OH MY GOD. Oh my god! Oh my god.
I thought I was prepared for this episode. I was expecting a big twist. “Chapter Eighty-One” telegraphs that something massive is coming, and you can feel it building throughout the hour. There’s Rafael’s visit to Sin Rostro and his sudden, infuriating, inexplicable silence. There’s the amazing fake-out about Rafael being Jane’s brother (which, I admit, I briefly fell for). There’s the Narrator’s coy little “surprise!” theme, which gets lots of play in Alba’s party, and the revelation that Petra did kill Anezka (ahh!) and the mysterious shooting in Petra’s hotel room. There are shocks and emotional revelations throughout: Alba’s wedding to Jorge! Mateo almost disappearing alone on the bus! Krishna isn’t the blackmailer!
Still, nothing could have prepared me for the final seconds of this season finale. We assume Jane will walk down the hallway, open the door, and Raf will propose to her. Or maybe he’ll tell us who his real parents are. Or maybe Rose will be holding him hostage! Maybe it’ll be a new character who says he’s Jane’s twin brother! Maybe it’s a physical embodiment of the Narrator! You know, something reasonable.
But then Jane opens the door, walks in the apartment, and the person who turns around is MICHAEL CORDERO. (Maybe? Probably? AHH!)
It is truly unconscionable that we don’t all wake up every morning and shout about how this is the best show on television.
Let’s back up just a moment, though, because I don’t want to lose track of the many lovely things that happen in “Chapter Eighty-One” before it wallops everyone over the head with a Michael-shaped sledgehammer. Alba’s citizenship ceremony and the party afterward are classic, gorgeous, fantastic Jane the Virgin scenes, full of tearful speeches and big powerful emotions. It’s a gift to have a show remind us that American citizenship can still mean so much to so many people, especially at a time when the idea of American values feels like a sardonic hollow shell of hypocrisy. The thing that makes these scenes work, in spite of all our messy current feelings about nationalism, is that Jane makes Alba’s achievement about family and unity and feeling safe.
In her speech at the not-so-surprise party, Alba riffs on the theme of “e pluribus unum.” For her, it’s not explicitly about America: The idea of many people coming together as one is about finally feeling truly joined with the rest of her family, and the joy of knowing that everyone in the room has come together to celebrate the same momentous, happy milestone. But you can feel Jane’s implicit suggestion that this is also the most optimistic idea of what America could and should be. The narrative of America should be about a whole made out of beautiful multiplicity, something bigger than the sum of its parts, rather than a nation defined by exclusion. It’s a moving speech, and it’s so nice to have this heartwarming anchor for the Villanuevas while the show is also haring off after some truly bonkers telenovela twists.
I also can’t say enough about how well the whole Petra/JR story works in “Chapter Eighty-One,” either. Letting Petra fall so deeply in love with JR, having JR commit to the relationship so that the show’s gruff ice queen can finally let herself be vulnerable, and then turning around and letting JR discover Petra’s lie — it’s a masterful demonstration of how to get an audience invested in characters, and how potent a story can be when the audience really buys in. There’s such relief and delight when the warm glowing heart appears in Petra’s chest, after so many years of betrayal and heartbreak (and okay, yes, lots of outright villainy of her own making.) There’s a sense that she has really earned this breakthrough.
So when the literal other shoe drops and JR discovers that Petra’s heel did indeed break, the show has earned this moment, too. It makes sense that Petra killed Anezka: Much though we’ve come to love her, there’s no arguing that Petra has done enough truly bad stuff to earn her some serious consequences. But because those consequences are coming now, at a time when we’re completely invested in her happiness, the experience is that much more crushing. I really want Petra and JR to work it out! I am also intensely relieved that my prediction of a “who shot JR” line was just slightly off. Instead of JR getting shot when the mysterious blackmailer shows up in Petra’s room to kill her, the shooter is JR herself. I get to have my Dallas reference, and I get to hope for more JR and Petra in season five.
Anyhow, Michael. I suppose we should ask whether it actually is Michael; it could be a long-lost twin brother, or one of Jane’s ultra-realistic face masks being worn by someone else. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a face get peeled off on this show. But I think it’s him. I hope it’s him. That’s the most interesting version of the story going forward. The idea that Jane the Virgin began with a real tension between Michael and Rafael, and will curl back around to an infinitely more potent version of that same conflict, feels right for the endgame of this series.
Assuming that it is Michael, there really is no adequate way to describe how impressive this twist is, how long it’s been lying in wait for us, how carefully Jane has prepared this secret, and how thoroughly it’s been hidden. We get all the absolutely dizzying melodramatic impact of the reveal, and Michael’s appearance still doesn’t negate anything that’s happened in the last season. Jane has still undergone overwhelming, life-changing grief. She will never be the same person she was before Michael’s death. (Er, “death.”) The fifth season will have to move forward from where these characters are right now, and I have every expectation that Jane will be torn to shreds in the process. And I mean that in a good way!
I’ve said it before about Jane the Virgin’s many astonishing surprises, and it’s never truer than it is now: The reason this show can pull off such big twists without ever losing itself is that it’s fundamentally committed to Jane and her family as real people with real feelings. The final seconds of this episode are effective because it’s a surprise you never saw coming. But the reason you will still be thinking about Michael’s reappearance tomorrow, next week, and randomly at many points over the summer, is that Jane has built up years of audience trust that this is not some silly throwaway shock. This wasn’t done for drama and destined to be discarded instantaneously. It’s a surprise that’s undergirded with absolute faith in how the show will move forward. To my everlasting delight and amazement, Jane the Virgin is really doing this, you guys. This show is the best. To be continued!
From Our Narrator, With Love
• I cannot stop thinking about how long this twist has been in the works, and what moments of foreshadowing I haven’t yet remembered or unearthed. Please come find me with all the hints you uncover that something like this was going to happen!
• We did get a shot of some mysterious feet walking down the road a few weeks ago, and Our Narrator slyly told us it wasn’t yet time for that twist. How much do you know, Narrator? How long have you been hiding this from us?!
• One of the smartest things Jane did in preparation for this twist was not to reminding us of Michael (although it’s done that too, in Rafael’s occasional insecurity about his place in Jane’s life) or lingering again on the specifics of his death. The smartest thing it did was introducing River Fields as a telenovela novice and using her to prepare us for how this genre works. As ever, Jane somehow manages to be a telenovela while also teaching us how to watch telenovelas. What kind of surprise can announce ahead of time, “I am going to be a huge surprise,” and still be as shocking as this? I am in awe.
• What better endorsement for Jane and Rafael potentially getting engaged than Rogelio announcing, “I’ve gotten over my ambivalence for you!”
• OH MY GOD, ROGELIO IS GOING TO SEE MICHAEL AGAIN! I AM GOING TO CRY.