The most consistently surprising thing about the CW’s inimitable “Jane the Virgin” is how consistently, truly surprising it is.
We don’t mean in the telenovela twists it serves up — those never appear without a full cavalcade of horns joyously announcing their arrival — but rather in how those twists play out: Never, ever in any way even the most seasoned television viewer might anticipate. “Jane the Virgin” doesn’t just zig when we expect a zag; it leaps to a whole new race course.
This week’s (Feb. 13) “Part Three” opening is a prime example, coming off Michael’s (Brett Dier) heart attack at the end of the last episode with a leap — not just through time, but into a wholly unexpected tonal register. Where most shows would feel bound by convention to park deep in the dark emotional mines of the days, weeks, and months immediately following Michael’s death, “Jane the Virgin” skips over that noise entirely, choosing instead to land a Jane (Gina Rodriguez) who’s as healed as she can be three years in the future, dealing with a thousand new challenges and anxieties.
First, we find her co-parenting with a whole new Rafael (Justin Baldoni) — Jane’s acknowledged “best friend” — who was also left last week at the beginning of a big twist: A lengthy prison stint, on the other side of which we find him happy, healthy and providing a stability that fits Baldoni’s natural energy every bit as well as Michael’s last half-season of goofy sweetness fit Dier’s. They’re happy, more or less, in their lives. Petra (Yael Grobglas), too, has found a happiness and health as surprising as they are enjoyable to watch.
A late-episode reveal that rewrites the episode that came before — in which Petra and Jane lock horns over their children, Mateo’s behavior, and Petra’s effortless Mean-Girl takeover at their preschool — is every bit as choked-up sweet as anything we’ve seen among the Villanuevas: A harshly loving agreement, made immediately after Michael’s death and Rafael’s imprisonment, that the two now-single mothers would “check in” over brunch every Saturday, saving each other’s lives one week at a time, while remaining cool-to-hostile the rest of the time.
Petra, whose early motherhood was interrupted first by post-partum depression and then by her imprisonment by sister Anezka, has achieved a peace in motherhood that is beautiful to watch, thanks to Jane… Whose self-excoriations that Mateo’s behavior issues are due to her inability to Jane up and move on after Michael’s death benefits from that weekly accountability: If Petra says you’re a good mother, it not only means a lot because it asks a lot of her to say it — it’s also because she was there, watching, throughout that time. Taking notes.
And even more poignant and realistic, it puts a new spin on Petra’s tendency to discipline Mateo without thinking twice: What is to Jane an unimaginable and constant overstep, a high-handed “classic Petra” move, is anything but. It’s because she is bonded to Jane as much as she is to Rafael, now — she feels like another co-parent to Mateo because for three years, she was. It’s odd to see Jane, Villanueva cheerleader and spokesperson for the concept of inclusive family, push back — but once Petra reminds her that none of the indictments Jane feels are coming down on her are real, everything makes sense again.
We know drama reigns supreme, and we know lovey-dovey Jane/Petra interactions are as uncomfortable for the narrative as they are for the players, but this moment of respite is so lovely, the only way it could be improved was as a sort of hidden twist within the episode: That we would naturally side with Jane — seeing only Petra’s brittle, sleek imperiousness and point-scoring in their interactions — only to have the rug pulled out from under us in the penultimate scene is, as much as anything, typical. It’s a shock, but a warm and bright one; one of those sudden joyful shouts the show likes to pretend are telenovela tropes, or simple dumb luck — when in reality they’re the grace at the center of what makes the show so moving and smart.
Of course, Michael is not forgotten — his voice, both imagined by Jane and real in a saved voicemail, serves as her personal cheer squad throughout the episode — but neither is he reduced to being the fulcrum of a Great Acting grief fest, for anyone. It’s nearly impossible to remember this stuff, when it comes to this plot-packed show, but “Jane” has leapt in time before: Fast-forwarding past the first many months following Matelio’s birth/kidnapping to land Jane et al. in a completely fresh set of circumstances.
That time too, we skipped what would have, on other shows, been the juiciest drama to bite into. How many milestones happen in the first year of a baby’s life? How much psychic and emotional labor would it take a parent to reach anything like equilibrium after their baby was kidnapped by a woman who’s still on the loose? And yet, “Jane the Virgin” skipped it all, leaving us more than enough to fill in the blanks for ourselves and get to the good stuff.
In neither time jump are the weight of the situations precipitating them ignored: The emotional fallout is what the story is about. It is just that none of the twists are the point in and of themselves: They’re only ever meant as springboards. As with Matelio’s kidnapping, Michael’s sudden death and Rafael’s transformation serve their purpose as classic telenovela twists. What they are not is any sort of narrative crutch — not for the actors, not for the writers, and not for the audience. It’s a neat trick.
And so, once again we have been tossed by fate/our narrator into a whole new world: Mateo is a wiggly four-year old who karate-chops cakes; Petra is queen of preschool PTA; Xo and Bruce are living together; Ro and Darci are fake-married for a reality show that’s made them hate each other; Rafael is a bearded, centered source of Zen who wears too much linen; Jane is shopping around her second manuscript, based on her romance with Michael; and Petra has turned the murder-ville Marbella into Disney-lite. (Albeit still with murder, because it’s still “Jane the Virgin.”)
That’s a lot! And for everyone but the witchy among us who seem to have conjured this exact set of changes into being, it will take some time to get our bearings — but that’s life. And with a whole new set of relationships, supportive and otherwise, to explore and fathom — and consider in light of their history — the show’s never felt fresher.
We love Michael, and always will, and we wouldn’t ever wish him ill, but the fact remains that without him and Rafael in the picture, some very broken pieces of this family got patched back together — and now all three of Mateo’s parents are in a semi-comfortable, supportive, self-strengthening situation that would have seemed downright perverse, back at the start of the series. Think about that for a second: How far they all have come.
As Alba (Ivonne Coll) says: “You’ll always feel different, but you will be okay. And your life will be beautiful again — just in different ways.”
For a long time, we’ve rooted for Jane, with those she loved (and hated!) coming in a close second-place heat. But now that the ensemble seems so close to finding their “happy ever after” in the family they’ve worked so hard at creating, it’s even more exciting to look ahead — to all that different beauty that awaits.
“Jane the Virgin” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.