Brett Dier as Michael and Gina Rodriguez as Jane.
Major spoilers ahead for Monday night’s episode of Jane the Virgin.
Westworld, sit down. This Is Us, you too. Game of Thrones? Please. (You can stay, The Good Place.) More than almost any other show on TV right now, Jane the Virgin is the master of pulling off surprises, and last night’s episode was its finest hour yet. I say that knowing full well that it absolutely devastated many of the show’s fans, who are no doubt reeling this morning in shock and dismay. But in both execution and in its long-term ramifications for what Jane the Virgin will be going forward, my bet is that the shock in Monday’s episode will ultimately prove to be a good thing for the series.
In case it wasn’t clear, you should stop reading right now if you don’t want to be spoiled about what happens on Monday’s episode. Prepared? Okay.
Michael dies, for real this time. Here’s why this is not the end of Jane the Virgin as we know it, and in fact, why there’s reason to hope for its future. First, in recapping the episode, and in thinking about the episode after it aired, my initial impulse was to describe Michael’s death on the show as a “twist.” It’s a word that absolutely feels right in describing the sense of stunned astonishment the episode pulls off, and the feeling that the audience has been led down one path only to discover they’re actually somewhere else entirely.
It’s not really accurate in this case, though. Part of what makes Michael’s death work so well is that it has been telegraphed — over-telegraphed, even — for months and months. The run-up to the season-two finale was a solid wall of “Will Jane the Virgin Kill Michael?” coverage, debating the pros and cons of that choice for the show, imagining how it might go down, wondering whether the death would happen before the wedding night or whether Jane would actually get to have sex with him first. Amply supported by evidence from the show going all the way back to episode ten in the first season, the idea of Michael’s death has followed Jane around like a sword of Damocles.
It’s not fair to call something so heavily foreshadowed as Michael’s death a “twist.” That word implies trickery, an active audience hoodwinking that’s often almost gleeful in its ability to have played its viewers for fools. And there’s no question that Jane the Virgin has had plenty of twists. This was not one of them. No, this was Chekov’s gun, placed in front of the viewer a very long time ago, and then juggled and danced around so effectively that you’d forgotten to worry about it. Michael’s death was its own special category of death trope, perhaps most immediately familiar from when Shonda Rhimes pulled it out for Derek Shepherd’s death on Grey’s Anatomy. There are buckets and buckets of clues that the end is coming. You sit holding your breath, waiting for the guillotine to come down, knowing that it’s hovering above you. And then it doesn’t! You breathe a sigh of relief. And then it does. You can call it surprising, or shocking, or even unfair. You could also see it as demonstrating a masterful understanding of how to balance anticipation and expectation in narrative. But you cannot really call it a “twist.”
Here’s why it matters that his death demonstrates surprise, but not twistiness: As showrunner Jennie Urman writes about in her post-episode Tumblr post, this is something the series has planned for quite a while. We probably place too much importance on “they’ve planned this all along” in the world of judging TV storytelling quality, but in a case like this, that sense of preparation signals both a respect for the significance of Michael’s death and a careful consideration of what will come next. You may well be shocked and dismayed by what happened, but you can hardly argue that the show doesn’t give him a loving, heartfelt send-off, complete with flashbacks to his earliest dates with Jane and a bounty of “full circle” imagery exemplified in Michael and Jane pausing together at the top of a carousel. It is a testament to the careful crafting of the show that his death absolutely feels shocking, but that there’s also a surfeit of preparation for it, and the sense that it’s part of a larger story.
Knowing that its writers have been anticipating Michael’s death for so long makes it easier to feel confidence in the direction of the show going forward. Even without that assurance, though, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this will be a good thing for Jane the Virgin. The three-year time jump that caps the episode feels like an additional stunning surprise, but it’s also a gesture of self-assurance. Jane the Virgin’s writers know where they want to take the story, and where they want to lead these characters. Sometimes significant time jumps can feel like sudden last-ditch efforts to shift the story to new places without much care given to how to make that happen. This time jump could be that, but it’s also a grappling hook being thrown out from the episode’s end into the great unknown, giving us some additional preparation for what’s to come. We are not being thrown blindly into a whole new world.
But even without the time jump and without Urman’s “calm the fans” Tumblr post, and even setting aside the significant work “Chapter Fifty-Four” does to give Michael a fitting send-off, there are reasons to feel secure about the show’s future. This kind of trauma and recovery is something Jane the Virgin does very well. Its specialty has always been in finding the human moments in dramatic situations, and in treating its characters with care and respect. Mateo was kidnapped, and Jane spent a long time trying to feel safe again after that event. Rogelio was held hostage for days, and Jane the Virgin took time afterward to make clear that his experience was real, and that he was struggling with its effect on him. When Michael was first shot, the show devoted a whole episode to both Jane and Michael tackling the emotional recovery from that event. More recently, Petra experienced a horrific ordeal that thoroughly damaged her faith in other people, and the show has given careful attention to how that experience has changed her. The pendulum swings of distress and resurgence, suffering and healing, fragility and strength — they are fundamental to what makes this show tick.
That’s why Michael’s death is a surprise, but it’s not a twist or a trick. It’s also why there’s every reason to see this even not as a ratings ploy or a bid for stunned #TeamMichael members to take to Twitter in protest. Instead, it’s a move that’s representative of Jane the Virgin’s continuing interest in exploring how people can recover from trauma, how they incorporate grief into their lives, and how they must still learn to move on. Michael’s death is unendingly sad. But I have hope that it will prove to be one part of a bigger narrative about humanity and resilience, something Jane the Virgin has already shown us time and time again. “Chapter Fifty-Four” does feel like a punch to the gut. I have hope it’s also going to be a part of Jane the Virgin’s broader record of telling stories that make us happy, and showing us what it’s like to be human.