The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors in paintings of Santa Claus and pulling out stale chocolate the manufacturer couldn’t sell four years ago, then eating it and pretending we’re having a good time. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of television, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day through December 25 to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday special or holiday-themed episode we’re covering that day. We’ve got the usual suspects, some of the worst specials, and some surprises for you, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day to get in the holiday spirit.
I’m not someone who particularly cares about Christmas. I didn’t grow up doing much for the holiday, so my emotional attachment is pretty limited. But that’s what makes Gilmore Girls’ “Forgiveness And Stuff” the perfect holiday-viewing choice for me. I grew up in England, where, weirdly, Gilmore Girls aired its first three seasons on Nickelodeon at 6 p.m. (The show was never treated particularly well over there.) “Forgiveness And Stuff,” in fact, was the first time I ever saw the show. I stumbled upon it, probably after a repeat of Kenan And Kel, and was immediately sucked in by a show that was cute and zingy on the surface but didn’t feel sappy during the hugging-and-learning portion. That’s especially surprising considering that “Forgiveness And Stuff” is a Christmas episode in which the Gilmore patriarch, Richard (Edward Herrmann), is hospitalized that doesn’t feel manipulative. It’s a Christmas episode where the holiday’s link to the storyline is kept at a distance, the fractured family’s relationship is smartly observed, and the speechifying is kept brief.
Even though Gilmore Girls did a more obviously Christmas-y episode in its second season—the rousing “The Bracebridge Dinner,” in which the whole town gathers to have a party and ride around on reindeer-drawn sleighs—“Forgiveness and Stuff” really nails what the holiday’s all about: the pleasure and pain that comes from having to interact with your family.
This is still the first season of the show, so mother-daughter team Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory (Alexis Bledel) have only just begun to reconnect with Lorelai’s parents Emily (Kelly Bishop) and Richard, with whom they’ve been estranged since Lorelai gave birth at 16 and fled her patrician Connecticut upbringing for the warm, friendly small town Stars Hollow. “Forgiveness,” the show’s 10th episode, comes right after Rory caused a minor scandal by not coming home the night after her first school dance with shiny new boyfriend Dean. Nothing sexual happened, but everyone’s mad at each other so, ostensibly, the point of the episode is to have everyone reconcile after Richard collapses and is sent to the hospital.
But the episode also has a lot to say about family traditions at Christmas and how important they can be even if you find them as wrenching as Lorelai does. In the wake of an epic shouting match with her mother in the previous episode, it still never crosses her mind that she wouldn’t be coming to the Gilmores’ Christmas dinner, a tradition that has seemingly stood since she was born, even during the family’s more distant years of Rory’s babyhood. But, to her bafflement, her mother disinvites her (Rory still has to come). “I had the German measles in fifth grade. I still had to make an appearance at the Christmas party,” Lorelai protests, to deaf ears.
Graham plays the reaction just right. Sure, it’s not a big deal that she’s not going to a silly dinner party a couple weeks before Christmas, and it’s not like she throws her phone across the room, but something about it still feels seismic. It might be that she loves the annual apple tarts—“I can live without them,” she says; “You’ve made up songs after eating five of them with lyrics that contradict that last statement,” Rory quips in reply—but it’s more likely that gnawing feeling that on holidays, you should be forced to see your family, even if it’s just to remind yourself why you don’t every other day of the year.
On another show, Lorelai might go to a bar to feel sorry for herself, but on Gilmore Girls, that location is Luke’s Diner, where she can trade banter and enjoy a hint of sexual frisson with the Sam to her Diane, Luke Danes (Scott Patterson). At this point in the show, the writers were just beginning to build on their budding will-they-won’t-they relationship, as you see here with his instant diagnosis of why Lorelai hates missing her parents’ “fake Christmas party.” Later on, he makes her a Santa-styled burger that is both beautiful and disgusting. It’s probably the most superficially Christmas-y part of the episode.
Then Lorelai gets the call that her dad’s in the hospital and the whole tone of the episode shifts, turning into a series of two-person scenes as all of the characters interact with each other in the hospital. Once we’re there, things get decidedly more dramatic and the Christmas theme fades into the background a little. Everyone’s crying, reminiscing on their relationships with each other and, in Luke’s case, trying not to look too closely at the gruesomely wounded patients wheeling by.
But while the drama is obviously heightened at this point, all the show is really doing is fleshing out everyone’s relationships, bringing everyone close together and wringing both funny and serious material out of the sparks that fly. As Lorelai arrives at the hospital and navigates the halls looking for her mom, she bemoans that there must be some kind of “blood bond” to guide her there, even though they seemingly have nothing in common. Suddenly, she hears her mom bitching out a poor haggard nurse (who happens to be played by Jane Lynch), and that’s all it takes. It’s a sweet moment with just a hint of sharpness.
Emily’s genuinely surprised reaction to Lorelai’s arrival gives away just how seriously fractured she thought her relationship with her daughter was, but it’s a moment Lorelai has to glide over quickly to avoid any more fighting, which is pretty much the definition of the holiday season. “Of course I came,” she says matter-of-factly, before slipping into helpful-daughter mode. Before this scene, she’s been a frantic wreck, with Luke taking charge and driving her to the hospital, but Lorelai draws on a weird independence and power when she’s around her mom.
That doesn’t extend to her father, though, who’s been a different, more removed authority figure for her whole life. Emily is the one Lorelai constantly challenges and gets in screaming arguments with; Richard is the one she feels she truly disappointed. When driving to the hospital, she says she wishes she could think on pleasant memories they shared together, but it never worked that way. He went to work, he made the money, and he expected her to behave like a typical daughter of high society, a path she obviously deviated from very severely.
While Lorelai’s relationship with Emily is complicated, her relationship with Richard is pretty simple: He makes her feel like a kid again, and not a happy-go-lucky little kid, but a teenager who’s a disappointment to her father. At the end of the episode, she finally summons up the courage to go in alone, and it’s the best scene of the episode (and one of the first great, quiet emotional moments the show ever had). She watches him sleep, and when he wakes up and locks eyes with her, she has nothing to offer. But he gets it, and she gets it. The whole thing only lasts a minute, but it’s a effective one: It feel like years of progress have been made.
Now, I’ve never had a Christmas where anybody got hospitalized. (Richard’s problem, by the way, turns out to just be angina.) But “Forgiveness And Stuff” definitely nails the brutal tension and the weird kinship that springs out of everyone in the family having to spend an extended amount of time together. That wasn’t how Emily intended it. Her party is meant to be a formal, circumscribed affair, the most traditional you can get, to avoid any such drama. But that kind of drama happens. People go to hospitals. Parents and children fight and make up. It’s part of life, and as heightened as “Forgiveness And Stuff” (and Gilmore Girls in general) can be, there are hefty kernels of emotional truth in every scene.
Tomorrow: Christmas brings unlikely redemption for a washed-up soul.