If Gilmore Girls (2000) were an old Hollywood Western, Emily Gilmore would be the one wearing a black ten-gallon hat. No villain looms larger than Emily throughout the entire seven season run of the series. Defending Lorelai’s mother, while also casting aspersions on Lorelai herself, is generally grounds to be run out of Stars Hollow faster than Tyler Docce can cause a ruckus or Kurt can find a new job. But purely looking at Emily as an overbearing and oppressive society matron ignores some of the complex texturing of her character and her daughter’s done by the writers and actors. Emily deserves a second look, and there is no better place than Season 2, Episode 2, "Hammers and Veils."
When Max proposes to Lorelai, all of Stars Hollow is in on the news. The thousand yellow daisies that Max sends to the Inn end up all over town. Even so, Lorelai doesn’t tell her parents. She has opportunities. She could call. She could announce it at the Friday night dinner when Emily and Richard are so excited about Rory’s performance in school. It is at their house, in Season 2, Episode 1, that she gives Max his answer. But she still doesn’t tell her parents. She and Rory jump and squeal like schoolgirls, but don’t let the elder Gilmores in on the news.
Then Sookie calls and invites Emily to a wedding shower. Sookie’s excitement for her friend blinds her to the fact that Emily clearly has no idea what Sookie is talking about. Viewing the scene from Emily’s side, the news hits her like a sucker punch. Kelly Bishop, as always, does a masterful job of showing Emily’s pain behind her polished veneer. She is physically affected by the news, wounded but proud — something viewers applaud in Lorelai but often vilify in her mother.
In "Hammers and Veils," the pain is barely under the surface when Lorelai and Rory arrive for the next Friday night dinner. Lorelai finally shares the news of her engagement with her mother. Emily, still reeling from hearing the news from Sookie, predictably doesn’t react the way that Lorelai wants. She is cold and dismissive, deliberately hurting her daughter.
When, later in the episode, Lorelai, angry and slightly drunk, confronts Emily about her reaction, the raw emotion of the scene is palpable. Both actresses carry the weight of the scen, the writing balancing the complicated past of the mother and daughter and the delicate détente that is their present. Emily and Lorelai’s Cold War erupts into a nasty skirmish with Lorelai, as always, playing the unjustly wounded and misunderstood daughter. But viewers realize, even though Lorelai does not, that the situation is not that simple. We know why Emily is so cold and can empathize with her reaction to being the last to know that her daughter is getting married.
"Why is it that when your only daughter tells you that she’s getting married, you can’t muster up a little enthusiasm. Even a little fake enthusiasm? Why don’t you pretend to care? This is the biggest thing to happen to me possibly for the rest of my life, and you dismissed it like I said, 'Hey I’m thinking of getting a Honda. What do you think?'" Lorelai says. Lorelai pushes and pushes to get a reaction out of Emily, asking why her mother doesn’t care about her or her getting married.
Finally, her own angry tears matching her daughter's, Emily answers Lorelai’s question of 'Do you know how that felt?' "No, I don’t. I don’t know," Emily says. "Possibly very similar to finding out from a complete stranger that my only daughter is getting married and had told every other person in the world before she bothered to tell her own mother. Possibly, it felt something like that."
Both women are hurt, both understandably so. It is one of the clearest examples in the Gilmore Girls of the depth of the hurt feelings between the two but also the real desire, on both sides, for an honest connection. In the final scene of the episode, Lorelai and Emily come back around. Lorelai extends an olive branch and an apology. Emily can't bring herself to say anything directly but moves forward in her own way, suggesting a tiara instead of a veil for the wedding: "It's what I wore." She manages to say a lot with so little, and Kelly Bishop plays the scene with unmistakable vulnerability.
These two scenes are jam-packed with characterization, backstory and even a little forward-moving plot. The dialogue and its delivery teach viewers more about Lorelai and Emily than they might realize on first viewing. With efficient and deliberate choices, the writers and actors propel the characters forward in the story, a story with more than just one side.
So, maybe—just maybe—we should sometimes cut Emily Gilmore a break. Maybe her ten-gallon hat is actually a tasteful shade of DAR-appropriate gray.