How Jane the Virgin Pulled Off Its Fantastic Surprise

Photo: Michael Desmond/The CW

Major spoilers ahead for the season-four finale of Jane the Virgin.

In the final few moments of Jane the Virgin’s fourth season finale, Jane walks down a hallway to her boyfriend Rafael’s apartment and assumes she’s about to discover the identity of Rafael’s mysterious unknown parents. Instead, Rafael opens the door to reveal Jane’s beloved husband, Michael, who’s been dead for four years, during a full season-and-a-half of the series.

Ahead of the finale, I spoke with Jane the Virgin showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman about how long she’s been preparing for this monster twist, whether the person in Rafael’s apartment is really Michael, and what’s coming up on the fifth season of the show.

I’ve been flipping out all day thinking about this twist!
[Laughing.] Yup!

How long have you known this was coming?
I told Gina [Rodriguez] maybe at the end of last year. End of season three.

But how long did you know?
I didn’t know for sure that I was going to do it until the end of season three.

That’s when it all came together. I knew it was a possibility, but I had to calibrate when — as you know I can’t confirm or deny any part of the ending, but I can say that this was a setup for us moving towards the end, and so once things came into focus in that way, I knew the timing of this and what it would be.
I’m being so vague, right? I’ll try not to. [Laughs.]

Okay, so you told Gina at the end of season three.
I told Gina after we wrapped last year. We always hang out for a bit afterwards, and I told her what I was thinking about for what was to come. Then I had lunch with Brett [Dier] about a year ago as well.

So when he died, you didn’t tell him he might be coming back?
I didn’t tell anyone else except for the writers! When he died, he was dead! I discussed it at length with the writers. There was always a possibility, and we did jump time. There were things I was working out in my head, and when I came to the room at the beginning of this season is when I pitched them [this twist].

But when you then had him die, you didn’t know this was going to happen?!
No. I mean, I knew it could. I had to prep it as though he was dead, dead, dead. I knew we were going to be grieving and that he might not come back for a long, long time, but it was a story point that I was toying with. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to be doing. And then a few things came into focus for me, because during hiatus, I get to not just work, but dream about big shapes for the show and what I want to see. And a few pieces clicked together for me on a bigger level in terms of the story and the storytelling.

I always feel we were saving up a few telenovela tropes. One of them is returning from the dead. Whether it’s him [Michael] or not, that is the trope we’re playing with. And then there’s another [trope] that is out there that we’ll be looking at. So those themes were at play in my mind: the telenovela of it all, the opening, putting Jane in a situation where she and Raf were in this great place.

And it’s that crazy “what if this other person that you loved came back” idea. The fallout of this, having gone through all the grief and all the heartache. To explore that became too interesting to resist on an emotional and dramatic level, because we like a big, giant, telenovela twist. But then we love to deal with the grounded implications of these big, huge things. It clicked for me that this was the way I wanted the story to go.

What was it that came into focus?
I’m trying to couch it, but it was knowing definitively the end of the story that ultimately clicked into focus in a big way. What needed to happen, what would be big for the character, I wanted it on many levels dramatically in terms of Jane and Rafael and Michael, like, “what does this all mean?” I wanted it on a level for Rafael, too. He’s done this hugely heroic and selfless thing, bringing back Michael, which is his greatest fear. I wanted it as this “holy shit” moment, which we try to do towards the end of our seasons. And I wanted to shake up everything in a big, dramatic way as we head into the fifth season.

And you can’t confirm that season five is going to be the end of the show?
I can’t, but what I can say is that CW and CBS have been very supportive about letting the show go until the story is done, and always telling me that the creative will drive the length of a show, which is something I really appreciated. So as that came into focus and our conversations were had, this piece [Michael’s return] was also in play.

Can you tell us whether this is really Michael?
No, but you will know in the season premiere of season five.

I think for me it makes the most sense if it is actually him. I feel like it would make more sense for how upset Rafael is.
[Rafael] certainly believes that it’s him.

And for the interesting implications of where the show could be going, to circle back to that original love triangle with the three of them, with all of them now as such different people … for me, it seems like this actually being Michael is the most interesting story.
I definitely… those are all very good points! I think that the shock of seeing him is going to follow … there’s going to be a question about whether or not it’s him, the state he’s been in, and what’s happened to him. It’ll be dealt with fairly quickly, but you’re certainly right that [if it is really him] the stakes are just huge and life-changing, and that does seem compelling on a storytelling basis.

It does! It would seem compelling to me as an outside observer.
Yup! Certainly. [Laughing.]

How did the writers and cast respond when you told them? Were people overwhelmed? Surprised?
What I did was I pitched it to the writers as well as one other piece that’ll unfold at the beginning of [season five]. There was a lot of shock/surprise when we went in the room last year, too. That’s when I sort of put them through this. I had told a few people over the hiatus that I was thinking about [bringing Michael back], and they were shocked and surprised and into it. I wasn’t talked out of it! [Laughing.] But then I told Gina, I told the producer, the studio and network, and Brett, about a year ago, I sat down with him. And I didn’t tell the other actors or anyone else in production. We redacted the last page of the script and then during the final table read, we had Brett come secretly outside the door, and at a certain moment I opened the door and I gave out the last page and there was a lot of screaming and yelling and drama! It was pretty fun.

Oh, man!
But yeah, I wanted it because our cast is so close and we’re really like a family.
I just knew everyone would be so excited and it would be a fun shock, and everyone would just be so happy to see Brett, both that character and also just the person. It was a pretty fun moment for us.

That’s amazing!
There was a lot of planning! I was very concerned with when I would get up, when I would open the door, where the pages would be. All that kind of stuff went into it.

Once you knew this was going to happen, can you talk a little bit about foreshadowing and what hints you were dropping that this was going to come?
There are plenty of hints. A little bit in The Passion of Santos and the remaking of the American version of what The Passion of Santos is about, [which is] somebody who is dead returning. There were moments when the women were watching telenovelas and they said, “Oh, he returns from the dead, that’s a classic telenovela trope,” certainly on that level. And in the episode itself, we primed the palate for a huge telenovela-esque reveal. We just misled what it would be, so I think people were worried about who his parents were and if they were maybe related, and what could be so big. That was our way of telling everybody to buckle up, something big is gonna happen.

It was certainly connected to Rose’s killing at the beginning of the season, but that won’t be fully explained until next season. And definitely in Jane’s book, where she wrote about Michael, she gave them a happy ending that she didn’t have in her life, and part of that hinted at a little bit of what could come.
We really tried not to hint too much because our audience picks up on so many implications or nuances, so we did as much as we could get away with without actually tipping our hand.

Is Brett is going to be a regular for the next season?
Well, Brett has another pilot that I dearly hope goes, but luckily we know [the showrunner] Gloria [Calderon-Kellett] very well, she’s also been on our show and is a friend of ours, and I feel like we could share him, because I definitely want a lot of him.

Moving forward, I know you can’t say exactly what’s coming up in season five, but I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what the themes of this next season are going to be, and whether or not you’re worried about a backlash to this story. Do you think the audience is willing to go back to a love triangle?
Everything will be different, so we wouldn’t be returning to anything they’ve seen. There are very different things we will be returning to. Things are coming full circle, and that’s the theme we’re going to explore. [In the finale], we saw [Jane] suddenly get the idea for her book, which was combining the three book we’ve seen her working on over the course of the years, and what she starts to type were the first words of the pilot. We want to be pulling those threads together in a big way.

And in terms of backlash … when you make a giant move, there’s always going to be people that love it and people that hate it. I’d be lying if I said I’m not scared of people yelling at me on Twitter because that never feels great, but there’s also going to be people that are excited and always wished that that could be true. And this is a story that needs big swings, I think, and has the structure to support those big swings. As long as we tell an interesting story, I hope our fans will be there along for the ride.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Jane the Virgin: How It Pulled Off Its Fantastic Surprise