In this season filled with threats and close calls, Jane the Virgin has finally done it. At long last, I'm going to haul out my narrative theory textbooks and draw an Our Beloved Narrator–style diagram to figure out how these stories connect to each other and comment on themselves and play with direct address and metafictional structure and genre theory and magical realism.
And can you really blame me? "Chapter Forty" features the Villanueva women hanging out in a version of their house built on a soundstage, which, for all we know, is the actual set Jane uses to film the interiors of their house. It's TV fully surrounded by and embedded within its own backstage mechanics, Singin' in the Rain–style.
More than anything else, this episode is a referendum on what it means to be Jane the Virgin. There's nothing here that's suddenly new for Jane — the show frequently pulls all these ideas and devices out of its tool belt. We're getting the commentary on what a telenovela should be. We're getting the show-within-a-show. We're getting discussions galore about how to create a story. But the difference in "Chapter Forty" is the sheer density of self-referential moments. Rather than popping up as sly asides, they've been moved to center stage.
The metafictional free-for-all starts slowly enough: Jane's writing a salsa character for her book, and the character likes to speak back to Jane about how she should be written. There are the usual small jokes from Our Narrator — my favorite in this case being his inability to remember Tammy the Insurance Adjuster's last name. Then we get the problem of the week for Rogelio and Tíago, which is that Rogelio used the show's crew to build a replica of the Villanueva house for Jane's wedding. So now, Rogelio's got to justify that set by finding a great Tíago plot that can make use of it. It should be, he says, "A mind-blowing telenovela twist … but the kind that everyone can relate to." Mmhmm. I see you, Jane the Virgin.
For a typical episode, we might get a couple more of these little jokes and that would be the end of it. But instead, this discussion about what constitutes a "relatable" twist (and what a telenovela should look like) becomes a theme for the rest of the episode. Rafael's accidental insider trading, which netted him $5 million dollars, is "totally relatable," Our Narrator insists, and so is Petra's sudden revelation about her twin sister. After Rafael sees Anniska and says, "Wow, this is unbelievable!" Our Narrator cuts in with a savvy "… just believable enough!" Throughout the episode, the narrator keeps returning to that hoary bit of writing advice, newly rendered winkingly clever when delivered via voice-over: "It's better to show than to tell."
As the episode unspools, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not just a returning joke for Our Narrator. Jane the Virgin's major concern here is writing: How to construct stories, how to build characters, how to balance genre, and how seriously we should take stories that are grounded in romance and in female relationships. We get this in two major prongs, the first being Jane's returning, curmudgeonly adviser Dr. Donaldson.
Jane's chosen genre is romance, something she and Professor Donaldson have sparred about before in the context of the Bechdel test. The stakes are much higher now, because Jane realizes that she needs Donaldson's approval to continue in her graduate program. Suddenly, Donaldson's intense dislike of both Jane and her book is no longer something she can just shrug off. Jane cannot change the fact that she's getting married, even though it's something Donaldson sneers at. She recoils in horror when Rogelio, #Father-Zilla-of-the-Bride, condescendingly reassures Donaldson that "many people marry later in life. Don't worry, there's still hope!" And she comes down hard on Jane in response, insisting that Jane figure out how to frame her story as something other than a straight, formulaic romance.
Jane tries, and her Salsa Dancer character resists. "I hate guns!" she says, when Jane tries to turn her into an assassin, "And you can't mix genres like this!" Jane also can't turn Salsa Dancer Jane into a lesbian, although it's pretty entertaining that this idea occurs to Jane as a way to please her marriage-plot-resistant adviser.
So in the one corner, we've got Jane having an argument with her character about the nature of genre. In another, Professor Donaldson is railing against romance as a regressive genre that reflects bad politics. Across from that, we can hear Our Narrator directly addressing Jane's critics and cheerleaders, laughing about the less "relatable" pieces of the plot. (Hey, apparently twins run in Petra's family!)
For the last big gear in the self-commentary machine, we see Rogelio deciding to go full Shakespearean theater and fix the rift between Jane and Xiomara by staging a Tíago plot with direct Villanueva analogues. Dina, as it turns out, is both a solid telenovela writer and great at getting to the deeper issues that drive families to fight. So Jane and Xo find themselves sitting in front of a set version of their own house, watching actors portray their lives and admit the real reasons they're angry with one another. They're afraid, of course — about Jane moving away from home for the first time, and about the fact that Jane's marriage will seriously change their relationship.
Tíago Jane's revelation totally resonates, sparking a similar discovery for Salsa Dancer Jane, who appears in Real Jane's mind to ask a single question: "What was my mother like?"
There are other stories happening here, the most important being the ongoing drama of Petra's twin sister, who grew up in an orphanage and whose only reference is the movie Annie ("leaping lizards!") It's great that she's not an evil twin — not yet, at least — and she's clearly falling in love with Rafael, so that's going to be a whole thing. We also get Rafael trying to buy the Fairwick next door, which inevitably requires the dirty money from his accidental insider trading. Jane can't choose a wedding dress until she smooths things out with Xiomara. And there's Michael, of course, who sparks a new discussion about Rafael's co-parenting arrangements and bristles at being called a "babysitter."
Still, the real underlying engine of "Chapter Forty" is the discussion of what makes a good story, how we view those narratives, and what is worth our time and attention. Dina, after all, has to tell the network execs that the "realistic" Tíago story ends in clones trying to take over the world. No show can be everything to everyone. No romance Jane writes will ever fully please Professor Donaldson as much as she would like. Audiences will always complain about plausibility and being "relatable," only to turn around and carp about boring, twist-free plots. Nevertheless, that's exactly what Jane the Virgin tries to do every week. And more often than you'd ever think possible, it succeeds.
To Be Continued!
From Our Narrator, With Love:
- Of all the fiction-that-writes-itself bits this week, this is maybe my favorite: "Tammy — sorry, I can't remember her last name. It's not important. The point is, she's their insurance adjuster."
- I also love Our Narrator's frequent commentary about side characters who are necessary to the plot but we've never seen before: "She sounds pretty sure of herself for someone who's only known Jane for seven months."
- "Huh, will Professor Donaldson reveal a hidden soft side? Will the sight of Jane crying and the cute baby melt her cold heart?" Nope.
- "And Rogelio's cockamamie, totally wackadoo, completely crazy plan, well … it actually started to work!"
- "My writers have produced nothing but turds, despite the many motivating emails I have sent them!"
- Oh yes, Rogelio and Dina. Their kiss is inevitable from the moment Rogelio sees her dressed up and greets her with, "Whoa, is that what you really look like?? It's just that … you're a writer. And writers don't really care about these things."