Jess Mariano: Oy, With the Schmuck-Head Already

I have a confession to make.

I cannot get excited about the Gilmore Girls movies that have come to Netflix.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Gilmore Girls. Due to a skeptical aversion to anything produced by the WB (now CW) I was a late-comer to the fandom, but once I found Amy Sherman-Palladino’s fresh and witty series about a fast-talking mother-daughter duo and their extended circle of oddballs I was hooked. It’s great to have a show like Gilmore Girls out there in the public awareness; it’s fun, it’s clever, and it’s got a strong feminist message. Yet I can’t get pumped for more.

Some of my misgivings are probably due to the general calamity that was final season; however the biggest cause of my apprehension is a specific one that I can pinpoint exactly.

Jess. Motherfucking. Mariano.

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“Here’s some emotional baggage for you; don’t worry, I’ve got more in the back.”

Jess Mariano slouched broodily into the series in its second season with a bad-attitude scowl, and giant salty chip on his shoulder. He was instantly set up as competition for, and foil to, Rory’s then-boyfriend, Dean Forrester (whose character, unfortunately, underwent a brutal hatchet job in order to create contrast between the two guys). Where Dean was a wholesome puppy dog, Jess stole, he skipped school, he started fights. He was emotionally wounded! Rebellious! Unpredictable! The fans went nuts for him. As of now (nine years after the final episode aired) he, of all Rory Gilmore’s love interests, remains the most popular by a wide margin.

I don’t get it. Not just Jess, but the cultural penchant for sticking Bad Boys on a pedestal and selling them as romantic paragons. I’m sorry, you wanted to date a self-involved asshole with emotional issues, who treats you badly, and gets along with exactly no one in your life? Come on, we’ve all been involved with THAT GUY at some point; was it fun? Sure, he might have been hot, the physical stuff was probably good, but did that cancel out the anxiety he caused? The mood swings he inspired? The general havoc wreaked on your life and mental state? So why, why, WHY are we so obsessed with romanticizing this kind of person? Why, generation after generation, do we enshrine a number of these dicks as our fantasies? (I’ve actually got thoughts as to why, but that’s a topic for another time)

Jess Mariano, with his good looks and shitty personality epitomizes this phenomenon to me. He’s absolutely terrible, and yet the majority of the fans swoon every time he skulks his way onto the screen. It’s because of this bizarre, misplaced mass affection for an awful character that I’m unenthused at the idea of the Netflix addendum. The movies themselves are a fan service, and further to servicing the fans I have a creeping feeling of trepidation that Jess Mariano (already confirmed to be returning) is finally going to wind up as endgame.
Not because it’s good storytelling, mind you, because, frankly, it’s not. Who the hell goes off to the Ivy League, embarks on a high-powered journalism career (face it, with Rory’s charmed life she’s Obama’s very own CJ Cregg by now), and then winds up with the asshat who broke her heart at seventeen? Come on. No. Terrible though Jess is, terrible though he was for Rory, the creators could so easily give in to an easy rom-com write-off just so his legion of fangirls can have something to squee themselves to death over.

I can’t reiterate enough that I. Do. Not. Get it. Jess started their relationship by stealing…sorry, borrowing *huge eyeroll* Rory’s copy of Howl, ostensibly to make some notes in the margins. I think that that single action is the indicator of all the reasons why he was a terrible love interest. It is presented to the viewer as his bad boy method of sharing his common sensibilities with Rory, but as a fellow bookworm let me just lay down some truth: Books are personal. Some people write all over theirs, dog-ear the pages, bend the spine until the book’s will to live is reliant on life-support applications Scotch tape and hope. Some try to keep their books as close to pristine as possible. Lots fall somewhere in the middle. However these are very personal, very definitive inclinations, and it is the height of presumptive arrogance to start scribbling your own pretentious rambling onto the pages of someone else’s book, especially if that someone is a total stranger. True book lovers treat borrowed tomes like babies: gently, and with the utmost care; it’s like our unofficial gospel. Jess’ behavior reveals a self-centered disregard for anyone else’s boundaries or preferences that presages his character’s entire arc on the show.

Their relationship did not truly begin until more than a year after more-annoying-Holden Caulfield’s first appearance on the show. Disappointed by fair Rory’s attachment to the aforementioned Dean, Jess spent a good part of the intervening time trying to force himself between the two. He played on Dean’s insecurity with a true manipulator’s acumen, leaping into Rory’s sleigh at the Bracebridge Dinner, reenacting a scene from Oklahoma by showing up with a fat wad of cash to outbid Dean at the Stars Hollow basket auction, stealing (or is this just borrowing again?) Rory’s bracelet, a gift from Dean, to sow discord between the couple, always with that maddening smirk that said, “It’s just a matter of time.” Through all this he never cared how anxious or uncomfortable any of it actually made Rory, because, I reiterate, Jess does not care about anybody else, up to and including the girl that he considers to be more of a prize to be won than a full human being with a mind of her own.

And what happens when he wins her? Well, he’s got what he wants, so he doesn’t really need to try anymore, does he? Jess regards any and all requirements of actually being a boyfriend with the utmost scorn. “What, CALL my girlfriend when I said I was going to? That’s so, like, bourgeois and phony.” No, Jess can’t be bothered to behave considerately. Initially Rory rails against his neglectful radio silence, and erratic affection, but when he finally appears bearing last minute concert tickets all that resolve and perceived self-worth evaporates, and ultimately nothing is really solved.

Hell, if you want a great indication of how shabbily Jess treated Rory during their relationship look no further than the infamous “He Looked It Up” instance. Jess Googles the distance between Harvard and Stars Hollow, and Rory responds to this information with sparkly-eyed awe, like her boyfriend giving a shit is the most romantic thing that has ever happened. It is a huge red flag when those kind of tiny crumbs of consideration become benchmark moments in a couple’s timeline.

Still, it would have been one thing if that was the utmost of his sins; we could have marked that down as a transitional difficulty as he learned how to be a boyfriend as opposed to a back-seat hookup. But it wasn’t. He vacillated between sullen monosyllabism and downright nastiness when he was with other people in her life, indignant that he should have to deal with them at all. In fact, that seemed to be his MO when he was interacting with anyone who wasn’t Rory. He leaned on her completely as an emotional crutch and sole social connection, admitting outright, “I don’t want to talk to anyone else. I don’t LIKE anyone else.” (ALL the big red flags. ALL of them). Finally, in one shining moment, he went right up to the border of sexually assaulting her, and then acted like it was her own fault, and then, after all that, he picked up and moved to California in pursuit of his own Daddy issues without so much as a word to his supposed girlfriend.

And so ended the Jess Mariano reign of emotional terror.

Ha. No, just kidding, he would come back for other little ninja bombs of emotional damage in the next season. Like when he ran up to Rory, who was openly trying to avoid him, yelled, “I love you,” got in his car and drove away. Or when he showed up at Yale and tried to convince her to drop out of school and run away with him, because HE was ready, and because HE was ready that meant that it was what Rory really wanted.

The thing is, even Jess’ most stalwart supporters can’t really spin any of this in a good light, because it truly is terrible, inexcusable behavior. If most of us saw a friend dating a guy like Jess Mariano, we would tell her to run far, far away from him and never look back. However, most Jess fans hinge their stubborn adoration of this awful character on small moments of decency. For most of the Jess arc this involves things like, “He Looked It Up,” or modest niceties that he has usually been shamed into. When he reappears for the penultimate time in Season Six, though, that is what the Jess fans really cling to as their proof that he is some kind of misunderstood soul mate.

This time Jess reappears out of the clear blue while Rory is living with her grandparents in Hartford, to hand deliver her a copy of his recently published debut novella. He does seem more mature, though there is still a definite whiff of pretentiousness about him. They wind up on a disastrous outing with the unexpected addition of Logan (where, let’s just be clear, not a ONE of the three comes out looking good), and then he ends the night berating Rory about her recent life choices- namely, dropping out of Yale following the first harsh criticism Ms. Snowflake had ever received in her entire life.

This instance provides the final push to get Rory out of her funk, and back to her real life (let’s not give Jess all the credit here, Rory was slowly getting there on her own, Jess just sped her up). However, the impulses that sent Jess to Hartford in the first place are still the selfish ones that primarily defined his character from the git-go. He drops into her life, unannounced (second time he’s done this deliberately), he plays on their intellectual connection, gets sulky when Rory’s current boyfriend has a problem with the two of them hanging out behind his back, and then, without understanding any of the circumstances surrounding Rory’s issues, he yells at her because she isn’t living up to HIS idea of who he thinks she should be. Now, he may have been spot on in some of his diatribe, but I don’t know that that gives him the right to pass such sweeping judgement, especially considering their shared past.

No, even after attaining basic human decency, Jess Mariano as a whole entity is still the actual worst by any objective metric. At his lowest he is an abusive, manipulative, selfish snot, and at his best he is…still kind of a selfish snot. He has little time or tolerance for the people he deems to be below him (which is just about everyone), it’s just Rory Gilmore’s great misfortune that he has decided she is one of the worthy. Jess was bad to her, and bad for her; even with an improved sense of self-awareness his underlying motivation has always been his own narcissism, which negates his ability to ever have a true partnership with a lover. Jess Mariano will only ever be a Salinger knockoff whose true spots are lurking just below the surface.

But, hey, at least he was finally nice to Luke.

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You’re my hero, Luke Danes.

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