Major spoilers ahead for the season-four finale of Jane the Virgin.
Friday’s season-four finale of Jane the Virgin pulls off one of the most astounding twists TV has seen in a long while. After Jane’s beloved husband Michael dies from sudden heart failure in the middle of season three, the final seconds of season four find Jane opening the door to Rafael’s apartment and seeing Michael again, apparently alive and well after having been dead for four years.
It is an absolutely gob-smacking moment, the kind of thing that makes your jaw drop at its sheer confidence and guts. Michael’s death in season three was a polarizing event for some Jane the Virgin fans, who felt betrayed by the show’s willingness to axe Michael in such an unexpected way, and who were equally put off by the subsequent three-year time jump, which some saw as designed to preempt the immediate aftermath of Jane’s (and the audience’s) grief. On its surface, this new twist seems primed to be just as controversial, if not more so — fans who felt betrayed by Michael’s death are hardly going to be assuaged having him return four years later, after Jane’s fallen in love with someone else.
But Michael’s sudden, melodrama-laden reappearance is utterly true to the kind of show Jane the Virgin has always been from the beginning. Not only is it perfectly in keeping with the deepest, telenovela roots of this show, Michael’s return from the dead is exactly the kind of move Jane has been trying to teach its audience to expect and appreciate for its entire run. And yet, somehow, in spite of how thoroughly Jane the Virgin has been preparing its audience for massive, foundation-rattling plot twists, it still managed to pull off something completely unpredictable and surprising. It’s awesome.
Michael’s Lazarus-like return plucks at an element of Jane that’s always sat a little uneasily with some of its audience. Jane the Virgin is the product of some improbable genre bending: it is simultaneously a coming-of-age tale about a young mother and writer, a heartwarming and emotionally real story about three generations of women, and an absolutely implausible, melodramatic soap opera with evil twins, murders, masks, and mistaken insemination. It is realism and surreality, locked together in an impossible embrace. And for any number of reasons — decades of cultural pressure that tells us that soap stories are silly and trashy, the remnant ghost of the “guilty pleasure,” simple issues of taste — it can be a little easier to cheer for the parts of Jane that feel “serious.” The telenovela arm of the show can feel like something that needs an excuse, something to apologize for. “Sure, sure, there are evil twins and people tend to get pushed down staircases … but it’s also thoughtful! A lot of it is over-the-top, but it’s really good, I swear!”
This move also feels like a return to something the show had seemed to be done with. Much of the first season was defined by a carefully balanced love triangle between Jane, Michael, and Rafael, and at various points over its four seasons, the series has indicated that it’s wrung all it can from that tension and is ready to set it aside. Jane and Rafael’s current relationship is the product of years of growth, incorporating grief and rage and insecurity and hard-won trust.
Returning to a love triangle might look like a regression for Jane, and for the show. Can’t we, can’t Jane, ever move on?
But the telenovela form has been fundamental to Jane’s DNA from the beginning, something the show has been at pains to remind its viewers throughout its run. It’s been especially visible in the last several episodes of season four. Rafael finds some pages from Jane’s book and is hurt to realize she’s still thinking and writing about Michael. It’s a reminder of Rafael’s ongoing insecurity, and a way to keep Michael’s memory in our minds. Then Mateo accidentally hops on a city bus by himself and Jane flashes back to the trauma of season one, when he was kidnapped from the hospital as a newborn — a plot that was an enormous leap into melodramatic heights for Jane, and was then carefully woven back into her very human emotional response. We’re being taken back through the show’s previous stunners, like a slideshow of every previous twist.
And if those nudges weren’t sufficient signals of the twists and turns to come, Jane the Virgin plunks a telenovela skeptic into the middle of season four. While working on an American telenovela adaptation with Rogelio, Brook Shields’s River Fields pushes back against what she sees as the trashy, classless silliness that comes with the telenovela form. She wants the show to be elegant, and finally, Rogelio pushes back. “I’ve made too many compromises!” he yells. “We’re losing the essence of the show!” He wants The Passions of Steve to have all the classic novela tropes — the amnesia, the mistaken parentage, the return from death, the sweeping romance. He wants it to be “true to its cultural roots!” The same is true for Jane. And just in case we hadn’t caught the hint, Jane the Virgin then shows us River Fields’s skepticism slowly giving way to an appreciation of the genre. “Oh Rogelio!” she gasps, after a marathon telenovela viewing session. “I love telenovelas so much! They surprise you and move you and make you feel alive!”
The most probable way forward for Jane the Virgin is that as with every other heightened telenovela trope, the show will treat it as a dramatic metaphor for how to explore reality. Most babies are not kidnapped from the hospital, but all new parents worry about their children’s safety. Most new husbands are not shot on their wedding night, but all marriages have moments where one partner becomes a caretaker and everyone has to adjust to new roles. In the real world, dead spouses do not rise from the grave. But the curiosity, the unanswered question, of what would happen if we had a choice between a current relationship and a past love, is quite real.
Whatever else is coming in season five, there’s every reason to believe that Jane the Virgin will do with this twist the same thing it’s done with every telenovela trope in the show’s past. Jane will weave this melodramatic peak back into the fabric of Jane’s emotionally real world — her ambitions, her fears, her relationships, and her hopes for the future. Michael’s return is not a rehash of the past, nor does it negate the years of grief Jane has experienced in his absence. None of these characters are the same as they were at the series’ beginning. But it is a way for the show to come full circle by wrestling with how far Jane has come from the young woman we first meet in the pilot.
Michael’s return is a celebration of the telenovela form, it’s a way for Jane the Virgin to curl back on itself in a slyly self-aware way, and it gives the show a huge boost into what is likely its final season. But underneath all of that, and most importantly, it is a fantastic, delicious, giddy, joyful surprise. It’s a reminder of what television can be like when it’s not full of self-important plodding darkness, and what storytelling can do when it commits to bold moves. It’s a testament to the fun and power of long stories, narratives with real stakes that are invested in making an audience care deeply about the characters. It’s a reminder that television doesn’t have to be a slog through condescension and grimness, and surprises don’t have to feel like a storyteller is condescending to an audience. It’s surprise as an outlet and engine for joy. Season five cannot come soon enough.