Oof, Xiomara does indeed have breast cancer. It’s a stage 3 invasive lobular carcinoma, so she needs to decide right away whether to have a lumpectomy, a single mastectomy, or a preventative double mastectomy. It’s a lot for Xo to take in all at once, and “Chapter Seventy-Eight” is shaped around this decision and Xiomara’s shifting understanding of who she is, whom she should be relying on and consulting with, and how she defines herself as a person.
We’re also beginning to see how many threads and long-forming arcs will be affected by Xo’s cancer diagnosis. At the heart of it all is Jane and Xo’s relationship, something the series has been building and layering from the very beginning. Their dynamic has always been a reversal of sorts: Xo as the mother who behaves like a child, Jane as the child who assumes responsibility. But the show has never let it be that simple, either: Xo has always looked immature when compared with Jane (or with Alba’s strict conservatism), but she’s also the crucial corrective voice when Jane struggles with sex and romance, or when Jane feels been unsure about her future.
The three Villanueva women have always been a unit, and Xo is often the weaker link in that triad. Her story has sometimes felt like a sidebar. She can get eclipsed by Rogelio’s enormous personality, and her romance stories are never as central or as deeply explored as Jane’s. Xiomara’s arc is often a story about insecurity and indecision: She wants to pursue dancing, then not; she wants a singing career, but that fizzles; then it’s teaching dance classes, until that doesn’t work; then it’s her love life as her career goes on hold. It’s a weird thing to say about a character married to Rogelio De La Vega, but Jane the Virgin’s Xiomara stories feature much of the grinding realism that other corners of the show have thrown away in favor of fairy tales and melodrama. That’s certainly not a negative, but it’s kept Xiomara in the background, or it’s made her conflicts a convenient frame so we can focus on how Jane responds.
That means her narrative has felt aimless in the past, or that the show wasn’t always sure what to do with her at a given point. But now, it also means that all of those slowly building, small-but-smart Xiomara moments from the past several seasons come crashing together as the family struggles to understand the magnitude of what’s happening. “Chapter Seventy-Eight” reminds us of this in a montage that, when I first saw it, I’ll admit felt a little unnecessary. “Yes, yes,” I said to myself. “Xiomara’s always been there, and now Jane is finally tapping into that relationship and processing it in her writing. Yes, I remember that scene, and that one.” The montage is not subtle, and I almost resented the way it smashes into this otherwise very delicately sketched episode.
Except I kept thinking about it, and thinking about how long the show has sown the seeds of Xiomara’s role here. I did exactly what the montage wanted me to do, which was to reflect back on how often Jane the Virgin goes haring off after some bananas silliness, and how often there’s a very short scene between Jane and Xo that brings it back to earth. Sure, no version of this montage — when a woman writes about her life while thinking back on cherished scenes with her family — will ever be as moving for me as when I first saw it in Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women. But damn it if it doesn’t work.
“Chapter Seventy-Eight” is about Jane needing to realize that Xiomara doesn’t belong to her in the same way a mother belongs to a very small child, but it’s also about Xiomara realizing exactly the same thing, and finding the confidence to make Rogelio a real partner in her life rather than a side character to the Villanueva trio. His tribute to the dearly departing Lefty is just perfect, and the episode gives Rogelio a quiet frustration that stays carefully muffled inside his fear and his solicitousness toward everyone else. He soothes Alba, he delays his beloved Passions of Steve, and he and Xiomara come to a decision together: She’ll get a single mastectomy.
There are so many great character beats packed into Xiomara’s story this week, including her short discussion with Rafael about what it’s like to be the person diagnosed with cancer, and Xiomara’s slow move toward defining herself as something other than an attractive female body. We also get young Mateo trying to cope with the new reality by praying to God, and Rafael learning to balance his atheism with his son’s faith. It’s remarkable how much this show can accomplish in such little time.
Not only do we get Xiomara’s story, and all of those remarkable character beats, but there’s also an entire adorable Petra romance story! Wow, do I love lovesick, insecure Petra who doesn’t know how to get JR back into bed. She is so endearing, and it makes me realize what we’ve been missing all these years with Yael Grobglas as Petra the Ice Queen rather than a funny, goofy, vulnerable mess. Jane and Rafael discussing Petra’s crush on JR? Delightful! Especially Jane’s sudden, “Ooh, JR! Yeah, she is smoking hot!” nod. Petra’s offhanded negging of Rafael? So great! (“I’ve never been nervous around anyone before! Like with you! It was just so easy!”) Insecure Petra who can’t understand JR’s reluctance? “I mean, I can’t believe she said that! I’m everyone’s type!”
I know this works because we have such a long history of Petra’s frostiness, but suddenly getting so much fantastic, hilarious Petra feels like a new discovery for the show. I just want to quote all of her lines! “I’m not a stalker. I get stalked. I’ve been stalked multiple times! I’ve been kidnapped! Twice!” Oh my God, I love her. And I’m suddenly very upset about my prediction that JR will get killed so that the Narrator can say “Who killed JR?” because it would crush poor Petra’s heart!
The big stories on the horizon will continue to be about Xiomara’s health, I’m sure, and we’ll wind our ways back around to Rafael’s birth parents and his choice between protecting Luisa and trying to get their identifies from Rose. But it looks like the return of real telenovela evil may also be on the horizon, in the form of some very ominous feet walking their way along a dark road. Oh, Jane the Virgin, please don’t hurt anyone else on the show! I can’t bear it! To be continued!
From Our Narrator, With Love
• Our Narrator’s ability to bring a range of tones to this episode is really impressive. He starts from, “We all handle crisis differently. I have nothing quippy to add — it’s just a fact.” And then, when Xiomara at the dinner table picks up a plate of chicken and says, “I guess I’ll take two breasts!” our Narrator responds, “Ugh, why couldn’t it be pasta night!”
• I also appreciate Our Narrator bringing some welcome perspective to Rogelio’s attempt to push Alba into therapy. The therapist may not be wonderful, because “he had to go through six therapists in order to find one janky enough to do an ambush session.”
• Of course Rogelio delayed the production on Passions of Steve, Alba! Of course he did.
• I made it nearly all the way through this episode thinking I wasn’t going to cry! I was so proud of myself, and then Rogelio and Xiomara finally sat down and talked about what it would be like for Xiomara’s body to change, and whether Rogelio would still find her attractive. And then he spoke directly to her breast, and said, “I love you, but I love Xiomara more.” Never mind, Jane the Virgin got me again!