We discover during the course of the ball why Richard has been so stressed and irritable. He is being “phased out” of the insurance company he works for. The process is one whereby a senior employee, like Richard, begins losing responsibilities to begin his path to retirement. Richard is taken off an account he brought to the company, he is given a bigger office upstairs, a new title (we don’t discover what it is), and a better parking space.
Emily sees this as a “promotion”, but Richard knows the bitter truth: the company is softening the blow of his eventual retirement by smoothing his passage out of a useful role and into one of a mere figurehead. To add insult to injury, it’s the very “phasing out” process Richard himself invented to get rid of a man named Alan Parker. (A hint of how cold-blooded and ruthless Richard can be in career matters).
Once this is explained to her, Emily still doesn’t see it as such a big deal, saying that Richard has “other options” (retire or take up some other project). However, Richard has been dreaming of this life since he was ten years old, and doesn’t want other options, feeling that if Emily doesn’t understand, then she hasn’t been listening to him.
Richard throwing a petulant tantrum at a social function his granddaughter is participating in might remind the viewer of some of the meltdowns Rory and Lorelai have had during the course of the show. As Headmaster Charleston said, “You do like to throw fits in your family”. There is a strong emotional streak in the Gilmore clan – perhaps one reason why the more restrained Emily is always trying to rein it in.
The argument is left unresolved for this episode, as Rory tells them it is her turn next. I have no idea how Rory even knows they’re talking in a side room and not already watching her, nor how she managed to get down the staircase, tell everyone she’s on next, then shimmy right back up the stairs again, ready to walk down and be presented. I’m pretty sure in real life someone would have told her to stay exactly she was and not interrupt the proceedings.
There is a poignancy to the fact that just as Rory is being ushered into society and acknowledged as a young woman who is growing up, Richard is at a point in his life where he is being gently shuffled off, ready for retirement. This contrast between them must be at least one reason why Richard has no stomach for Rory’s debutante ball, and expresses such angry disdain for the proceedings.