backstories

How Jane the Virgin’s Cancer Narrative Came Together

L-R: Andrea Navedo and Gina Rodriguez.

The last several episodes of Jane the Virgin have been some of the best the show’s ever been, and they’ve also shifted into a very serious place for the three Villanueva women at the center of the show.
Jane’s mother, Xiomara, is diagnosed with breast cancer, and a show that’s often tied its tragedy to heightened telenovela-style drama has turned toward a more real-world, personal source for its serious stories.

In the show’s most recent episode, Xiomara struggles with a choice about which surgery to have and who in her life should help her make these decisions. Showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman and the episode writer Valentina Garza talked about Xiomara’s story, about their own personal connections with breast cancer, and about how to tell intimate, somber stories inside a bubbly telenovela.

How long did you know this story was coming for Xiomara?
Jennie Snyder Urman: I had originally thought about the story last year. My mom had breast cancer twice (though this is not her story), and so we had talked about it in the room lightly, but last year was such a heavy year with Michael, so it wasn’t the right time. And then it came back up in the room this year and we decided to do the story.

I know there was so much blowback to how dark it felt when Michael died. Were you concerned about going back to a place where you’re threatening the happiness of these characters?
JSU: Yeah, I think our show functions best when it has something real and serious and relatable and something that draws the family together. The show started with something very serious — accidental pregnancy and Jane’s life getting turned upside down. I think that when we have something serious underneath our show, it gives us a firm foundation. The light moments become relief for that. That feels like life.

How hard is it to write the comedic scenes in an episode that also has all this other stuff in it, so that the very serious cancer scenes don’t undermine the comedy and vice versa?
Valentina Garza: It really helps that we had Petra’s story. She was adjacent — she’s reacting to what’s going on with Xo and Jane.
But she’s also got her own story and that gave us a little bit of levity. She’s also exploring her own romance. There have to be moments where you come up for air and breathe.

Thankfully we have the Narrator to help us do that, too. [He provides] some insight into what’s happening with the family, like in what’s happening with that really heavy dining-room scene where everyone’s just processing the diagnosis and trying to be supportive of Xo and the decision she’s making. The Narrator is there to help us navigate these moments.

I’m always curious how much the Narrator actually knows about what’s coming up, or what anyone is thinking at any given time. I don’t suppose you could give me any …
JSU: He knows. He’s our guide; he’s the storyteller. Sometimes he acts like he doesn’t know. When the narrative dictates that he doesn’t know.

But how does that …?
JSU: We’re very cagey.

Yeah, I noticed! It felt like Michael’s death is foreshadowed for a long time, whereas Xo’s story feels like it comes out of nowhere for the Narrator. We don’t get any of that preparatory stuff. Was that deliberate?
JSU: Yeah, a little bit. It’s the hugest gut punch. I think that’s what illness is. It’s not someone taking out a gun and pulling off their faces and those more operatic moments. This is the kind of thing that happens every day in families. And we wanted it to hit like that, we wanted to unpack it slowly and with everyone’s emotional responses. The moment that [Valentina] pitched at the end of episode 13, when everybody drops to their knees and starts to pray, is one of my favorite moments. It’s a different kind of shocking moment. The Narrator’s experiencing the sadness with us.

It’s been interesting to watch how faith is going to play into how these characters respond to Xo’s health. Is that something you think about consciously as you’re writing the episode?
VG: That moment [of the Villanuevas on their knees in prayer] was coming from my own life; I am a breast cancer survivor. And because faith is a theme in our show, I felt like, of course that would be something that was going to come up when you’re dealing with the mortality of someone that’s so central on the show. No matter what your belief system is, when you get hit with something so impactful, it all goes out the door. You want to hope and you want to put all of your energy towards a positive outcome and towards love and towards life, so that’s what we wanted to really communicate in that moment. It didn’t matter what their beliefs were. They were just so pro Xo and they just wanted to come together as a family and really love on her in that moment.

I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to write these episodes having been through it.
VG: Yeah, interestingly I didn’t think it would be as challenging as it was. But it is challenging, because you try really hard not to think about it. So really reflecting on it [afterwards], day in and day out, and excavating all of those emotions wasn’t easy. But it was absolutely worthwhile because I think it’s a story worth telling. It impacts so many women. It’s such a personal, intimate experience, and it can feel very isolating no matter how supportive and wonderful your family is. So it’s been a real privilege to be able to give this story a voice, to have Jennie give us the freedom to go deep on the show and tell a grounded and honest and truthful story that hasn’t really been told before on TV.

One of the things the show does so well is to have a trauma and then give characters a lot of time afterward to work through what’s happened. Did writing this episode feel like that for you?
VG: Yeah… there was a lot of unpacking. But I think what was interesting was giving voice to all the aspects of Xo’s character. She’s a wife, she’s struggling with her womanhood and how that’s going to be impacted. What it means to be a daughter in this moment, what it means to be a mother in this moment, and as a mother and daughter those are all roads that I had to travel. It’s putting different clothes on Xiomara.

Was it always going to be Xiomara, when you were thinking about introducing a cancer story onto the show?
JSU: Yeah, we had talked about it earlier and we knew that her character was wanting a bigger, more emotional storyline. It’s funny – she’s a very big, living, loud character. But when you marry Rogelio, she can be the straight man a lot of the time. We were feeling that we wanted to do something deeper and bigger with her character. She is so much the glue to so many of the storylines, and she’s always the person Jane runs to and talks to, and [we wanted to explore] what happens when that gets shaken.

I had told Andrea [Navedo] early on that we were going to get to a big Xo story, and that we were going to spend a lot of time with her character, and it was just a matter of when in the series we had the space and breadth for it, and this year felt right for us. It had been percolating for a while, but we just had to find the time and space so we could enjoy who she was and lay all the ground work. That’s the privilege of being able to tell a long-running show, where you build up all these characters. When you get to step into one of them in a more serious and deeper way, you feel like you know them and you want to know how they would respond. And the time spent in storytelling feels earned.

It was most impressive for me to watch that happen with Rogelio, and it’s been interesting to watch him shift into a more serious place. Is it hard to pivot his character in that direction?
JSU: You know, I don’t think it was that hard. He’s got a lot of color and life and vibrancy, and he’s always played to the rafters in terms of his outlook on life, but since the beginning he’s been a family guy who wanted nothing more than to connect with his daughter and be a really devoted husband. So when those things happen, we knew he was a great man that would be supportive but would be the backbone that Xo needed at that moment. It didn’t feel like it was out of character; it felt like he was rising to the occasion.

Is Passions of Steve ever going to get off the ground?
JSU: Oh, Passions of Steve is — yes! Yes, it is!

Can you tell me if we get more Brooke Shields? Because I desperately want a lot more Brooke Shields.
JSU: Oh, so do we! Yes! You get her in the last two episodes of this season, and I hope, hope, hope for more. We really continue to track those recovery and treatment [stories with Xo]; she has a single mastectomy, she goes through chemo, so as that’s happening, they adjust to a new normal and she does get back into the Passions of Steve and that telenovela is going to play a big part in our storytelling going forward.

So you have Rogelio, who’s had a chance to be a more serious character, and at the same time you have Petra, who’s also doing this fantastic transformation arc.
JSU: For me, I was most interested in seeing a character that’s always so composed and imperious and sure of herself suddenly thrown on her heel, and be the pursuer rather than the pursued. And Yael is so great, so we knew she would knock it out of the park. I just really wanted to see Petra, who’s so in control, feel herself not in control and have a different kind of love story than the ones that she’s had where she’s kidnapped and stalked, or a second choice.

It feels like all of her love arcs have actually been telenovela arcs. Is she going to have a chance to actually have her own romance arc that’s actually a romance arc?
JSU: Uh, yes and no? They all go back to telenovela in some capacity. But until we get to the finale, it plays more as a romantic arc than a telenovela arc. You’re interested in how Petra is responding and where her heart is. We’re really going deep in on Petra’s heart.

The show has been political from the beginning. I wonder if you feel like it’s easier or harder to be political now, when it feels like everyone is being political.
VG: Goodness, no. It’s very difficult not to be political. There’s so much happening in the world, and to have the privilege to have a platform to speak to them is an amazing thing. I don’t think I could be silent. I don’t think any of us could be silent.

JSU: It feels more urgent. You have to be.

Can you comment on some suggestions we’ve heard that season five might be the end of the show?
JSU: Oh, I’m not allowed to comment on anything like that!

Argh! I’m so curious, because now that Jane is with Rafael, I want to know how long that relationship is going to last and what the romance endgame is going to look like for them.
JSU: I know! I will say: we’re writing to the ending that we’ve planned for a long time. Telenovelas are written with an ending in mind! We are calibrating that, and then we have to wait for the powers that be that tell us when that is and when we can discuss it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How Jane the Virgin’s Cancer Story Came Together