Feature: Jess Mariano From GILMORE GIRLS Deserves Better

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the series with a hot take.

By: Oct. 09, 2020
Feature: Jess Mariano From GILMORE GIRLS Deserves Better

This week, Gilmore Girls celebrated its 20th anniversary, catapulting back into the public consciousness for the first time since its four-episode Netflix revival aired almost four years ago. I'm grateful for this quick media Moment, because Gilmore Girls never leaves my own consciousness, and I intend to capitalize on this platform before my window of opportunity closes again.

I would like to talk to you today about Jess Mariano, the bad boy with a heart of gold who stole viewers' and Rory Gilmore's heart somewhere between seasons two and three.

But I would not like to talk to you about Jess Mariano, the moody, bad ex-boyfriend of Rory Gilmore. I cannot and will not defend his awful, teenage communication skills, the ways he could be cold and distant in a relationship, and how he usually took his anger and frustration with the world out on Rory. I don't want to talk about the theory that Jess is Rory's Luke, and Logan is her Christopher - in fact, I don't really want to talk about Rory at all.

Jess Mariano, in his own right, is the most dynamic character on Gilmore Girls, and the second most interesting (after Emily, duh). We watched this kid change from an unrelenting punk with a heart he doesn't understand into a 19-year-old struggling to find a path into a successful 22-year-old doing what he loves. Milo Ventimiglia stopped being a series regular after season three, but Jess didn't need to be around all the time for us to believe in his capacity to change. It happened organically on the sidelines, and surprised and delighted us whenever he'd come around.

But Jess in the revival doesn't seem to have changed at all in the ten years since we've seen him. I don't care how many hours Milo Ventimiglia was available to film the revival; if that kind of radical growth happened for Jess in between his smattering of guest appearances between the fourth and sixth seasons, we should have been clued in to SOMETHING that changed for him between 2006 and 2016.

I've scoured Jess's scant revival scenes for clues to his 2016 whereabouts, his professional life, his relationship status. Anything. The only thing I've come up with is he's financially stable - he offers to lend Rory money while she's floundering as the editor of the Stars Hollow Gazette. His life is a mystery, and his sole function in the revival is to serve as life coach and re-router to the people in his life: he encourages Rory to write a book, he helps Luke work through his troubled relationship with Lorelai, he drops everything to help Liz and TJ escape a vegetable cult (????).

There's precedence for Guru Jess. When he showed up at Rory's grandparents' house in season six, he'd written his first novel, and he wanted to thank Rory for the ways she encouraged him to be his best self in the past. In that moment, Rory's completely directionless for the first time in her life. She's dropped out of school, she's reconsidering her whole career path, she's not talking to her mom, and she's dating Logan, a man who's changed her whole personality and perception of partnership. Jess is the first and only person who's able to get through to Rory in that moment - it's no coincidence that she takes a break from Logan, returns to school, and resumes her relationship with her mother one episode after his visit.

Since Jess credits Rory with his written success, it's a really nice parallel that he's the one who encourages her to write her book in the revival (though I will say that SPOILER: it's insane to me that Gilmore Girls, Jane the Virgin, and Game of Thrones all have the same ending, where it turns out a main character is the author of the story we're watching). But why, all of a sudden, is advice-giving all Jess is good for?

I think part of the reason Jess is frustrating in the revival lies in the stated purpose for the revival, which was to return the reins to series creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino. They did not work on the seventh and final season of the original show, and, oh boy, it shows.

But the Palladinos did get a chance to end Jess's arc, in the latter episodes of season six. The last time we see Jess in the regular series, it's at a welcome party for his new publishing house, Truncheon Books, in Philadelphia. Rory, fresh off the news that Logan has cheated on her, comes to see the new digs. Jess infers that Rory and Logan have broken up, because she intentionally does not make that clear, and they kiss. Rory freaks out, says she loves Logan, and leaves, effectively closing the door on the romantic part of their relationship for good.

It's a bittersweet ending for people, like me, who wanted Rory and Jess to end up together from the start. Jess has really pulled himself together into this beautiful, exciting new life; he's finally reached a maturity level that would allow for him to have a successful romantic relationship; and Rory still rejects him. It's a bummer, but we're comforted with the idea that Jess has created this new life, separate from Rory. He can officially move on now.

Guru Jess worked in season six because his very existence was a role reversal. We're used to Rory being the calm, collected, responsible one, and Jess being the disaster. So when Jess is the one who has his act together, and you're the disaster, you listen to him. You pay attention to his advice.

But by the time we get to the revival, it seems like Jess has had his act together for a long, long time, and Rory has been floundering for just as long. Jess and Rory matter a lot to each other, and I'm sure they'll always see their romantic relationship as foundational. But a Jess that's still pining for the Rory of 2016 (who's still seeing Logan, who can't land a job because she thinks she's too good to take part in a changing media landscape, who can't seem to find the decency to break up with her boyfriend of two years) is not the dynamic Jess we have witnessed (!!!!) who's already finished that romantic arc.

I also feel like the nature of their relationship would have changed infinitely as a result of Luke and Lorelai's reconciliation. These are people who had a relationship, don't anymore, and now are practically cousins - Jess being the nephew of who is essentially Rory's stepfather. Is it insane to assume they would have developed a more platonic, familial relationship by this point? We know from the revival that the last time they saw each other was three years previously - it makes sense to assume at some kind of family event. Is ten years not long enough to move on from your (albeit intense) less-than-a-year of dating someone at age seventeen?

If the Palladinos were going to reintroduce the idea of Rory and Jess as romantic partners, they needed to do more heavy-lifting than just having Jess stare at Rory through a window at the end of "Fall." The central conflict of their relationship used to be the inherent fear that Jess would drag Rory down to his low level, but, at this point, Jess is fine! It's Rory who needs to rise to his occasion, and it doesn't seem like she wants to. At least, we have no idea if she'd want to - she never gets clued in to creepy window-staring Jess, and the subject is never broached out loud.

The thing that disappointed me most about the revival is this very new idea that everything in Gilmore Girls comes, as Lorelai says, "full freakin' circle" - that we're doomed to repeat our parents' mistakes. That an effective ending is Rory pregnant and estranged from whoever the father is. That because Lorelai has a Christopher and a Luke, Rory also needs a Christopher and a Luke.

I happen to really like the last few episodes of season seven, even though the Palladinos didn't work on them. The series ended originally with the Luke/Lorelai reconciliation, and with Rory heading off into the world, newly single and fulfilling the promise she made to all of us seven seasons previously. Gilmore Girls, for me, has always been about breaking cycles, and doing the genetically improbable thing.

That's why Jess's character development felt so effortless throughout the series, and why his stagnancy in the revival makes no sense. It's so clear to me that the Palladinos struggled to pry open his closed narrative rather than introducing new developments and another new and improved Jess. I know they had to bring him back for fan service purposes, and because Milo Ventimiglia is great, and I'm genuinely glad I got to see him again. But why even bring the character back at all if you no longer know how to contribute anything meaningful to his story?

Jess Mariano's story matters to me independent of his romantic relationship with Rory. I don't just love him because he and Rory made googly eyes at each other and had great chemistry; I love him because he's a great character.

The revival made SOME big, little scenes happen, giving us little clues into these characters' new lives. The Dean scene sticks out to me in particular - in those few minutes, we learn he's living in Scranton with a new wife and a horde of kids. I was never a fan of Dean, as a character or as a boyfriend for Rory, but that scene makes me cry every time I revisit it. It's wonderful to see a person triumph over their past.

So why wasn't Jess given that same dignity? Why is this poor man doomed to love this now-unlikable mess of a woman from here to eternity? And why was so much more screentime devoted to the stupid Life and Death Brigade than to Rory's purported soul mate?

Jess-staring-at-Rory-in-the-window felt tacked on, and insulting to both characters - but mostly Jess.