In the summer of 2014, as screeners were going out to critics for upcoming shows, there was talk of a new, hour-long comedic series on the CW that centered around a virgin becoming accidentally inseminated (in truly hilarious fashion, of course) and deciding, against all odds, to carry the pregnancy to term. The premise alone sounded abhorrent, if not offensive, and sight unseen, the show seemed destined for abject failure.
Those doubters (amid whom I count myself) could not have been more wrong.
Jane the Virgin may not be the ratings juggernaut the CW was hoping for, but it's becoming something even better: a critical darling. Grounded in the phenomenally nuanced performance of Gina Rodriguez as the titular character, the show has not only lodged itself in many critics’ top-ten lists for 2014, but also won notice with both AFI and the Hollywood Foreign Press, even garnering Rodriguez a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Comedy.
So what, exactly, makes this show so special? Basically everything. Loosely based on a Venezuelan telenovela, the series folds traditional elements of the form into its DNA while simultaneously mocking the original's ridiculously over-the-top plot turns. The show itself is bright and beautiful, and while there’s no end to the scheming, most of the characters are truly good people seeking only to better their lives and take care of the people they love, even if they have to do terrible things to do so. The episodes are briskly paced, but the show itself isn’t burning through plot so quickly that one day the audience will show up and there’ll be no story left to tell. (Compared to how Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy shows churn through plot, Jane the Virgin’s pace seems absolutely laconic.)
At the center of the show are the Villanuevas, a family of three strong and loving women who would do anything for each other. Catholicism is a vital part of who some of the characters are, and their religion is never mocked or shamed, nor does it turn them into hateful, superior monsters. It is merely another facet of their extraordinarily well-developed characters, as it is for characters whose faith isn't as dominant. The show also makes no bones about addressing social issues that are pressing to its characters and our culture alike. In this week’s episode, the series addresses the issue of medical repatriation, in which illegal immigrants are deported regardless of their medical needs because they lack the insurance to cover their care. Moreover, the show doesn’t settle for merely incorporating the issue as merely a salient plot point; it uses its ever-present chyrons to inform viewers that this is a practice taking place every day, imploring them to read more and even including the hashtag #immigrationreform. Jane the Virgin isn’t just addressing social injustices; it’s taking a side.
It’s also just really fun. Before we start this week’s review in earnest (most weeks won’t suffer from such belabored introductions), here’s an attempt to recap the series so far: Jane is accidentally inseminated by a distracted doctor, Luisa. The sperm happens to have come from Luisa’s brother Rafael, whose wife Petra is trying to save their troubled marriage with a surprise baby. Jane’s detective fiancé Michael is less than thrilled by the pregnancy news, and the couple breaks up when it was revealed that Michael was keeping secrets about Rafael and Petra that he learned while investigating a drug dealer connected with Rafael’s hotel. Rafael and Jane kissed once five years ago and never spoke again, though Jane works at his hotel. Jane’s father, a famous telenovela star, suddenly arrives in her life out of nowhere. As that summary is woefully sparse, let’s link to the Wikipedia page in case you’re interested in getting a fuller picture of what’s happened up until now. (Important aside: Each episode of Jane the Virgin begins with a rather all-encompassing “previously on” that allows new viewers to start on whichever episode they please. They also incorporate pertinent historical information into episodes in ways that are amusing enough not to irritate regular viewers and informational enough to keep novice viewers up to date.)
On to the episode.
After taking a nasty fall down some stairs last episode, courtesy of Petra’s evil mother, Jane's abuela Alba is hospitalized and unconscious. While the doctor assures Jane and her mother Xo that Alba is in stable condition, he can’t say what the long-term effects of her injuries will be. Jane is distraught by the situation and is driven to prayer, her solace in times of stress. But with Alba’s rosary missing, and over Xo’s complaints, Jane decides to drive back to the hotel, in the midst of a raging hurricane, no less, to find the rosary and return to pray in earnest. Rogelio eventually arrives at the hospital and keeps Xo company; when they are informed that because of Alba’s illegal status, she will be sent back to Venezuela upon regaining consciousness, he vows to use all his power and money to fix the situation. Xo herself even resorts to prayer, pledging to God that she’ll not let a man between her legs until she’s married, if only he’ll spare her mother.
By the time Jane finds the rosary, the storm has escalated past the point of travel, and she is trapped in the hotel until it passes. Further, she ends up trapped in the elevator with Michael after overhearing him accuse Rafael of again being involved in the hotel's nefarious goings-on. Their time in the elevator is awkward, and soon Jane breaks down from the strain of it all, weeping about Alba’s hospitalization, about which Michael has been clueless. He’s able to reach Xo at the hospital thanks to a fellow officer stationed there, and together, Jane and Michael learn of the latest threat to Alba’s status in the country.
Together they remember how the rosary Jane found was the one she learned to pray on as a young girl, and it’s clear that the past they shared, two years' worth of love, will not be so easily extinguished. Unbeknownst to Jane, after they are extracted from the elevator, Michael informs the hospital that Alba is not to be moved as she is an important witness in a case, keeping the older woman from harm out of love and loyalty to the family. Xo realizes what Michael has done and he asks her to keep it from Jane, asserting his undying affection for her.
After deciding that, despite the storm, he needs to leave on business immediately, Rafael’s father leaves his son in charge of the hotel he used to run. However, as his father never operates without a shitty lesson, Rafael is made to fire a whole host of employees in the midst of the raging squall. Jane’s friends lean on her to find out first if tales of the job cuts are true, and then push her to try and save her friend Frankie’s job. When she fails, they shun her, saying that she’s changed, leaving her to reflect on how — while she may not have changed in the ways they claim — they’re not entirely wrong.
Petra agrees to sign Rafael’s divorce papers after being confronted by Rafael and Jane last episode about her false identity. Rafael further uses this information to deny her payment on their prenuptial agreement, stating that it was signed by Petra and she was not actually Petra.
Before her husband leaves on his trip, Rose overhears him talking about leaving next week and needing $5 million for Allegria. She tries to inquire after the call, but he lies by saying he was speaking to his driver and that he’d see her when he returned. Rose then takes the opportunity to visit Luisa in the mental institution where she’d conspired to have her committed so she can proclaim her undying love and affection (while mostly just trying to pump her for information). This arrangement actually ends up to be mutually beneficial when Luisa, after initially being reluctant to fall in with her ex-lover/stepmother/institutionalizer, beds her and steals an elaborate brooch with which to break out. Rose also leaves happy (for a number of sexy reasons and one very sexy pun) but mainly because she learned that Allegria is the name of Rafael and Luisa’s maternal grandmother, whom their father loved deeply. So much so that he named his Croatian home after her. (Croatia, the chyron helpfully informs the audience, does not extradite to the United States, making it a haven for supervillains.) She immediately goes to Rafael and shares with him her fears that his father is readying to flee the country, suggesting that perhaps he himself is famed criminal Sin Rostro.
Petra has a pretty lousy night all around, first losing her bid at a prenup payment and then having her hostage escape, likely to expose her whereabouts to her evil ex-boyfriend, from whom she’s been running for years. The hostage also threatens to kill her mother, and she opts to let him, remarking that he probably would anyway and, basically, her mother wasn’t very nice to her, anyhow. A swift elbow to the balls from her mother sends the hostage running (hobbling), leaving for some awkward mother-daughter time in his wake.
After discovering a secret bathtub passageway in the most Scooby-Doo way possible last episode, Michael and partner Nadine take to investigating the tunnel underneath their escaped Sin Rostro lead’s hotel room. The tunnel leads to a secret surgical room that connects with the hotel’s established surgical-recovery rooms, leading the investigators to realize that what’s happening in the hidden room isn’t torture or black-market organ operations, but plastic surgery to alter the appearances of criminals, making them impossible to trace. They track the patients who had been recovering in the hotel (one of whom was their missing lead) to the hospital where they are moved in the wake of the hurricane, but by the time they discover the chop shop, their mystery man is long gone, his new face in tow.
By episode’s end, Michael is still convinced that Rafael knows more than he’s letting on about the secret activities happening in the hotel, so involved in the inner working has he been from the beginning, but still has nothing but his (admittedly biased) gut feelings to go on. Sadly, those gut feelings may not last long, as in the wake of Michael’s vow to Xo that he would believe that he and Jane belonged together until the day he dies, the final narration confirms that, in fact, Michael did go on believing that until the day he died.
Uh-oh. And with only two weeks until February sweeps, no less.
Is Michael in danger, boy?
Just how much is Rafael hiding?
How long, exactly, can Xo keep her abstinence pledge?
Why is Petra’s mother still using that wheelchair?
What the hell is the deal with Petra’s ex, anyway?
Does Long Beach (where much of Jane is clearly filmed) really look that much like Miami? (No. It does not.)