Justin Baldoni as Rafael, Yael Grobglas as Petra.
The episode we left Jane the Virgin with several weeks ago was not my favorite — it was the first one that didn’t seem to handle the time-jump very well, the Rogelio plot wasn’t emotionally grounded in a characteristic way, and nothing seemed to click. I’m very happy to report that this week’s Jane the Virgin is a return to the show’s strengths, including a silly episodic gimmick that mostly works, several meaningful emotional moments, and the right level of balance between past trauma and the show’s ongoing efforts to move things along.
In particular, “Chapter Fifty-Eight” demonstrates one of Jane the Virgin’s most impressive qualities: the ability to take something fundamentally silly and revel in that silliness, while also modulating the themes of an idea through several different emotional registers and character arcs. Here, it’s the goofy runoff election for preschool room mom between Jane and Petra. I was not in love with the whole idea; it’s tricky for something like Jane to make jokes about a political situation that still feels pretty raw. Burned as I am on the entire idea of elections and exhausted though I certainly feel by anything that’s even an obvious spoof of CNN’s DECISION graphics, “Chapter Fifty-Eight” uses that daffy premise to surprisingly good effect.
It works because the divisions between Jane and Petra’s parenting styles are something long-established by the show, and something they’ve clashed about in the past. The underlying values that get transformed into a petty debate about whether to hire a parking attendant or ask for parent volunteers is actually reflective of long-held character traits for both women. So even when Petra’s handing out spa cards and Jane’s proposing rotating cubby systems, the argument comes off as understandable rather than totally trivial. These women do truly disagree on the best way to respond to these tasks, and it’s rooted in things we know about where they came from and what they respect. It’s an election for room mom, but it’s still reflecting something true about who they are.
As the episode also hammers home, the fight over who gets to do this job has little to do with either of them even wanting it. Which makes sense, because room mom is a thankless, frustrating job no sane person wants. As Rogelio very insightfully explains to Jane, it’s a classic telenovela-style rivalry, where the fight is far more about the insecurities the rivalry brings out in each person than it is about the inter-personal conflict. Worried about Mateo’s behavior in school, Jane is continually trying her best to make sure she’s present and supporting him, which is why she signs up in the first place. He’s been struggling with some of the discipline aspects of a school environment, and of course that makes Jane feel inadequate as a parent. She’s just trying to address her own feelings of insufficiency in comparison with the ever-perfect Petra. Petra, meanwhile, is similarly stuck with her own fears of inadequacy relative to Jane, made all the more pointed when her daughters present her with a portrait of her as a dragon. The goofy room mother gimmick becomes a useful way of catching up with how both of these women are coping with and trying to respond to the trauma of what happened in the time-jump interval.
We get several nice demonstrations of this for Petra, who’s had many understandable reasons for struggling to connect with her daughters over the past four years. She’s the room mom because she’s a perfectionist control freak who likes to be in charge, but also because she really does worry about how to be the best possible mother to her daughters. She does think rubber mulch is safer, so she’ll fight for it.
But the character ramifications of this silly election premise are most meaningful for Jane and Rafael, as they finally sit down with Mateo’s new aide at the end of his first week. Jane lays out Mateo’s whole history, including Michael’s death, and Rafael adds that he abandoned Mateo to go to prison for nine months. Whoa, says Alex the endearingly cheerful aide, That is a lot! But although Mateo has impulse control issues, Alex reassures them that it’s a completely normal kid thing. He shows no signs of trauma or attachment issues. Mateo is not scarred.
If you’re like me, you are probably wondering why you cried during this scene. It’s because Jane is able to describe the events of Michael’s death without crying herself, something her grief support group told her would indicate she might be ready to start dating again. But even more, it’s affecting because this is a deferred, deflected grief from Michael’s death, a small but intense way that the aftermath continues to define both Jane and Jane. It’s no less real because it’s been modulated through Jane’s worry for Mateo. If anything, transferring the emotional burden of Michael’s death onto something more concrete, like Mateo’s behavior, helps Jane (and the audience) grapple with that grief more directly. In recent episodes, there’ve been some concerns and complaints about Jane the Virgin not fully coping with the grief from Michael’s death — occasionally, as in the last episode, some of that criticism is warranted. Here, though, even something that’s framed as Jane moving on becomes an opportunity to reconsider his role in her life. It’s fantastic.
Also, of course I love that Rafael ends up being the unwitting volunteer as room mom. Not sure what else you’ve got happening in your life these days, Rafael, so you’re absolutely welcome to deal with the cubbies and the parking attendant and allocating money for the new reading nook. You’ll do great.
The other major story of “Chapter Fifty-Eight” is the inevitable dissolution of Xiomara and Bruce Who Was Never Interesting or Truly Viable as a Long-Term Partner. Although the show does a nice job of first trashing and then rehabilitating Bruce’s image, he’s never had enough oomph to suggest he was anything other than a stopgap between Xiomara and Rogelio’s reunion. (Also, it’s been interesting to watch Jane the Virgin un-ring the bell of Rogelio’s firm desire to have children — yet another way the time-jump has helped move things forward.) In any event, the Xo/Ro romance is clearly what’s on the horizon again, and I am on board. Sign me up.
There’s also a small story with Alba this week, who finally gets a chance to make a move on Jorge the Marbella gift shop manager. She slips on something, falls down, and worries that she’s humiliated herself, but of course Jorge asks her on a date anyhow. Obviously he does. Because she’s Alba, and also because wow does she look great in that dress. Dang, Abuela.
This being Jane, we also do some due diligence on the murder machinations. The episode gives us a small inkling that the police are reopening the investigation into Scott’s death and that Petra tore a page out of his red burn book to protect Rafael from further pain over his relationship with his father. The final twist of the episode, though, is not related to Scott, or Anezka, or even sketchy Fairwick owner Chuck Jesser. No, the stunning final reveal of “Chapter Fifty-Eight” is something much more striking: Rafael and Petra have a full-on sexy reconnection. And speaking of people who look great in this episode, we’ve got Alba’s stunning dress, Jane figuring out how to rock her unfortunate Mateo-given haircut, and Rafael, who seems to have come away from prison with both a Zen attitude and a remarkable set of shoulder muscles. Really, congratulations all around. To be continued!
• The election premise offers plenty of opportunities for some Heavy Narratorial Election Shade, most notably in the context of the #swingsetvoters, #alternativefacts, and one straight-up comment about kids being able to watch democracy in action — this time free from Russian intervention! “UGH! Don’t remind me!” says the Narrator. I hear you, buddy.
• I did very much enjoy the moment when, after fearing the stress of “another close election,” Our Narrator had to cut out with a video of cute kittens for a moment. We all need a safe space.
• It was a big week for Rogelio, as he prepped to defend himself against the lawsuit for pulling out of his reality show. It is so hard to know whether “Newsie-chic” is really the right look. Also hard? Not flirting with the jury. It’s just his natural instinct.
• Is there anything cuter than Rogelio and Mateo’s Sunday Funday days together? It’s possible the answer is yes, and it is Mateo trying on his new bespoke suit, then declaring that he looks “pretty good!” but pointing out that it’s itchy. “Let’s line it!” Rogelio shouts to the tailors.