The divisive election cycle may have gotten us all down this year, but if you’re hard-pressed finding reasons to be thankful, don’t forget that the long-awaited new season of Gilmore Girls, entitled Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, finally drops on Netflix Friday, November 25.
From 2000 to 2007, this smart, quippy WB show about a single mother and her teenage daughter living in a small Connecticut town gained a massively loyal following. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino left the series before the final season aired, and was never able to finish the show the way she meant to. For years fans hoped for a revival, and finally in 2015, after months of rumors, Netflix announced that they were developing a new miniseries of four 90-minute episodes. Even more exciting than that was the news that almost all original cast members would return to Stars Hollow.
There are 154 episodes in Gilmore Girls’ first seven seasons, so for those looking to get caught up before Friday, binge watching them all can be a daunting task. If you’re short on time (and by now, you surely are), just focus on these seven essential episodes, one from each season, to give you an overall idea of the show’s direction. Spoilers ahead:
Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot
What happens: Lorelai Gilmore lives in Stars Hollow, Connecticut with her teenage daughter Rory. The two are, in Rory’s words, “freakishly linked,” and enjoy coffee, talking quickly (thanks to all the coffee presumably), and infusing conversations with obscure pop culture references. Lorelai manages a hotel in town called the Independence Inn with her best friend and chef, Sookie St. James. Rory attends the local high school and hangs out with her friend Lane. But when Rory gets accepted to Chilton, an elite private school that is sure to help her get accepted to her dream college, Harvard, Lorelai is dismayed to find that she doesn’t have enough money to cover tuition.
Against her better judgment, she turns to her wealthy socialite parents, Richard and Emily, to ask for a loan. There’s just one problem: Lorelai ran away from home when she was sixteen and pregnant with Rory, and ever since, her relationship with her parents has been, well, strained is putting it mildly. Emily, always looking for an angle, sees Lorelai’s predicament as an opportunity to force both her daughter and granddaughter back into her life. She agrees to lend Lorelai the money, but only on the condition that she and Rory come to dinner every Friday night until the loan is paid off.
Why it’s important: Most pilot episodes aren’t great, but the Gilmore pilot is solid from beginning to end. It introduces us to most of the major players (some, like Kirk and Paris, aren’t developed until later), while also cleverly setting up all the backstory we need without feeling muddled. It also introduces a key concept of the series: while most promotional materials for the show highlight only Lorelai and Rory, this show is really about three Gilmore girls. In fact, in some respects the Emily/Lorelai dynamic is more central, and more ripe for conflict, than the Lorelai/Rory one. The pilot highlights that at its heart, Gilmore Girls is a show about the complicated bond between mothers and daughters.
Season 2, Episode 2: Red Light on the Wedding Night
What happens: Acclimating to Chilton has been difficult for Rory. She has to contend with an overbearing academic rival in Paris Geller and a pretentious pretty boy with a crush on her named Tristan. Unfortunately for Tristan, Rory’s dating Dean Forester, a well-meaning if unremarkable boy from her former high school. If anything, going to Chilton worked out much better for Lorelai; she’s engaged to Rory’s English teacher, Max Medina. When both Gilmore girls take their men on a double date, Max gets upset that Rory and Dean want to stay out late. Lorelai tells him to chill, which prompts a discussion about exactly what role Max will get to play in Rory’s life once he’s her stepfather. This throws Lorelai for a loop, since it’s always been just her and Rory against the world.
Things aren’t helped much by Luke, the owner of the local diner that the girls frequent, when he openly ridicules the idea of marriage in front of Lorelai. And Lorelai’s employee Michel really doesn’t help things when he invites Emily to Lorelai’s bachelorette party at a drag club. Only briefly fazed by the environment, Emily recovers to tell a teary-eyed story about how excited she was to marry Richard, which prompts everyone to disappear to call their significant others. Rory calls Dean, Sookie calls her husband Jackson, and Lorelai makes a call too, but not to Max. Instead, she calls Christopher, Rory’s father. They are old friends, and it’s clear that she’s having second thoughts about the marriage. To top it all off, the next day, Luke brings Lorelai a chuppah he hand-carved for her wedding. At that point, something seems to snap. She wakes up on her wedding day and tells Rory she wants to go on a last-minute road trip out of town. Together, the girls flee Stars Hollow on their way to an undetermined location.
Why it’s important: Several crucial developments happen here. Not only do we get our first major glimpse at Lorelai’s reluctance to commit to a relationship, it also solidifies the long-standing bond between Lorelai and Christopher. We also see one of the first blatantly obvious romantic gestures from Luke, setting us up for quite the love triangle down the road.
Season 3, Episode 7: They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?
What happens: It’s the annual Stars Hollow 24-Hour Dance Marathon, which Lorelai is determined to win and unseat Kirk, the reigning champ. When her dance partner backs out, she has to convince Rory to dance with her. Things have been tough for Rory ever since Luke’s nephew Jess moved to town and started flirting with her. Since she’s still with Dean, Jess gets his own girlfriend and has no issue making public displays of affection all over town, which pisses Rory off. She still loves Dean, but has these confusing new feelings for Jess. It’s all very awkward for everyone.
But not as awkward as when both Dean and Jess show up to the marathon to watch her dance. When Lorelai’s heel breaks in the middle of a song, she has to ask Luke to fix it while Dean fills in dancing with Rory. He tries to have a good time, but all Rory can do is obsess over Jess and his new girlfriend. Unable to take it anymore, he breaks up with her in front of everyone, telling her what she won’t tell herself: she likes Jess now. Distraught, Rory disappears to the town bridge, where Jess finds her and asks if it what Dean thinks is true. She tells him it is.
Why it’s important: Not only is this entire episode a reference to a 1969 Jane Fonda movie, it’s one of the most fun episodes in the whole series. It also has some major story developments. Dean and Rory, who have been rocky ever since Jess moved to town, finally break up, and Rory and Jess, who have been dancing around each other (see what I did there?) since season two, finally get together. Meanwhile, Lorelai and Luke continue on their will-they-or-won't-they trajectory. As he fixes her shoe, their conversation turns to whether or not either of them would want children. You know, like you normally discuss with the person who pours your coffee every morning.
Season 4, Episode 22: Raincoats and Recipes
What happens: In the season four finale, Lorelai and Sookie finally reach an important milestone together: opening their own inn, the Dragonfly. In order to give her new staff a test run, Lorelai invites everyone from town to come and stay for a night. She also attempts to use it as an opportunity to force her estranged parents to reconcile. Richard has been living in their pool house since it was revealed that he has been secretly meeting with an old girlfriend for years. Since they are too proud to admit their separation, Lorelai treats them as if nothing is different. But Emily and Richard are not amused with her blatant attempts to force them back together, and leave in a huff. To add to the drama, Lorelai’s ex, Jason, whom she dated until he decided to sue Richard (long story), shows up to talk her and won’t leave until she does so. Complicating matters even further, Luke’s intentions toward Lorelai finally get serious as the two share their first kiss on the Dragonfly’s porch. That is, until Kirk runs by them naked after suffering night terrors (another long story).
Rory, despondent ever since Jess abruptly moved away and having a difficult first year at Yale, where she chose to go over Harvard, has been cozying back up to Dean. But he’s married to Lindsay, the girl he started dating after Rory broke his heart. Things aren’t great with Dean and Lindsay though, and he and Rory wind up having sex. Lorelai walks in on them and berates Rory for putting her guard down and becoming “the other woman.”
Why it’s important: So much happens here in this episode, it’s incredible. Lorelai and Jason! Luke and Lorelai! Richard and Emily! Rory and Dean! There’s more drama than Ms. Patty’s one-woman show. Plus, it's impossible not to feel excited at the new chapter in Lorelai and Sookie’a lives as the first horse-drawn carriages filled with Stars Hollow townspeople drive up the path of the newly renovated Dragonfly Inn.
Season 5, Episode 13: Wedding Bell Blues
What happens: Emily and Richard, finally reconciled, hold a vow renewal ceremony for themselves. Lorelai is bringing Luke, but Emily doesn’t think he’s a suitable match for her daughter. So she invites Christopher to the ceremony and tells him that he still has a shot at Lorelai. Rory is upset that Logan, her new crush at Yale, brings another girl, but he insists she’s just a family friend. The two disappear together.
Christopher gets drunk and tries to convince Lorelai they're meant to be together…in front of Luke. Lorelai is livid, but she’s still at her parent’s second wedding and there is decorum to follow. When she goes to find Rory for a family picture, Luke and Christopher, still at each other’s throats, follow her. All three of them then happen to find Rory. She’s with Logan in a secluded room and they’re partially undressed. First Christopher yells at them, then Luke yells at them, then Christopher yells at Luke for yelling at them. Lorelai diffuses the situation, but Luke is so angry that he leaves. When Chris reveals that it was Emily who put him up to all of this, Lorelai tells her mother that the two of them are done for good.
Why it’s important: Weddings are always places where things can go wrong, and boy do a lot of things go wrong here. Just as Emily and Richard reconcile, Lorelai and Emily have a massive falling out. The re-introduction of Christopher into the Lorelai/Luke/Christopher triangle, by Emily no less, spells trouble for Luke and Lorelai’s relationship. And while it’s great that Rory is finally dating again (someone other than her divorced ex-boyrfriend), it would obviously have been better if Logan’s first meeting with Lorelai happened when his shirt was buttoned.
Season 6, Episode 9: The Prodigal Daughter Returns
What happens: At the end of season five, Rory decides to drop out of Yale, which causes the largest rift yet between the Gilmore girls. Lorelai doesn’t want Rory at home if she’s not at school, so Rory moves in with her grandparents, and mother and daughter barely speak for months. It’s a hard time for both of them, but things finally thaw in this episode. After seeing the error of her ways, Rory re-enrolls at Yale, gets a job, and moves back home. Emily, however, is devastated with this development, and shares with Lorelai she’s afraid she’s losing Rory the same way she lost Lorelai. Lorelai insists she hasn’t lost either of them.
But, in a stunning twist, Rory is not the only “prodigal daughter” referenced in the title. Luke, now engaged to Lorelai, overhears a message from Christopher on her home answering machine and wonders if she’s hiding things from him. She insists that she’s not, and he insists that for their impending marriage to work, they have to tell each other everything. Except for him, that’s easier said then done, because just when he and Lorelai can finally move forward with their wedding, a brainy young middle schooler named April walks into the diner to find out if he’s her father.
Why it’s important: With Rory finally back home, Gilmore Girls feels like the Gilmore Girls again. Some of the best moments of the show happen when Lorelai and Emily, constantly bickering, have a genuine connection, and one of their most tender moments happens here. Of course, just when things seem to be normalizing, the rug is pulled out from under everyone. Usually, secret children feel like a plot device, but April becomes an important character in her own right. Ultimately though it’s not the revelation that Luke has a daughter, but the fact that he doesn’t tell Lorelai about it, that causes the most tension between them.
Season 7, Episode 21: Unto the Breach
What happens: In the penultimate episode of the entire series, it’s finally time for Rory to graduate from Yale. A lot has happened since Luke’s daughter walked into the diner. Lorelai and Luke broke up over his inability to commit to a wedding date. In a rebound, Lorelai re-connects with Christopher and the two of them elope and later separate. Rory and Logan get increasingly serious, especially as her future as a journalist remains in question. When Richard and Emily throw a graduation party for Rory, things get uncomfortable as Christopher and Lorelai reunite for the first time since separating. It’s Logan who has the biggest surprise of the night when he proposes to Rory. Rory is too shocked to give him an answer, saying she has to think about it.
Meanwhile, Luke and Lorelai are still in flux. They are talking again, and Lorelai even invited him out to a karaoke bar where she got tipsy and sang a sentimental song obviously intended for him. Except now she’s playing it off like it’s no big deal, and Luke’s upset about it. When graduation day finally comes, Rory receives her diploma and finally gives Logan her answer: she’s not ready to get married. She has a career as a political journalist she wants to focus on. Heartbroken, Logan says goodbye for good. Together, both Gilmore girls face an uncertain future.
Why it’s important: Sure, I could have picked the last episode of the series, but in true Gilmore fashion, this episode leaves the Luke/Lorelai question wide open. Graduations always signal the end of one thing and the beginning of something new. For Rory, that means her relationship with Logan and her career as a journalist. For Lorelai though, it’s unclear what she will do now that Rory is officially off on her own. It’s a bittersweet moment for both of them. We also see some final Stars Hollow town shenanigans, when the townspeople, upset that Rory only has four invitations to her graduation, decide to construct a re-enactment in the town square.
What are your favorite Gilmore Girls episodes? Are there essential ones I’m leaving out? Leave a comment!