There are a couple impressive things about Jane the Virgin’s current story arc. The first is pretty obvious: The show has taken its romance-driven narrative full of telenovela antics, and chosen to use that forum to tell a very serious, grounded story about breast cancer. It’s not shying away from the physical realities of that story, or from the potential consequences for Xo. It’s not hiding the specific obstacles Xo struggles with, and just as it did with Jane and having a newborn, Jane the Virgin is great at adding precisely the right amount of telling detail. In last week’s episode, it was the post-surgical drains; this week, the cold cap and the “hot toddy” and the pain of chemo.
“Chapter Eighty” has the most painful, heartrending beats of Xo’s cancer story we’ve seen so far. It accomplishes that with a time jump that’s simultaneously merciful and gutting. On the one hand, we’re spared the slow, excruciating slide into illness and weakness that Xo has to experience. We don’t have to watch her gradually discover her own incapacity. It’s a kindness. Except the time jump also means we see Xo come out of her first chemo session saying that she feels good, and then we leap ahead nine weeks and are confronted with how hollow and grey and listless she is. It’s a jolt. It’s hard to even watch.
Jane also makes sure the stakes of Xo’s story don’t get lost in everything else going on. “Chapter Eighty” accomplishes that with Xo’s visible illness and Rogelio’s worry, but it mostly does that by introducing Donna as Xo’s chemotherapy buddy (played by Amy Brenneman, yaaaaay!). Donna is obviously at a more advanced stage of her disease and treatment than Xo, and she becomes a helpful guide for how to stay yourself, and how to cope with the specifics of stuff like chemo and cold caps and reconstructive surgery. And then … Donna dies. We saw it coming (although I desperately hoped we’d get more time with Amy Brenneman), but that little intro and departure is nevertheless essential for Xo’s arc. We need to remember that this is a real possibility for her.
I don’t want to say, “Okay, but any show could do a good cancer story.” That’s absolutely not true! But while everything about Xo’s current story is effective and important, I think the most impressive thing has been watching the show figure out how to tell Xo’s story while also maintaining the balance of humor and drama and sweetness that keeps the show itself.
“Chapter Eighty” is the darkest and most painful the show has gotten for Xo and her diagnosis, and so you can also feel how hard the episode works to tilt the tone in the other direction. There’s a meatier Petra and JR story than we’ve gotten in a while, which is really deft at finding some emotional beats inside of Petra’s never-ending “maybe I killed my sister” legal woes. There’s a good, fully developed story about Jane and Rafael’s finances (which is exactly what I asked for!) and how hard it is to balance their dreams with their current financial picture. This, too, connects to some important emotional beats for them — as it should, because most money stories are actually stories about relationships and how we see ourselves. There’s even a surprisingly focused little plot about Alba spanking Mateo, which then reverberates back up through Jane and Rafael’s relationship and somehow manages to loop back into Xo’s cancer story.
But there’s one place you can really feel the episode leaning hard to balance the tone: River Fields. River Fields! River Fields. I am so, so ready for more Passions of Steve and Brenda, and the double Oval Office that’s actually a heart, and President Rogelio in a lavender inauguration suit. But I just cannot get enough of River Fields, her eyebrows, her bonkers gold pillows, and my most favorite, the art she’s staged behind her sofa. One picture of a river, one picture of a field. And just in case you missed the message, the images also have “river” and “field” printed on them.
To no one’s surprise, River and Rogelio are still at odds on the Passions of Steve preproduction. He is pushing for a close adaptation of the original story, and she intends to wash out the telenovela elements and wind up with a classier, less melodramatic story. Rogelio initially caves, then tries to fight back. And then, in one of the best moments of the episode, the over-the-top silliness plot actually curls together with Xo’s all-too-real cancer story. River comes bursting into Rogelio’s house looking to ream him out for their preproduction disagreements, and instead finds Xo sitting on the sofa watching telenovelas and eating brownies. River stuffs one into her mouth before realizing they’re actually pot brownies (of course), and they end up on the sofa together, delighting in twin sisters and true-love plots and someone possibly going to jail.
It’s been a while since Rogelio has been actively at work on a telenovela, so it’s also been a while since Jane the Virgin had a chance to do some overly direct metafictional pointing at its own genre. And, at the end of this episode, there’s no question that it indulges in something overly direct and pointed: As Xiomara explains the whole telenovela genre to River, we get some extremely cutesy smash cuts to other stories from the episode. “Here’s the main couple!” Xo announces about the show they’re watching, followed immediately by a cut to Jane and Rafael smiling about how Raf has taken a new job as a real-estate agent so he can actually support Jane’s dream. “Here’s the big sweeping kiss!” leads to Jane and Raf again. And then, just in case you hadn’t caught up with the lesson Jane is trying to impart, River (who, once again, has ingested quite a bit of marijuana) happily shouts to Rogelio about how much she now loves telenovelas. “They’re everything,” she gushes. “They surprise you and move you and make you feel alive!”
Of course, River is also aghast that the episode they’re watching pivots so quickly from an epic twist to some new cliff-hanger. It’s a “classic Friday night cliff-hanger!” Rogelio tells her, before yet another cut back to Jane and Rafael. The phone rings, and it’s Rose calling Rafael from prison. “What I know is going to change your life,” she tells him. Cut back to Rogelio’s house: “Now we have to wait to find out what happens?!” River yells. “You do, River Fields. That’s why it’s known as a classic Friday night cliff-hanger.” It’s so cheesy and I LOVE it.
To sum up: Petra’s case is finally dismissed, JR has confessed everything and been disbarred, Rafael has taken a job to cover costs, River Fields loves telenovelas now, and Rose knows a secret. To be continued!
From Our Narrator, With Love:
I am watching this entire cancer plotline under the assumption that Xo will be fine. But I really, really wish that Our Narrator would stop pointing out that Jane and Raf keep saying things like, “Our dreams are kinda within reach!” “Okay, so now we’re just jinxing things left and right!” he says frantically. I need Xo to be okay, and they better not be messing with me on this.
Petra and JR spend a while talking about the Anezka crime scene, and Petra is insistent that “no one else was in the room where it happened.” “The room where it happened?” Narrator: “The room where it happened.”
River: “I underestimated you, Rogelio.” His answer? “Thank you. Most people do.”
Poor Rogelio does eventually snap when River goes too far. His suit looks like “a double-breasted poop emoji!” And when River asks him whether he’s referring to her eyebrows, he yells, “I’m not talking about your overrated bushes, you diabolical diva!”
This is not a Rogelio point, but I need to express this disbelief anyway. Mateo broke something from a flea market that cost $4,000? And Jane didn’t even try to bargain with the salesperson?!