There’s a storyline from Gilmore Girls’ fourth season that haunts me sometimes.
Lane Kim (Keiko Agena) has snuck away from her home in Stars Hollow, Connecticut, to perform a late-night show with her band, Hep Alien. The story of her character has, to that point, centered on the idea of Lane as an irrepressible free spirit and music fan who hides her true nature from her domineering mother. She squirrels away little tokens of her true self throughout her room, and across the show’s first several seasons, her mother doesn’t ever quite catch on.
Not so after that late night show. Lane returns home to find that Mrs. Kim has not only realized that Lane snuck out but also that her daughter has been keeping an entire other life from her. Mrs. Kim kicks her daughter out, and Lane goes to live with her best friend, Rory, up at Yale, where she quickly becomes more or less a live-in domestic for Rory and her roommates. Eventually, Lane leaves Yale and moves in with her bandmates in a rental house back in Stars Hollow. That development propels her toward her storyline for the back half of the series — falling in love with a fellow bandmate and eventually marrying him and having twins.
Lane and her mom try to see eye to eye. Literally, in this picture. (Credit: Warner Bros. Television)
I had always hated what Gilmore Girls did with Lane. It’s not that I find the storyline particularly unbelievable or even hard to take. Lots and lots of young people find their parents’ love for them challenged by their own desires to live as people free from their parents, and lots and lots of young people find themselves living rough approximations of their parents’ lives once they start finding jobs and having kids. I don’t even hate it because I always preferred Lane’s season three boyfriend, Dave (a winning Adam Brody, who sadly went on to The O.C.).
Truth be told, I don’t think I could have told you what I hated about this storyline until my friend, Cassie, watched the entirety of the series over the past few months. Cassie’s viewing of the series immediately clarified for me what bugged me so much about this storyline: Once — just once — I wanted the show to take Lane’s desperation to live a life free from her mother’s influence as seriously as Lane did.
If the series were going to have a moment when it took Lane’s life seriously, it would have been somewhere in this season four storyline. That season is perhaps the show’s best, as it slowly but surely brings lots and lots of chickens home to roost, one of those being Lane’s long hidden secret life. Gilmore Girls excels at telling serialized stories where lightly comedic kookiness covers up something far bleaker, then at switching itself up tonally, so the bleakness breaks out and oozes over the comedy. Season four is the series’ best at this sort of tonal whiplash, particularly in its second half.
And for at least a little bit, Gilmore Girls takes Lane seriously in this storyline. The scene where Mrs. Kim kicks her daughter out of her house is a heartbreaking one, and the moment when Lane shows up at Rory’s door is, too. It feels like something the series has been building to for years and years — Rory and Lane, trying to shake off the influence of their mothers and making their way in the world.
And then it mostly squanders this development. Lane’s presence in Rory’s apartment becomes comic relief, and Lane moving in with her bandmates is even more of a comedic story. Lane and Mrs. Kim’s relationship improves less through any real communication or honesty — though the series depicts stabs at this — and more through the simple application of time healing this particular wound. Lane, once one of the show’s most important characters, recedes into the Stars Hollow ensemble, as Rory continues along her charmed path through Yale and high society.
Again: I don’t really think any of this is impossible. Gilmore Girls is sneakily smart about class (if not particularly pointed about it), and the divide between Rory’s upper-crust roots and Lane’s less lofty prospects was always a time bomb between the two of them, destined to go off once both went off to college. Lane is exactly the sort of woman who might very well end up living in her hometown, hoping to improve here and there on the life her parents lived, and her eventual husband, Zack, is a perfectly fine match for her (IF NO DAVE!!!!!!!!).
But it also indicates the limits of Gilmore Girls’ imagination. For as much as the series depicted Stars Hollow as an idyllic wonderland the viewer might want to live in, becoming trapped there should have had more of an overtone of tragedy for a character like Lane. She didn’t have to end up miserable or anything, but the inevitability of her return to the town should have had more weight to it than it did. (And that’s before I get into her awful season seven subplot about hating sex and then immediately getting pregnant.)
In many ways, Lane functions as a mirror of Lorelai — both characters long to escape toxic mother-daughter relationships, only to keep getting drawn back into them. But Gilmore Girls always understands the weight of Lorelai having to make peace with her mother, often by doing something she very much doesn’t want to do. It feints toward doing this with Lane, but it never quite takes seriously the idea that she and her mother might finally have a rupture that can’t be healed.
This failing is particular to Gilmore Girls’ belief in the unique beauty of Stars Hollow, but it’s also general across all television. Massive, disruptive change is rarely possible because the same characters need to come back week after week after week. Lane and Mrs. Kim need to eventually make up because that’s just how television works and because it underlines an idea we hold dear in America: Family comes first, and nothing should come between two family members for very long.
In some instances, I would agree with this, but not in this particular one. No matter how silly Gilmore Girls made her behavior seem at times, Mrs. Kim was a controlling, abusive presence in her daughter’s life, one whom Lane lived in fear of from the earliest days of the show. That directness about Mrs. Kim wasn’t really something the show could have sustained. Tonally, it needed her to be a kooky old lady whose controlling ways were mostly an obstacle to Lane’s hobbies. But where the series could see just how badly being raised by Richard and Emily had warped Lorelai, it didn’t know how to extend the same treatment to Lane.
What’s more, both Lorelai and Rory treat Lane’s situation with a distinct lack of seriousness. Mrs. Kim kicking her daughter out mostly results in Rory-adjacent hijinks, rather than something more thoughtful, and the relationship between Mrs. Kim and Lane is usually treated as an inversion of the equally unhealthy but at least delightfully so relationship between Lorelai and Rory.
Before you send me an angry email about how I’ve missed the point or something similar, I assure you that my chief complaint here isn’t with Gilmore Girls, which is a show I love. My chief complaint is with the way we tell stories about families and the idea that giving up on one’s family is always the worst possible thing one can do.
One of the core ideas of most American fiction is that there is nothing a parent or child can do that will be unworthy of regaining that love. We are meant to forgive each other, endlessly. And in theory, that’s a great idea. But it’s also one that is rife with potential for abuse, as with any power differential that is treated as “just the way things are.” Gilmore Girls at least understands what it’s asking Lane to do in reconciling with her mother. Too many other shows would simply act as though she were silly for not having done so immediately.
I don’t have any illusions that we will ever be wholly rid of this idea, even as its persistence plagues so many of my friends who have had irreparable ruptures open up in their own families. But it would be nice if the stories we tell at least nodded toward the idea that unconditional forgiveness isn’t always desirable and that it shouldn’t be granted without an attempt to make amends on the part of the party who did the other party wrong. Too often, forgiveness is treated as a fait accompli, not something that has to be earned. The powerful get to do whatever they want, and we are expected to be okay with that.
I love this series enough to have wanted better for Lane. What she got wasn’t bad, but imagine a world in which her wish fulfillment fantasy involved a break with the woman who raised her significant enough that she was able to build a life somewhere else, outside of her mother’s watchful eye. (She could have done so somewhere near Yale, so she could have remained in Rory’s orbit and on the show.) Given enough time, Mrs. Kim could have even earned a redemption more significant than “she seemed to realize her daughter was an independent person.”
There are more stories to tell about families than the ones we already do. The things we take for granted most are usually the things we have the greatest need to reexamine.
What I’ve been up to: Happy New Year, everybody! I took last week off from the newsletter, because we all need to take a week off now and then. But I was hard at work over at Vox, where I published thoughts on The Leftovers, on Wonder Woman 1984, and on watching the insurrection at the Capitol. But maybe my favorite thing I’ve published in 2021 (so far) has been this New Year’s Day chat with my wife about her 2020 — in which she gained clarity only to lose it. Please check it out.
Depression is like running waist-deep in water while everyone else is running on the shore. You’re expending more effort, and you get a quarter as far before you get tired in a way sleep doesn’t really help. I’m so lucky. I have great mental health care and medications and therapists. And I’m still miserable in lockdown. Everyone, no matter where they’re trapped in the world, is also trapped in their own head, and some people’s heads are a little more haunted than others.
Read me: Jackson McHenry’s Vulture essay on the ways that Ryan Murphy seems to have slightly disappeared since joining Netflix is one of the better looks at a tricky TV figure to write about. In particular, I think he nails the way in which Murphy seems to operate best when he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
For someone as powerful as he is in Hollywood, Murphy is remarkably open about how much he cares about reviews and awards potential. (In that 2018 New Yorker profile, writer Emily Nussbaum recounts how Murphy sent her the Pose pilot then peppered her with text messages asking her to rank it on a scale of one to ten.) The humor and tension of so many of Murphy’s earlier series came from an awareness of the world’s unfairness and the absurdity of in-group politics. Resentment was the grist for his content mill. In his Netflix work, Murphy has created fantasies of acceptance — noble, perhaps, but quickly and cheaply earned. When resentment does appear, it flows outward and down, toward the haters, the critics, or the townspeople of Indiana.
Watch me: It’s a new year. Have you watched “Celery Man” yet?
And another thing… Are you wondering if you might be trans? My friend Cassie (referenced above) has an article that will walk you through the process of puzzling some of that out. I hesitate to link to it, because Cassie takes such glee in her accomplishments, but she is my best friend, and I love her so.
A thing I had to look up: Did you know that “snuck” has replaced “sneaked” as the preferred past tense form of sneak in American English? The dictionary says so!
This week’s reading music: “Your Dog” by Soccer Mommy