The first seven episodes of Jane the Virgin’s final season have been a tumultuous, often uncertain, constantly shifting journey. The season began with Brett Dier’s surprise return as Jason, Jane’s thought-to-be-deceased husband Michael who was now suffering from amnesia. From there, the show moved through Jason reclaiming his memories of his former life as Michael, and then Jane’s separation from her almost-fiancé Rafael. In episode seven, the story finally crests into what feels like the end of the Michael/Jason arc. Jane goes with Michael to Montana so they can explore whether they have a future together, and she comes to realize that while she loved Michael, she’s now in love with Rafael. Jane goes back to Miami determined to win Rafael back.
Going to Montana is an unusual departure for Jane the Virgin. The show has breadth in so many ways — in tone, in subject matter, in its sense of humor and seriousness and intricate storytelling — but it’s always been rooted in one place. It’s set in Miami, and although it does occasionally move to a variety of locations around Jane’s world, the bulk of it takes place in the same familiar rooms. Most things happen in Jane’s grandmother’s house, on the porch swing outside her front door, in the Marbella (a hotel that changes owners almost every week but itself never moves), and on a handful of secondary sets like Rogelio’s home, Rafael’s new apartment, the backstage of Rogelio’s telenovela, or the police department. Jane tends to stick to home turf.
So the move to Montana for “Chapter Eighty-Eight” is a significant change, one that deliberately takes Jane and Jane out of their comfort zones. Jane has to leave her world to get a sense of who Michael is now, because although his memories have returned, he’s not the same person she married. As Brett Dier explained to Vulture, Michael has returned in some ways — in the eyes, in the smile. But there are still elements of Jason sticking around, still visible in the body and in the way he relates to the world, even after Michael’s memories have returned. “Michael now has five years under his belt of completely being someone else,” Dier said. “I don’t think he can really shake that.”
Dier worked to make sure that his mental transformation from Michael into Jason and back again would also be reflected in his physical presence. Jason, Dier decided, would hold himself more awkwardly, but would also literally take up more space. “He lives on a farm somewhere,” Dier explained, “and I pictured him not really understanding what health is. He wakes up with no memory; he just eats whatever. I wanted him to have that life, lived in the body.” Dier gained 22 pounds before filming the season’s premiere episode, and then swiftly started to shed them as Michael’s memories returned so that he could give Michael some of that lanky leanness back.
As with the mental shift from Jason back to Michael, though, the physical shift isn’t ever a complete transformation back to the original Michael. In some ways the Montana episode is the most comfortable Michael (or Jason) ever gets to be this season. He rides horses and mucks stalls and walks over to Jane carrying two steaming cups of coffee, looking every bit like a cowboy who walked off the cover of a romance novel. But the physical setting further underlines how far this is from the Michael who Jane once knew. He’s not great at small talk. He does not make much eye contact. Hilariously and poignantly, he tells Jane that he knows when she’s upset, but he doesn’t see it by looking at her. He sees it by reading the body language of the horse she’s riding. This is a particularly nice detail; the Michael of before would’ve known right away when Jane wasn’t happy. That present-day Michael can only see her emotions when they’re being transmuted through a horse, the most cliché symbol of Michael’s Montana life imaginable, is an effective little device.
Moving the show to Montana for an episode is the only way Jane can fully demonstrate how different Jane and Michael have become, and it’s the only way the series can completely excise the lingering pull of its years-long love triangle. At the end, Michael offers to move back to Miami to be with Jane, but the work of the episode up until that point is to illustrate just how much better Michael fits in Montana than he does in Miami, and how thoroughly different this world is from the one Jane knows. It’s hard for Jane to watch him stapling barbed wire to fence posts, or sleeping outside without a tent, and envision him being happy in Miami.
It’s not just the setting that makes “Chapter Eighty-Eight” so different, either. Jane tends to juggle three or four separate plots by weaving them together through a shared thematic framework, but “Chapter Eighty-Eight” tells only one story. The entire hour is spent on Jane and Michael trying to figure out how they feel about each other, without any of the typical breaks for Petra’s love life or Xo’s health or Rogelio’s telenovela. Jane and Michael are stuck together inside this story, and the viewers are stuck there with them until they figure it out. The structural change goes hand in hand with the new setting, so that in all, it’s as though Jane is playing with being a different sort of series entirely, one with a less hectic, more focused, slower storytelling rhythm. A show with cowboys instead of drug lords. A show with tumbleweeds and lassoing and no kids or family or writing, or really any of the things that makes Jane what it is.
Throughout her time in Montana, Jane continually imagines alternate possible futures for herself and Michael, musing about what they might look like and how they’d feel. She pictures a long-distance relationship, a future in Montana, or Michael moving to Miami, and imagining each of those options ultimately helps Jane understand how unsatisfying all of them are. She can see exactly how they wouldn’t work. “Chapter Eighty-Eight” performs the same function for Jane the Virgin. It’s an alternate vision of what this show could be, a way for the show to mess around with its own genre even more dramatically than its familiar playfulness with narrative themes. Only by actually creating this version of the show, by letting viewers see what it would be like if this show became Little Jane on the Prairie, is it possible to understand quite so thoroughly why it would never work in the long term.
“Chapter Eighty-Eight” ends by being as definitive and final as Jane the Virgin knows how to be. Jane and Michael say good-bye, firmly and with certainty. The first thing Jane does when she returns to Miami is head straight to Rafael’s doorstep and declare that she wants him back, and when he tells her that he doesn’t trust her anymore, she is undaunted. “Rafael is my destiny,” Jane tells Xo and Alba. By leaving Miami and playing out her potential future as a ranch hand’s wife, Jane can return home ready to be herself again, confident in who she is and what she wants. She wants to be with Rafael. She wants to be Jane the Virgin, not Little Jane on the Prairie.
That doesn’t mean all Jane fans will immediately accept this turn for the show, nor does it mean that the fans who wanted Jane to be with Rafael all along will instantly forgive Jane for Michael’s return. It’s something Brett Dier knows and welcomes. He knows that some of Jane’s viewers thought Jason was awful, and some of them resented it when Michael got his memories back, and some people will always be dissatisfied with how this show ends. “I know that by playing this guy, it’s gonna make people feel all sorts of stuff,” Dier said. “Anger. Sadness. You’re gonna miss the old Michael.” But that’s also the appeal of this role, and of a show like Jane. “I love that stuff,” he said. “I want to make people feel all kinds of things.” After an episode like “Chapter Eighty-Eight,” maybe the biggest emotion is how good it will feel for Jane the Virgin to come back home.