Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is only a week away; there may not be time for a rewatch of all 154 episodes in preparation. The episodes below, however, offer a good primer to reacquaint oneself with what made the series so special. This list is obviously a personal one; others will surely balk at the episodes chosen, or feel their favorites have been left out. I’ve discounted any episodes from the last two seasons of the show, as the previous five provided more than enough episodes to choose from without the pall of creator / showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino’s imminent and then eventual exit hanging over seasons six and seven.
As may also be obvious from the choices below, I favor episodes that revolve around the complicated relationship between Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and her mother Emily (Kelly Bishop), and that cement the bond between Lorelai and her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel). I’m also biased in favor of episodes that place the town of Stars Hollow front and center, focus on diner owner Luke (Scott Patterson) and Lorelai’s budding romance, and townie shenanigans. Regardless of your own preferences, though, the return of Gilmore Girls is both exciting and an excellent excuse to revisit episodes that remind you of the show’s singular appeal. “Where you lead, I will follow”, Gilmores, so lead on…
“The Lorelais’ First Day at Chilton” (1×02)
Although not the series pilot, “The Lorelais’ First Day at Chilton” accomplishes much of the same in introducing the main cast and premise of the series. Chilton, Rory’s prep school funded by a loan by her grandparents, looms large in the first half of Gilmore Girls, not only as the reason why Lorelai begrudgingly reconciles with her estranged parents, but the way it expands Rory’s world outside of Stars Hollow. The episode also marks the introduction of Liza Weil’s brilliant turn as Paris Geller, initially as Rory’s nemesis. It’s an excellent introduction to the series as it perfectly encapsulates Lorelai’s relationships with both Emily and Rory, the three Gilmore girls of the series, and reaffirms Stars Hollow and its inhabitants as an integral part of the series.
“Rory’s Birthday Parties” (Season 1, episode 6)
A terrific glimpse into Starts Hollow life, particularly as seen through the eyes of Richard (Edward Herrmann) and Emily, who visit to attend Rory’s 16th birthday party. “Rory’s Birthday Parties” is filled with townies galore, a budding romance between Rory and Dean Forrester (Jared Padalecki), and heartbreaking moments of realization for Emily. She’d already thrown Rory an upper crust birthday party, inviting classmates Rory barely knew and introducing her to Connecticut’s high society.
As parties go, the two couldn’t be more different, and Rory’s comfort level (or lack thereof) is obvious in both. It’s also an episode that’s worth including for the scene in which Richard gamely takes a magazine quiz (“I am an autumn”). The sweet moment he has with Rory speaks to how easily they connect in contrast to his and Emily’s difficult relationship with Lorelai, a running thread throughout the series.
“Forgiveness and Stuff” (Season 1, episode10)
“Forgiveness and Stuff” is an episode that builds on Rory’s growing relationship with her grandparents, and Lorelai’s reconnection with them when Richard has a health scare and is hospitalized. It’s also a direct continuation of the events in the previous episode, “Rory’s Dance”, one that exemplifies Lorelai and Emily’s shifting dynamic, but has them at odds again by the end.
Similarly, there’s lingering tension between Lorelai and Rory, but it’s Richard’s hospitalization that brings them all together and cements the deepening relationships among the Gilmores. Plus, there’s a truly disgusting Santa burger, made for Lorelai by Luke, in this episode.
“Concert Interruptus” (Season 1, episode 13)
One of the Gilmore Girls’ greatest gifts is its excellent use of music throughout its run. Distinctive la-la music cues by Sam Phillips, regular troubadour performances by Grant-Lee Phillips, and all-around great music choices abound. There have also been appearances by plenty of musical artists over the years. “Concert Interruptus” boasts one by The Bangles when Lorelai, Rory, Sookie (Melissa McCarthy), take Chilton classmates Paris, Madeline (Shelley Cole), and Louise (Teal Redmann) to a concert in New York City.
The band’s performance is a highlight, but there are also some lovely scenes between Rory and Paris that point to their growing friendship; Lorelai’s curiosity about Luke’s ex-girlfriend makes for some especially great banter with Sookie. It’s also an episode that again reaffirms Lorelai’s choices in raising Rory, despite her own youth; however hip and young she may appear, Lorelai’s always a mother first, a point the series would make again and again.
“The Road Trip to Harvard” (Season 2, episode 4)
When Lorelai panics on the eve of her wedding to Max Medina (Scott Cohen), she takes Rory on an impromptu road trip to Harvard without telling anyone. Although “The Road Trip to Harvard” features plenty of Gilmore shenanigans — they continually make fun of their bed and breakfast décor and try to escape run-ins with other guests at all costs — they also explore Harvard. It’s certainly an opportunity for Rory to see the place she’s been dreaming of since she was too young to even consider college, but it also serves as a bittersweet reminder of all Lorelai has sacrificed, including her own education.
Gilmore Girls has always made it clear that Lorelai doesn’t regret her decision to have Rory so young, but it also doesn’t shy away from the very real costs of that decision.
“Run Away, Little Boy” (Season 2, episode 9)
“Run Away, Little Boy” keeps Lorelai and Rory separate to deal with their own issues for much of the episode. Rory’s struggle in dealing with an assignment-obsessed Paris invading Stars Hollow, along with classmate Tristan duGray’s (Chad Michael Murray) continued pursuit of her, culminates in confrontations with both Dean and Tristan, and Tristan eventually leaving school. Meanwhile, Lorelai is still coming to terms with her breakup from Max after getting a late wedding present, jumping back into dating in a misguided attempt to move on.
The entertaining re-imaginings of Romeo and Juliet at Chilton are a highlight, particularly when Paris has to step in at the last minute to replace Tristan as Romeo to Rory’s Juliet. The episode also brings to the fore how much Lorelai depends on Luke and the rest of the town as her support system, an ongoing theme in the series.
“The Bracebridge Dinner” (Season 2, episode 10)
When the Bracebridge group, who’d rented the entire Independence Inn (Lorelai’s place of employment) cancels at the last minute, Lorelai and Sookie decide not to waste all their hard work and instead open up the inn to the town. What follows is a ridiculous 19th century dinner with Sookie’s fiancé Jackson (Jackson Douglas) as squire (he’s the only one who fits the costume), complete with a last-minute drop-in from Paris, an unexpectedly giddy Richard, and a wary Emily. Reluctant guests Luke and Jess (Milo Ventimiglia) are seated, much to their chagrin, alongside townies Babette (Sally Struthers) and Morey (Ted Rooney), fellow Independence Inn employee Michel (Yanic Truesdale), town selectman Taylor (Michael Winters), Miss Patty (Liz Torres), Kirk (Sean Gunn), and Paris.
It’s the kind of free-for-all that marks Stars Hollow as the quirky town at the center of Gilmore Girls, but it also includes the bombshell that Richard’s quit his job without telling Emily, while Jess’s mom didn’t ask him home for the winter break, and Lorelai struggles with Rory’s erstwhile father Christopher’s (David Sutcliff) request for Rory to spend her break with him. That “The Bracebridge Dinner” also includes a Bjork snowwoman and Sookie’s always-funny panicked cooking speaks to the series’ wonderful balance of humor and drama.
“There’s the Rub” (Season 2, episode 16)
“There’s the Rub” offers one of the best episodes to showcase the complex relationship between Emily and Lorelai, by putting them together in a spa for the weekend, in which they unsurprisingly fight and unexpectedly bond. One of the series’ greatest strengths has been its ability to balance the constant back and forth inherent in the Lorelai and Emily relationship. No matter how frustrating it could be to see them continuously take one step forward and two steps back, the series managed to find the line in which those struggles existed without going over very often.
This episode also features the surprisingly entertaining trio of Rory, Jess, and Paris debating books and french fry condiments, all while Rory desperately tries to relax in a rare evening at home alone.
“They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” (Season 3, episode 7)
This is a quintessential Gilmore Girls episode, “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” revolves around a Stars Hollow dance marathon. It’s everything that the series does so well: kooky town event plus plenty of Gilmore drama with enough hilarity and unexpected hijinks to round out the whole thing. The Dean / Rory / Jess love triangle comes to a head when Dean breaks up with Rory on the dance floor.
Meanwhile, Jackson and Sookie argue over how many kids to have, Luke comes to Lorelai’s rescue when the heel on her shoe breaks, and Kirk’s competitive streak coupled with Taylor’s control streak make for an especially lively episode.
Growing Up, Moving Out
“A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving” (Season 3, episode 9)
Gilmore Girls revels in the seasons, as Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life can obviously attest to; “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving” is an episode that thoroughly immerses itself in the holiday. Lorelai and Rory’s attempts to attend four separate Thanksgiving dinners (“This is our destiny, this is our finest hour”) involves dinner with Richard and Emily, Sookie and Jackson, Luke and Jess, and Rory’s best friend Lane (Keiko Agena) and Lane’s mom, Mrs. Kim (Emily Kuroda).
It’s filled with the kind of traditions that make Gilmore Girls so beloved by fans, but even if it only featured a drunk Sookie (“Am I crying or laughing?”). It’s an episode worth watching.
“A Tale of Poes and Fire” (Season 3, episode 17)
Featuring one of the best Kirk business ideas in the Gilmore Girls universe, “A Tale of Poes and Fire” takes a Stars Hollow event — an Edgar Allan Poe Society’s visit — to predictably ridiculous heights. Complicating matters is a fire at the inn, which displaces the many out-of-towners visiting, and they’re put up in homes around town.
Meanwhile, Lorelai and Rory are in the midst of an epic pro/con list for Rory’s college choice, and despite Rory’s well-documented Harvard obsession, she eventually picks Yale. Luke also begins to be suspicious about Jess’s attendance at school. It’s an episode that sets up some major stories, while also working in a “Raven”-off. If you don’t want a “Babette ate oatmeal!” t-shirt after this episode, you may not be a true fan.
“Those Are Strings, Pinocchio” (Season 3, episode 22)
Rory’s graduation from Chilton, as valedictorian, of course, prompts a great deal of soul searching for Lorelai, Richard, and Emily, as well as pride in all the town’s citizens, Sookie, Jackson and Luke, most notably. Rory’s speech honoring her grandparents and her mother again speaks of how closely Rory has brought the family together, despite Lorelai’s pregnancy being what had previously severed their connection.
While it looks to the past, this episode also prepares the audience for the future. Rory being at Chilton was such an integral part of her growth, and moving forward to college will be just as significant, but first, there’s the chance to close that chapter in a meaningful way that acknowledges how important Chilton, and Rory’s time there, have been to the show.
“The Lorelais’ First Day at Yale” (Season 4, episode 2)
A counterpoint to “The Lorelais’ First Day at Chilton”, “The Lorelais’ First Day at Yale” similarly marks a turning point in Lorelai and Rory’s relationship through Rory’s education. It’s a milestone that’s easily relatable for many but means a great deal in the Gilmore Girls because of Lorelai’s own educational sacrifices in order to raise her daughter on her own terms.
There are parallels throughout the episode, parallels that have always been at the heart of the series, yet Gilmore Girls never overplays them. The senior Gilmores’ own hopes for Rory, and regrets in how they handled Lorelai’s pregnancy, are an undercurrent of the episode while Rory’s adjustment to life away from Stars Hollow and Lorelai add an exciting, if bittersweet, note.
“The Festival of Living Art” (Season 4, episode 7)
Memorable for the first appearance of Sebastian Bach as Gil, newest member of Lane’s band Hep Alien, “The Festival of Living Art” also contains one the series’ best town events. Sookie’s preparing to give birth (with a bossy midwife overseeing things) and Kirk is taking his role as Christ in DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” way too seriously, while Lorelai’s worried that she’ll flinch again while playing “the Renoir girl”. The Gil storyline is a highlight, and Bach’s addition to the band added a new level of enthusiasm to their scenes. Sookie and Lorelai also have a wonderful moment when Sookie panics about how late her due date is, and Lorelai shares the story of Rory’s birth.
Oh, and as a bonus, this episode also includes Nick Offerman as Jackson’s obnoxious brother Beau.
“Luke Can See Her Face” / “Last Week Fights, This Week Tights” / “Raincoats and Recipes” (Season 4, episodes 20, 21 and 22)
These three episodes work together seamlessly to bring some of the series’ long-running stories to a head, as Lorelai and Sookie open their own inn, Luke and Lorelai finally get together, and Rory and Dean sleep together for the first time — even though he’s married — adding a complication in an episode filled with happier moments. Luke’s realization — through a set of hilarious self-help tapes — that he’s always had feelings for Lorelai lead to his actively courting her at his sister’s wedding (“Luke can dance“), while Lorelai and Sookie are in a frenzy to open the Dragonfly Inn and host an open house for the town.
The three episodes work together beautifully to not only unfold Luke and Lorelai’s relationship, but to also bring the opening of the inn, so long a dream for Sookie and Lorelai, to its satisfying culmination. These are two events that play a monumental role in Lorelai’s life and it’s fitting that the two go hand in hand. Yet, because Gilmore Girls doesn’t always like to wrap things up without some messiness, the episode ends on Lorelai discovering Rory’s slept with Dean, decidedly bringing down the mood.
“Say Something” / “Jews and Chinese Food” / “So…Good Talk” (Season 5 episodes 14, 15 and 16)
These three episodes from the latter half of the fifth season focus on Rory’s romance with wealthy fellow Yalie Logan Hunztberger (Matt Czurhry) and Luke and Lorelai’s first breakup. Taken as a whole, the episodes do an excellent job of paralleling Rory and Lorelai’s differing paths, as Rory continues to immerse herself in Logan’s high society world — the exact one her mother couldn’t escape fast enough — while Lorelai’s cementing her place in Stars Hollow and rejecting Emily’s interference in her relationship with Luke.
Apart from contrasting Lorelai and Rory’s diverging paths, the episodes also highlight the very real differences in Lorelai’s past breakups with her breakup with Luke, as she’s much more affected by the latter. It also calls back to Taylor’s fears in a town meeting earlier in the season (“Written in the Stars, Season, episode 3) when he predicts the town will be divided when Luke and Lorelai eventually break up.
“Jews and Chinese Food” and “So…Good Talk” also use two musicals — Fiddler on the Roof and A Star is Born — to beautifully highlight Luke and Lorelai’s breakup and eventual reunion.