A female and family-centered TV show known for its quick dialogue and rapid-fire references, Gilmore Girls has offered some excellent hours of television, summoning laughs and tears over the course of its seven season run. But, like most shows that fall short of flawless, each season had less-than-excellent installments. Sometimes you have to comb through the mediocre to find the fantastic.
1. Season 1: 'Rory's Dance'
In it's infant season, Gilmore Girls was still trying to get a handle on it's characters. They were particularly trying to figure how to weave together plotlines that involved Lorelai and Rory's lives, as well as that of Emily and Richard. The ninth episode of Season 1 has a simple, rather sitcom-y premise: Rory is going to her first dance at Chilton. Still, it's executed in such a heartfelt way that it's impossible not to tag along for the ride, from Rory nervously asking Dean to go to the dance with her, to Sookie instructing her to walk down a staircase at some point, because "princesses always walk down staircases."
Even though Rory has a hold of the title, the best parts of the episode show new angles on the Lorelai/Emily relationship. They stay up late watching old movies together, laughing over a mashed banana on toast, and Emily can be caught quietly complimenting Lorelai's parenting skills. That only makes it worse when, in the best scene of the episode, the two have a screaming match culminating in hoarse, hurt voices and slammed doors.
2. Season 2: 'Lorelai's Graduation Day'
Since Rory seems to have the monopoly on academics in the Gilmore family, the first episode of the second season is a nice twist, with Lorelai graduating from the community college we often forget she attended, and Rory skipping school in order to go see Jess in New York. They're separate but equally telling storylines, and it almost seems like these two reveal things they wouldn't have otherwise, had they been pushed together. Lorelai finally finishes a degree, a huge accomplishment for her, and over the course of the episode she goes from being embarrassed about her parents, insisting that they won't care about her graduation and pretending she isn't associated with them, to standing vulnerable and asking them for a picture. If the sight of Emily and Richard tearing up as she gets her diploma doesn't make you tear up as well, nothing will.
Meanwhile, Rory spends the day at her best, parrying conversation with Jess and each of them dodging the elephant in the room: they are much too happy to see each other. When Jess asks Rory why she came, the connection between them is as strong as affection can get on this show.
3. Season 3: 'They Shoot Gilmore's, Don't They?'
Ah, Stars Hallow, site of so many of Taylor Doose's childhood dreams come true. This episode centers around a 24-hour dance marathon, a local tradition which Lorelai apparently fails at every year. The episode introduces the event and leads to Rory and Lorelai becoming dance partners, creating a pressure-cooker for the town drama to explode. The incentive to keep moving adds a layer of desperation as Lorelai balances Sookie and Jackson's problems with her own, eventually winding up in a conversation with Luke about having kids one day.
While the swing music and 1940's attire creates a joyful, energetic atmosphere, there's nothing joyful as the clock ticks on and Rory and Dean's picture-perfect relationship dissolves beneath Jess' mischievous gaze. By the time he goes to find Rory sitting on the bridge, saying he's going to "take care of something", there's a definite shift in the air, signaling the first time that a town function has brought about irreparable changes in the lives of the #GilmoreGirls.
4. Season 4: 'The Reigning Lorelai'
Gilmore Girls' venture into the college years led to some stumbles, with a Season 4 that feels disjointed and inauthentic in places. While the final episodes do have some great scenes involving the culmination of Luke and Lorelai's flirtation, one of the only episodes that feels true to the original Gilmore brilliance is the chapter involving the death of Richard's mother. "The Reigning Lorelai" is a breather from Yale life, as well as Lorelai's love life, as it simply follows the grief of the family. Emily's brief descent into madness is hilarious ("Today I learned how to make Mojitos!"), but it's also yet another falling domino in the brewing separation between her and Richard.
There's laughter – Michel awkwardly offering Lorelai a hug, the discovery that Gran married her second cousin – but the best moments are the quietest, like every time Emily goes to check on Richard to make sure he's okay. Its a heartfelt episode in the midst of a confused season.
5. Season 5: 'Wedding Bell Blues'
Hopefully by the fifth season it's clear that the best episodes of Gilmore Girls center around the big events. This is hardly uncommon, as event episodes are where shows tend to pull out all the stops and show off a little. But a bigger explanation for this is that life events are where characters often act in ways they wouldn't otherwise, or interacting with people they wouldn't otherwise. Emily and Richard's vow renewal is a bit of genius in places where the show tends to be predictable: Lorelai ends up throwing a last minute bachelorette party, where Emily gets drunk and temporarily befriends the Stars Hollow townies; Christopher, always a wild card, also gets drunk and purposefully stirs up trouble, while Rory has some purposeful trouble of her own with Logan. The episode is important because it establishes such pleasant connections in the Gilmore family before blowing them up again. Seeing Emily and Richard dance to the song "Bill," we know that these two were made for each other, and when Lorelai realizes that her mother has plotted to ruin her relationship with Luke, we are reminded of exactly why they are meant for each other.
6. Season 6: 'Friday Night's Alright For Fighting'
It's tempting to award the best episode of Season 6 to Zach and Lane's wedding episode, but nothing can win out over the sequence that takes place at the Gilmore house in Episode 13. This is when the four family members put everything on the table and have it out with one another. They alternate between screaming matches, switching partners in shouting or silence and periods of giddy laughter. Although it's never stated explicitly, it's likely that this is the first time the four of them have gotten drunk together, and the quick excerpts from each interaction range from pricelessly funny to sadly poignant. They can all cheer Emily on as she drunkenly acts out her take-down of Sheera Huntzburger, but in the end, there is still genuine hurt behind lines like "We were sixteen! We didn't want to get married!" The first half of the episode isn't nearly as memorable, but the second half is good enough to make it excellent.
7. Season 7: 'Gilmore Girls Only'
Going back to try to find the best episode of Season 7, I was surprised to find just how few good episodes there were from the final season. Not only that, but there wasn't a single episode that didn't have at least one plot or subplot that was annoying, extraneous or poorly-executed. Keeping this in mind, the best episode of Season 7 has to be one that returns to the roots of the show: the relationship between three generations of Gilmore women. "Gilmore Girls Only" sees Lorelai, Rory, and Emily take a road trip to see Mia (played in this season by a much younger actress) getting married. The wedding itself is unimpressive, but some of the simpler scenes are fun to watch, and the subplot where Lane and Zach ask Luke to be the godfather gives their relationship a little more depth.
What really stands out in memory is the final scene in the hotel room, the short discussion about Emily's crush on Will Smith, the shy smile on Lorelai's face when she says, "You can stay." The show is retreading ground, as the relationship between Emily and Lorelai has been healed and broken a thousand times over, but in a season almost bereft of character development, it's at least heart-warming ground they're treading.
What are your favorite episodes of Gilmore Girls? Let me know in the comments!