It’s rare that Gilmore Girls feels like Mad Men, no matter what the overlapping talents of Alexis Bledel, Danny Strong, and (very briefly) Jon Hamm on both shows might suggest. The former is more explicitly comedic and bright, while the latter is more capital-S Serious and apt to explore the dark corners.
Despite that, the two series have a surprising amount in common. While their tones differ, both shows are intimately concerned with their characters’ emotional states and how a mood or a feeling can carry or direct them through a given day. Both examine their protagonists’ sense of who they are, what place they occupy in the world, and how that translates to their treatment of those around them. And despite its heavier vibe, Mad Men could be hilarious, and despite its whimsical bent, Gilmore Girls was often incisive and heartbreaking.
Which helps account for “A Vineyard Valentine”, an episode that seems to presage Mad Men’s approach, in a decidedly Gilmore guise. Maybe it’s just the episode’s lone getaway setting, something that predicts the way Don Draper and his cohort would often confuse a change of scenery with a change of self. But more than that, there’s a sense here of Gilmore Girls eschewing narrative momentum in favor of an episode founded on the contrasting emotional trajectories of the four individuals at its center, the kind of tack Mad Men would regularly adopt years later.
To that end, little happens in terms of plot for most of “A Vineyard Valentine.” Instead, the episode is mainly concerned with how everyone feels, and how those emotions pierce or prod the others inhabiting the Huntzberger lake house, as spirits wax and wane over the course of the weekend.
Sure, there’s a revelation or two, but their impact is most clear in how they change the demeanor and affect of Luke, Lorelai, Rory, and Logan, rather than in actually changing the course of the show’s overarching plots. In fact, the inability to change the course of those bigger storylines, no matter how pleasant this respite from them may be, is the core theme of “A Vineyard Valentine.”
That’s seen most clearly in the differing emotional paths of the two couples at the lake house over the course of the weekend. Luke and Lorelai start off on entirely different pages. Lorelai hopes that this getaway will take Luke’s mind of all that’s been occupying him and, implicitly, that it will make him remember his deep love of her and thus allowing her to keep their wedding date. And Luke is grumpy and out of his element, walking into a fancy environment that he’s unfamiliar with, which doesn’t suit him. Luke’s ill-prepared for the trip and inherently suspicious of Logan (and all that bears his mark) after what he’s heard Lorelai’s say about the Huntzbergers in general and Logan in particular.
Rory and Logan, on the other hand, have the opposite starting point. The pair are the picture of romantic bliss, seeming perfectly in sync at Martha’s Vineyard. They make well-worn jokes about the newspaper, flirt while playing host and hostess, and discuss their planned international trip for the summer.
This is paradise for the young couple. After some rocky stretches, Rory and Logan have reached a certain equilibrium, to where they can envision themselves doing this sort of thing for the rest of their lives. Rory remarks to her mother about the two of them both, perhaps, having found “the one.” That comment comes from a place of security and optimism, one that casts into relief how unsure and disheartened Lorelai feels about her own, once-rock solid relationship.
Then, a funny thing happens. Luke, with a bit of prodding, starts to melt. Despite Luke’s general skepticism of Logan, the young Mr. Huntzberger not only slips him a gift for Lorelai to cover for his neglecting to bring one, but comes up with the perfect cover story, putting Logan firmly in the good graces of his prospective, would-be father-in-law. Logan even cooks Luke a delicious lobster dinner, something Luke’s never had before and ends up loving, which manages to change his dour perspective on Martha’s Vineyard as a whole.
And most importantly, Lorelai talks to Luke about how she’s been feeling about his behavior in recent months. She expresses her concerns about their wedding not ever coming to pass, and explains the emotional difficulty in her having to cancel all those orders and arrangements, in a way that dashed her thin remaining hopes that things might proceed as planned.
Luke, to his credit, reassures her and admits fault. He admits that he’s been preoccupied and in his own head after April’s arrival in his life. He tells Lorelai that he loves her, that there will be a wedding, and goes so far as to declare that they’ll eat lobster when it happens. He even talks about eloping (something that he knows a thing or two about, I suppose) and returning to Martha’s Vineyard to do it. He says all the right things, seems to radiate a sense of having changed, and by the next morning, all seems right in the world again for Luke and Lorelai.
That is, however, right when things come tumbling down for Rory and Logan. Mitchum Huntzberger comes storming into the lake house, excoriating his son for missing an important meeting to be with his “little girlfriend,” and revealing that after the school year, Logan will be hogtied and shipped off to spend a year in London learning his father’s business.
The moment perfectly captures the awkwardness of being a bystander to a bit of uncomfortable family unpleasantness that spills out into the open. It’s just part of the way that “A Vineyard Valentine” soars in creating a sense of atmosphere here. The whole episode captures that strange air of a shared vacation, where different people may be in different moods and at different levels of acquaintance, with each trying to be polite and friendly while working through their own issues and different levels of comfort.
But Mitchum’s tirade can only ruin Rory’s ability to be comfortable in a place where moments earlier, she’d felt as though she belonged. His appearance pops the bubble that she and Logan had been occupying for some time, where they could plan for Asia and maybe even look forward to the rest of their lives together.
The fact that Logan didn’t tell Rory about his father’s demands, in a season where such life-changing secrets portend bad things, shows that he too is trying to deny reality, to pretend that everything’s okay so that he can enjoy that bubble a little longer. Rory, however, knows better, and that revelation siphons off all the glow she’d been experiencing until then.
Luke and Lorelai, on the other hand, are still basking in it. They return to Stars Hollow with a renewed sense of rhythm and connection, drinking coffee and joking about “Mass Ass” and doing all those lovely little Luke and Lorelai things that were always so endearing. After so much unpleasantness, so many hurt feelings and so much effort to keep it all together, everything is good again.
Until it isn’t. Luke and Lorelai’s own bubble is punctured when Caesar reminds Luke that his daughter is coming to visit the next day. That means Lorelai will have to clear out, which means Luke will have to stop by without seeing her to pick up April’s bike, which means that the invigorating happiness they’d achieved out by the water has dissipated, and things are back to where they were before they left.
However briefly Luke and Lorelai seemed to be past this, nothing has really changed. That fact is reinforced by the (clumsily-dialogued) messages on Lorelai’s answering machine from various, distant relations about her allegedly upcoming “June 3rd” wedding (something they gleaned from Emily’s unmentioned announcement in the local paper). It makes Lorelai’s embarrassment and discomfort at having to postpone her nuptials all the more public and hard to face, as she returns to the house that was remodeled and meant to be a home for her as a Sadie, Sadie, married lady at last.
That is, perhaps, the most Mad Men-esque thing of all in “A Vineyard Valentine.” Mad Men was often a show about people seeking temporary escapes — in liquor, in sex, in efforts to run away — that do nothing to fix the problems they tried to run away from. Here, Gilmore Girls spends an episode with its characters feeling the weight those sorts of problems, or trying to avoid them, only to find they’re inescapable once they’re forced to return home.
And Mad Men was just as often a show about people making bad choices that only serve to screw up their relationships: with their partners, their children, and their families. In a strange way, it feels like that was what Season 6 of Gilmore Girls was going for. It’s a season of schisms, of growing distances between former confidantes, of partings, after years and years of building bridges between characters.
The big flaw of the season is that it so rarely earns those rifts, instead founding them on soap opera twists and out-of-character behavior. But here, at least, Gilmore Girls skirts those baffling choices in and of themselves and leans into the effects they would have on Luke, Lorelai, Rory, and Logan. “A Vineyard Valentine” is an episode that traces how each of them feels, how each is given over to hope in the sunny confines of their lakeside getaway, and then falls back to Earth when the sun goes down at the coast and rises again in Stars Hollow.
It’s sad, and a little crushing, and occasionally makes you want to yell at your television screen. But it’s also real, well-crafted, and raw, and it vindicates what this show could still achieve, even in its weakest season.