Brett Dier as Michael, Gina Rodriguez as Jane.
So there I was, all set to settle back with a relaxing episode of Jane the Virgin. The promos had suggested a lot of Rogelio dick jokes, which I was looking forward to. I figured we’d probably get some more Trump shade, which I am still onboard for. The Narrator was making narratorial jokes. Bruce’s teen daughter Tess gets drunk and Abuela chases her down in a sedan. You know, normal Jane stuff.
And then Michael died.
It’s shocking. I may have yelled out loud. The multiple wallops of his death scene, trying to process whether his death was actually real, and the three-year time jump … it is a lot to process. I am heartbroken, and I’m sure many Jane the Virgin fans are as well. But here’s why I’m not angry.
Even if you’re all-in on #TeamMichael, and think no one could ever be a better partner for Jane, it’s hard to argue with how masterfully the show has built to this moment. It’s been a chain of narrative baits and switches, and at every point, the nudges and suggestive comments have been both cunningly disguised and aggressively signaled. They stretch back to the earliest moments when the Narrator began foreshadowing the end of Michael’s life, moved up through the fever pitch of “will Michael die?” at the end of season two, and continued with the seemingly very minor hint about his failed police medical exam in the most recent episodes. We’ve had ample hints that something would be coming, but with every time his death has gotten thwarted, the real threat of death has seemed further and further away. It’s been the storm that newscasters always forecast, but never arrives. Every time you’re reminded of the possibility, you think, “But it didn’t happen last time, so it won’t happen this time either.” When the actual hurricane makes landfall, though, you can hardly blame the forecasters for not warning you.
Jane the Virgin, in other words, has played an impressive narrative juggling act, simultaneously suggesting his death would come soon and continually denying us that event. When you look for it, that duality is written all over this episode. It’s pretty easy to watch “Chapter Fifty-Four” and read it as business as usual for Jane. There are plenty of lighter moments, including the aforementioned Drunk Tess, as well as Rogelio’s ongoing search for stardom. There’s a nice balance of plots that seems to reach for longer-term consequences: We get Rafael’s conundrum about going to jail, the addendum to his father’s will, Petra’s desire to bond with her children, and Jane getting a new job. Rogelio stomps around, throwing a tantrum and yelling, “PENIS! PENIS, PENIS, PENIS!”
But when you start to take it apart, the storm is obviously looming on the horizon. The idea at the heart of “Chapter Fifty-Four” is that memories are inherently unreliable, and moments of great eventfulness can form “flashbulb” memories that we recall very clearly, even as the periphery details get lost. The framework for eventfulness, for memory and its unreliability, and for the desire to capture still moments in time is built into the storytelling toolkit. The episode also gives us a small red herring as a possibility for what this eventfulness could be about: Jane’s period is late, and she wonders if she might have gotten pregnant accidentally. That surprise pregnancy announcement would be a great moment to remember, and a lovely chance for the Narrator to snap one of those memory flashbulbs. Except Jane gets her period, then she and Michael start wondering whether they should move up their timeline to give Mateo a sibling.
There are a few other suggestions studded throughout the episode: the opening reminder of their wedding day, the nice conclusory feeling of Rafael and Michael bonding, the lingering reminder of Michael’s medical issue. But the biggest hint is the episode’s set piece, when Jane and Michael go to the carnival. In any number of ways, it’s an unusual scene for Jane the Virgin. It’s long, and it isn’t interrupted by cuts into other Jane stories to see how Petra’s doing, or what’s going on with Bruce and Tess. The premise for the trip is that it’s the night before Michael’s LSAT, and Jane brings him to the carnival so that he can relax. As the Narrator illustrates, though, it’s also the location of one of Jane and Michael’s earliest dates, when they first admitted how serious they felt about one another. Rather than cut back and forth between the carnival and other plots, the Narrator cuts back and forth between the current day and that date four years ago, playing a fun before-and-after game, lining up the parallels with Michael’s nervousness at each point.
It’s a beautiful scene, if a little bit over-the-top for Jane the Virgin. The show is so good at shifting between many tones and multiple stories that it’s surprising when it goes all-in on the schmoopy love story for such a lengthy, full-throated scene. From the perspective of the episode’s ending, though, you can see the carnival scene for what it is: a farewell celebration of their relationship, drawing a full circle from where they started to where they end. The imagery is everywhere. They’re on a carousel, if you’re looking for “full circle” metaphors come to life, and when the carousel pauses, they talk about wanting it to never go back down. But it does, of course. However betrayed you may feel by the suddenness of Michael’s death and by the way it pulls the rug out from under your feet, there’s no denying that Jane the Virgin gives the audience the carnival scene as a parting gift. It’s a scene unmarred by any of the telenovela melodrama or trickery, and it’s dedicated to how much these two people really love one another.
There are other aspects of “Chapter Fifty-Four” that deserve mention, which I’m sure Jane will revisit in future episodes. From a plot standpoint, the biggest one is that Rose got plastic surgery, and now has a plan for to give up the Horrible Drug Lord gig and live with the Solanos without anyone realizing who she really is. Rafael, meanwhile, seems to have settled on jail time so that he can come out with a clean slate and be the parent he wants his children to emulate. Xo and Bruce look like a going concern, as do Darci and Rogelio. All that will be relevant given the three-year time jump in the episode’s closing sequence, which suggests we might fast-forward to see how all these developments work out.
What I want to touch on at the end, though, is not the fact of Michael’s death, but the way it happens. Rather than being shot by a maniacal villain on his wedding night, or succumbing to some other similarly unlikely fate, Michael just … collapses. He’s taking his LSATs, which does make the moment feel like a big day, but in the spectrum of Jane the Virgin possibilities, Michael’s death is remarkably, wrenchingly ordinary. Through some dormant injury he sustained because of a gunshot wound, his heart just fails. It is vastly, vastly more shocking for him to die this way than to be gunned down in an over-telegraphed sequence on his wedding night during a season finale. Hate it or love it, there’s no question that the episode pulls off an extraordinary surprise.
The combination represented in the way Michael dies — the simultaneous suddenness and the sense of being commonplace — gives me hope for the show’s future. The mix of realism and surrealism is central to Jane the Virgin’s magic narrative recipe, and the show is better than anything else on TV at depicting normal, human emotions with depth and compassion. Michael dying with this kind of stunning abruptness is characteristic, melodramatic Jane the Virgin. Narrative twists are a solid half of this show’s DNA. The other half is a cast of characters who retain their humanity in the face of astonishing circumstances. As deeply sad as I am about this, my hope is that Jane coping with his death, trying to piece her life back together after something so monumental and unexpected and painfully mundanely human, will play straight to Jane the Virgin’s wheelhouse.
So, three years in the future. To be continued.
• In the moments after Michael collapses, there’s a desire to second-guess whether or not this death, finally, is really real. For me, the one thing feeding that impulse was our Narrator’s little joke throughout the episode about whether or not he was actually reliable. An unreliable narrator, surely, could play this kind of trick and then pull one of his usual rewind-and-replay games.
• In case you’re also stuck in that mental place, and the promo that immediately followed the episode didn’t give you enough to reassure you that this death is actually real, it’s worth reading Jennie Snyder Urman’s Tumblr post, which went up as soon as the episode ended. She talks about the decision to kill Michael, and how it’s played out over the course of the show, but she also talks about how much she regrets the timing of his death within bigger world events. It’s definitely worth a read.
• PENIS! PENIS PENIS PENIS!
• As if everything else weren’t enough, it’s very hard to think about how sad Rogelio will be about Michael’s death. There aren’t enough crying-face emoji in the world.