen, albeit nearly a decade later than intended.
That quartet of words was an exchange between Rory Gilmore and her mother Lorelei: “Mom?” “Yeah?” “I’m pregnant.”
While there is a “full circle” feeling with the child of the young unwed mother now about to become a single mom on her own, it’s less potent thematically when the younger woman is 32. Yes, as impossible as it seems, Rory is now the age Lorelei was in the pilot and that contrast helps reveal why this isn’t an ending that Rory Gilmore deserves. The decision to end on that revelation doesn’t help because we are denied seeing Lorelei’s reaction to the news, beyond a brief look of shock.
This isn’t a case where the Angel finale logic can be applied, and that’s on the construction of almost the entirety of Rory’s arc through these four segments. Early on, we learn she’s spent the last decade largely working as a freelance journalist, with her biggest claim to fame being an article in The New Yorker. Despite that, she’s lost and directionless. A brief attempt to collaborate on a book falls apart, and she’s largely unmoored in her personal life. Though she has a long distance boyfriend, he’s so far from her mind that she forgets she invited him to spend the holidays with her mother and Luke. (And Luke and Lorelei both have zero recollection of him despite a number of past meetings.) The four segments show Rory adrift in numerous ways, with no permanent address, no permanent job, and unable to even get hired by a web publication that spent a year trying to get her to come in for an interview.
One of the few constants in her life is Logan, the privileged tool she dated while attending Yale, only to break up with in the penultimate episode. Sherman-Palladino has said that the parallels between Logan and Christopher, the rich boy who got Lorelei pregnant are not an accident. In her words, they created Logan because “We wanted Rory to date her father,” or at least someone like him. But they’re not really together now. They have a friends-with-benefits arrangement that kicks in whenever she visits him in London, while his fiancé is out of town. While the revival gives growth to all of the other major characters, Rory has regressed to being “the other woman” for the second time in her romantic history. This time is worse because not only does it show she learned nothing from her first experience, with this affair she’s not cheating on her own boyfriend, absent though he may be. Rory finally ends things with Logan once and for all early in the final segment, but he’s clearly intended to be the father of her child.
While there are parallels with Christopher/Logan fathering a child with Lorelei/Rory, there’s no deeper meaning drawn from this. Worse, it feels like Rory is merely repeating her mother’s mistakes rather than truly learning from them. There are ways this could have worked, but saddling Rory with the Gilmore Girls original sin after four 90-minute episodes of bad regressive decisions is not one of them. Rory is so adrift in these episodes that dropping that bombshell at the end plays as the total destruction of the life she was trying to have. While we can imagine that Lorelei’s conversation with her daughter would assure this clearly-scared girl that everything was going to be okay, the episode lacks the depth that would make that scene as irrelevant as seeing Angel’s last stand.
Rory being adrift is a concept with merit. Where this run might have gone wrong was in spending four episodes on it while also suggesting this is far from a recent development. The show’s solution to her career woes isn’t a bad one. Ex-boyfriend Jess suggest she write a book about her relationship with her mother. Usually this sort of development is played for self-indulgent meta-humor (paging Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc.) Here, the book becomes more about the opportunity for Rory to really examine her relationship with her mother and learn something about both of them.
It would have taken just a little bit more to have the process of writing the book make Rory realize that she’s ready to be a mother herself. She would see the truly important thing is not how similar she and Lorelei are, but how different they are. Rory’s child would not grow up estranged from her grandparents and family, nor would she (because you KNOW Rory’s baby has to be a girl) have a mother so unprepared for the ways of the world. The book had potential to be the device that makes Rory realize just how capable a woman her mother raised her to be. All of that is undercut by a storyline that goes to great effort to show us Rory has learned nothing since her college days. She hasn’t matured, and she’s not nearly the self-assured, actualized person that Lorelei is when we first met her.
The scenario that might have worked is if the first segment, “Winter,” opened with Rory seeming to have everything together, only to have it fall apart suddenly. Maybe she’s married to Logan and that union falls apart when she catches him cheating. She retreats home to Stars Hollow while beginning divorce proceedings, and feels like the loss of the marriage is also costing her her identity. That would then send her on the journey, “Who is Rory Gilmore?”
Some of the current arc could stay though the “Spring” and “Summer” segments, right up to the point where she decides to write a book. That should provoke more self-reflection than we currently get. There’s not enough right now to really sell the idea that Rory figures out who she is through writing her memoir. It’s so close – all that’s needed is a little more agency from Rory to get things where it needs to be.
“Fall,” the final segment, could detail Rory and Logan’s divorce. That gives Rory an opportunity to actually close that chapter of her life in a meaningful way. She’s not just saying goodbye to Logan, she’s going towards the life that she knows she wants. In the current finale, Rory leaving Logan feels like the first step to her starting over. She knows she has to end it, but she feels unsure about where she will go next. It would be more affirming if she can end it because “This is no longer my life, and I’ve figured out exactly what that is.”
In a context like that, “Mom… I’m pregnant” is much more capable of being an affirming, empowering moment. If the Rory who says that has already started building a stable life with a strong sense of herself, learning she would be a mother soon might be a happy, beautiful moment. What if those words came after Rory tells Lorelei (and her grandmother Emily) how important she’s realized they were to her life, and how they’ve all become different people than they were when Lorelei first ran off. These three women have worked hard to forge tight bonds of love and strength and that this is the environment that every child should be so lucky to be born into. In that instant, it might seem like Rory is summing up the themes and the arcs of the entire series.
Then comes the emotional sucker punch of her final four words: “Mom? Grandma? I’m pregnant.” That’s a fade-to-black that doesn’t feel so emotionally abrupt. With the right preamble, we don’t need to see the elder Gilmores’ reaction because the moments before the confession inform everything.
Saying “this is how I would have done it” is often an unfair way to critique a story. I’m just trying to demonstrate how a different set of circumstances would give those final seconds an entirely different resonance. The show as produced sometimes brushes so closely to that scenario that it’s all the more regretful that that last moment doesn’t land.
Every other story wraps up in a satisfactory way, and don’t get me wrong, the four segments get a lot right. The strongest storyline is about how Emily and Lorelei deal with the death of Richard Gilmore, Emily’s husband and Lorelei’s father. Lauren Graham and Kelly Bishop do some of their all-time best work in those scenes, which include some of the most emotional moments of the show, to boot. Emily’s journey in particular is well-conceived from start to finish and should land Bishop an Emmy.
(Interesting, since this storyline results from the 2014 death of actor Edward Herrmann, it’s the one instance where Sherman-Palladino and her husband couldn’t just follow their original master plan. It’s easy to imagine the Lorelei/Luke storyline happening much as it did in an alternate season 7 or 8, and Rory’s arc also would transpose easily to a decade-earlier quarterlife crisis. It can’t help but feel like perhaps the real flaw here was that the creators were too wedded to an ending that would have meant something different for Rory had it happened a decade earlier.)
As a final curtain call for the townies of Stars Hollow, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life delivers. It wraps up Lorelei and Luke’s relationship so beautifully that the audience never needs to see them again. It feels like the most perfect place to leave them, much as Emily’s storyline builds to a conclusion that leaves nothing left to say. It makes Rory’s ending more upsetting when placed among these other stories. A show that was rarely about anything but conversations between mother and daughter cuts to black before we’re sure what their most important one would say.