Paris: “It’s a shame Elizabeth Barrett Browning wasn’t here to witness this. She’d put her head through a wall.”
—Season 1, Episode 18
Maybe it's the circles I run in, but I feel like the first line of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43—“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”—has been applied to such absurd contexts that I associate it more with parody than an expression of profound love.
I’m guilty of parodying it too. I feel certain I’ve recited Browning’s words to a donut at some point in my life, before proceeding to enumerate said donut’s virtues (though in vastly inferior rhyme scheme, obviously). I’m also certain I’ve flipped her words to the negative before launching into a tirade about the Triboro Bridge (“How do I NOT love thee AT ALL? Let me count the ways!”).
It’s a shame, really, because it’s a lovely, moving poem about selfless, transcendent love. It’s in the public domain, so here, see for yourself:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Paris doesn’t refer to Sonnet 43 in particular. But given the context of the moment—Tristan’s make-out session with Unnamed Female is blocking access to her locker—and the episode as a whole, it’s a fitting choice.
Now about the episode as a whole: Called “Star-Crossed Lovers and Other Strangers,” it begins with a voiceover of Miss Patty narrating the founding of Star’s Hollow: A band of stars led two young lovers, who lived in neighboring towns and whose parents disapproved of their union, to the site of the future gazebo. As Miss Patty tells the story, the camera follows Star’s Hollow residents as they prepare for the annual festival celebrating the love story that gave birth to their quirky little hamlet. The camera eventually arrives at Miss Patty’s, where we finally see her audience: a group of cherubic kindergarteners (or younger?). The scene ends with—wait for it—Miss Patty puffing on a cigarette and asking the children if they’d like to hear the story of how she once danced in a cage for Tito Puente.
For the audience, this incongruous conclusion drops like a grand piano on the roadrunner. Besides bringing the reverie of the love story crashing down, it’s the perfect set up for an episode in which dewey-eyed romance seems to meet cynicism, or at least reserve, at every turn.
Lorelai hasn’t heard from Max, and she’s cross about it. Meantime, Sookie and Jackson are ga-ga over each other. Michel is crooning into the phone to his unseen Saturday night date. Even Luke is knocked off his cynicism game when his ex-girlfriend Rachel shows up clearly wanting to rekindle their relationship, and he clearly does not, necessarily, in every way possible, object to the idea. Then there’s Rory: Dean has planned an elaborate evening to celebrate their three-month anniversary.
Emily is even letting her out of Friday night dinner for the occasion. Well, actually, it’s because Emily has found the Most Boring Man Alive to set Lorelai up with. He’s decidedly keen; she’s decidedly not. The evening ends unceremoniously when Lorelai climbs out her old bedroom window, with Richard’s collusion.
The heart of the episode, though, is Dean and Rory’s anniversary. The rest serves as perfectly curated garnish for the ultimate Pinterest-ready photo op on earnest love rejected.
At the beginning of the episode, Dean, as he so often does, meets Rory as she gets off the bus from school, with a book she asked him to read: “Anna Karenina.” He says it’s boring; she says it’s her favorite book. He says maybe it’s over his head; she says Tolstoy wrote for the masses. He says it’s depressing; she says it’s beautiful. This disconnect in their views about the book—Rory seeing beauty in the tragic story that Dean only finds deflating—subtly prefigures the end of the episode.
After a romantic dinner, romantic stroll, and romantic presentation of the gift all future boyfriends will fail to live up to—count on it: it’s a car that Dean is building with his own bare hands so that Rory doesn’t have to waste precious time on the bus anymore—Rory tells him, “I’m having one of those moments right now, when everything is so perfect and so wonderful that you feel sad because nothing can ever be this good again.”
Though I want to say Rory reads too much Russian literature, it turns out she wasn’t wrong. The biggest reveal of the evening was yet to come: Dean declares his love for her and ... cue the grand piano flattening the roadrunner.
Rory freaks out. Dean is mortified. And ... they break up. The magical evening ends with Rory weeping in Lorelai’s arms.
How heartbreaking is this episode? Let me count the ways ...