"I'm not back."
Rory Gilmore's incessant refrain — yes, she's back in Stars Hollow, but she's not back back — couldn't be a better metaphor for Netflix's Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Gilmore Girls might be back on the air with four new mini-movies, but it doesn't really feel back. At times the characters, the town, and the cultural references seem like caricatures of themselves. That's true of "Summer," which, while arguably the strongest episode so far, at times seems stuck on the nostalgia train a little too long.
Still, the penultimate episode is satisfying. The Gilmore universe was at its most entertaining when the quips and one-liners hit at lightning speed and Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory (Alexis Bledel) were in sync. But Gilmore Girls was always at its best when things weren't running smoothly, when the complexities of the mother-daughter relationships between Rory, Lorelai, and Emily (Kelly Bishop) were exposed, fought over, and learned from. Luckily, "Summer" has both.
Things kick off on a hot summer's day, with Lorelai and Rory avoiding the sun — and everyone else — at the municipal pool. (Who knew?) More than a few lines about back fat and barely-there bikinis ensue (holy body shaming, Batman), as Lorelai clutches Cheryl Strayed's Wild mid-read and Rory tries to shut down the rumor that she's returned to Stars Hollow for good. At 32, she's a little old for a quarter-life crisis (and has already lived her steal-a-yacht moment), and is determined to make the move a temporary one.
The chorus of "Welcome back, Rory!" follows her and Lorelai to a town meeting, where Taylor has installed an air raid-esque air-conditioner and has two big announcements: He's written a musical (because of course he has), and the Stars Hollow Gazette is closing after a 90-year run.
Naturally, Rory decides to take over as editor of the Gazette, leading a staff of two septuagenarians who offer next to no help. Sorkin references aside, the gig is an excellent alternative to joining the 30-Something Gang, a sad group of special snowflakes who have returned to their childhood bedrooms after a brief stab at life in the real world. The Gazette job may not be The New Yorker, or even the Yale Daily News, but it's nice to see Rory back behind a desk at her laptop — and occasionally sipping scotch in the middle of the day.
Meanwhile, the Dragonfly is still chef-less, and Lorelai has a sinking suspicion Michel is about to jump ship — a decision that is tearfully confirmed over martinis at the Secret Bar. Michel, who has become more three-dimensional in three episodes than he ever was in the original show's seven seasons, has a husband and baby to think about and tells Lorelai that she can't afford to keep him. Out from under the shadow of the Sookie-and-Lorelai friendship, the humanizing interactions between Michel and Lorelai add some lovely levity and present Lorelai with a tough professional choice, one she's apparently avoided for a couple of years. The Dragonfly was always a labor of love, but is it costing too much financially and in friendships?
Babette's line about "taxing the Secret Bar" back in "Spring" easily could have been a throwaway, so it was nice to see this speakeasy come to life as the setting for this tough conversation. The fact that it happens in folding chairs under the glowing light of a rebel bar in an alleyway right under Taylor’s nose is a nice, true-to-Stars Hollow touch.
Arguably even more Stars Hollow-esque is Taylor's musical, aptly titled Stars Hollow: The Musical. (Picture the failed Twickum House museum with an upbeat soundtrack.) It's a show that has everything: incest! Unions! White people attempting to rap! Cross-dressing revolutionaries! Putin! Lorelai's therapist as an understudy in a Flashdance costume!
The two-person set-up, played by real Broadway performers Sutton Foster (another not-so-subtle Palladino-nod to Bunheads) and Christian Borle, is easily the best and worst thing about the episode. During a run-through for the advisory committee, which includes Babette, Gypsy, and Lorelai, the duo plunge through song after song featuring sexual overtones and boasting bravado about the little town that could. And it's uproariously funny — at first. One song is laugh-out-loud worthy, even two is a nice touch. But three, four, five songs? And an Abba cover to top things off? Oy, enough with the musical numbers already. What should have been a solid B-plot feels exceedingly ridiculous, contributing almost nothing to the storyline. What made these crazy town festivals so great in the original run was that they added just enough color to be a worthwhile supporting character. Here we're left struggling to care during a far-too-long kick line.
Post off-off-off-Broadway show (and about 20 minutes later), we finally near the crux of the episode, beginning with the return of Jess (Milo Ventimiglia). (One can almost hear the #TeamJess refrains across the internet.) Rory and Jess share a liquid lunch — and a not-so-subtle helping of sexual tension — as she tells him about how her On The Road-ing is going. She has boxes in three different states, no underwear to speak of, and is directionless. Jess, a successful author, apparently, suggests she write a book. Not just any book, but a book about what she knows: about her and Lorelai and their life together. Something clicks, and Rory gets to work.
Cut to a week later, and Lorelai is in the driveway of her mother's Hartford home as they prepare to visit Richard's gravesite to approve of his newest — and fifth — headstone. Earlier, we'd learned Emily has been sleeping until noon, eating from a TV tray, and acting palpably apathetic to her DAR responsibilities. Suddenly, a week later, it's though nothing has changed: She's sitting poised and proper next to Jack Smith (Ray Wise) — a sight that throws Lorelai off. The lack of Emily in this episode is its own crime, but more confusing is why the show fails — truly fails — to address her grief. We bounce from depressed-and-sleeping-in Emily to a widow with a new man in no time flat. That same whiplash prompts Lorelai and Emily to have a heated discussion about Jack in the kitchen, during which Emily drops the news that Luke toured franchise locations with her — to Lorelai's complete surprise. "Do you and that partner of yours even talk?" she asks smugly and, judging from Lorelai's face, she's asking herself the same thing.
After a cologne-scented ride to the gravesite, the Gilmore ladies inspect the headstone. Emily heads off to discuss a new stone (number six), leaving Rory to tell her mother about her new plan: She's writing a book. A book about Lorelai, about Rory and "about the whole mother-daughter thing, the friend thing." Understandably, Lorelai is upset about this being sprung on her. The two have an old-school Lorelai versus Rory fight (old boyfriends are thrown about, there's repeated discussion of Lorelai leaving Rory in a bucket) among headstones and mourners, and they part ways in a stormy silence.
The fight haunts each of the Gilmore girls for the remainder of the episode. For Rory, it follows her to Lane's, where she calls Logan in a panic seeking emotional support. She soon realizes she can't do this, and decides to end the affair from a few thousand miles away. For Lorelai, the post-fight feeling, combined with a surfacing existential crisis, leads her to a public fight with Luke in the diner. As patrons look on, they go back and forth over her therapy and his franchise meeting to their keeping their families apart from each other. "You know, we struck a deal. That you've got your life, and I've got mine," Luke eventually tells her. "That's how two people who are partners are supposed to be?" Lorelai asks him, aghast. "You set it up," Luke says.
The whole thing feels very Season 6 — except Luke is hiding a real estate outing rather than, say, a child. It may be 10 years later, but we're still watching the same fights about the same basic issues. Rory is drifting and attempting to use her mother as a life raft, while Luke and Lorelai don't appear to have communication skills beyond takeout menus, sharing a bed while living separate lives. The audience has been here before, except now we're not sure who to root for, especially when there's so much more at stake in these relationships.
Things come to a teary head with a new addition to Stars Hollow: The Musical. Miss Patty's is again packed with the advisory committee, who listen to a song about being broken and picking up the pieces. Maybe if the episode hadn't already devoted so much — too much — time to Stars Hollow: The Musical, the performance of Violet's (Sutton Foster) song at the end of the episode would have been a welcome, full-circle moment, with its lines like "Oh, I am not unbreakable. I am breaking right now. I need to be unbreakable, somehow. It's never, or now." Instead, it played out like a heavy-handed overture, an unnecessary ploy for an audience that already realized Lorelai was feeling broken and lost.
After the show, she returns to the house where Luke is fixing the only thing he can, a wobbly shelf. She tells him she's going away for a while. "To do Wild,"she says. After a long conversation about how the Pacific Crest Trail is, you know, outdoors, in nature ("You get your water from a stream," Luke reminds her), Lorelai responds solemnly that "it's never, or now."
The high jinks of the first half of the episode — the Game of Thrones references, the Southern accents at the pool, running around town delivering newspapers, ordering six kinds of takeout — all feel like the Gilmore Girls of old as we wish to remember it: light and entertaining. But what makes "Summer" stand out is the conflict that lies just beneath. Will Rory and Lorelai reconcile? Will Luke and Lorelai? "Summer" sets up the finale beautifully; it just took us an extra 25, music-filled minutes to get there.
Rating: 4 out of 5 cups of coffee. If there's a full-scale musical in the middle of an episode, it's too long. "Shorten it! De-cute it!"
Best Returning Character: How is it that Jess Mariano turned out to be the least asshole-ish of all of Rory's former beaux? He still has a ridiculous swagger and a book in his pocket, but he's light-years ahead of even her in terms of maturity and being grounded. While Logan is fielding calls from a desperate Rory and actively cheating on his fiancée and Dean is nowhere to be seen, Jess has turned his passion into an (allegedly) Dave Eggers-enviable career. He may have been a shitty high school boyfriend, but he isn't a horrible person. Not sure we can say the same for the other two 10 years later.
Worst Returning Character: Now an MIT graduate headed for grad school, April Nardini is back for one blessedly brief scene, looking exactly like you'd expect. (A nose piercing is involved.) She's going through a German silent film phase, trying way too hard to seem like a pothead, and has an anxiety attack about Rory's return to her Stars Hollow home. "It's like a postcard from the real world." And then, mercifully, she's gone as quickly as she appeared. Did we even need her at all? (Answer: No.)
Random notebook dump: "I could've gone my entire life without hearing Taylor say 'gams.'"