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Jane the Virgin embraces its telenovela roots in its fantastic season 4 finale

“Chapter Eighty-One” is bruising, shocking, and brilliant. (Beware spoilers!)

Jane the Virgin, Justin Baldoni, Gina Rodriguez
This writer, for the record, is #TeamRafael.
CW

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for April 14 through 21 is “Chapter Eighty-One,” the fourth season finale of The CW’s Jane the Virgin.

Typically, we don’t write about the same show as Episode of the Week more than once a season — but in every way that counts, Jane the Virgin isn’t a typical show.

Over four effervescent seasons, Jane the Virgin has established itself as one of television’s most inventive and compassionate treats. It didn’t just offer an outlandish telenovela conceit — a virgin gets artificially inseminated by accident, hijinks ensue — but leaned fully into it to find beauty in the nooks and crannies of every dramatic reveal.

It deepened its characters and relationships with meticulous, generous warmth. A turbulent love triangle between earnest overachiever Jane (Gina Rodriguez), suave mogul Rafael (Justin Baldoni), and determined cop Michael (Brett Dier) could have been corny, but found a believable balance in this show’s hands. Even though my default answer to just about every love triangle is “eh, girl, just pick yourself,” Jane the Virgin consistently made such excellent cases for both Michael and Rafael that it was easy to understand why Jane was so torn.

It also helped that Jane’s relationship with her family was treated with just as much consideration. Her fiery mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), devout grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll), and melodramatic telenovela star father Rogelio (Jaime Camil) could easily have remained as simple as those descriptors, but instead, each has become so much more.

In one of Jane the Virgin’s most demonstrative displays of finding nuance where other shows might not have, Petra (Yael Grobglas) quickly went from being simply Rafael’s ice queen ex-wife (and Jane’s most obvious rival) to a flawed, surprisingly goofy woman all her own. In season four, she even got a partner worthy of her punishingly high standards in J.R. — who, as played with a liquid smirk by Rosario Dawson, was an unexpected choice, both because she is Petra’s lawyer and a woman.

To be fair, there was a stretch in the third season in which it seemed like the show was getting a bit lost in its own twists, especially whenever the (admittedly very magnetic) crime lord Sin Rostro (Bridget Regan) was involved. But after that season ended with everyone reeling from Michael’s sudden death, season four had the show take a step back to remember that it doesn’t need to be an endless maze of mythology to be truly great.

Then again, as “Chapter Eighty-One” showed, laying a careful foundation of character conflict under such a mythology maze sure can pay off. Since Jane’s fifth season will reportedly be its last, it seems safe to say that this fourth season has been working toward the show’s endgame, making every story feel that much more significant. And as the fourth season drew to a close, diving into deeply emotional storylines like Alba taking the US citizenship test and Xiomara learning she has breast cancer, the show threw out more and more winks to its telenovela structure that made it clear something was coming.

It took until the finale’s last few minutes, but when that penny dropped, whew, did it drop.

Image of a spoiler warning

This finale laid the groundwork for Big Twists with smart meta moments

The last few episodes of the season have seen Jane frantically working on her new book about her relationship with her mother, alternately making creeping progress and spiraling into a creative tailspin.

In the penultimate episode and finale, however, she’s officially “on a roll,” barely able to stop typing lest she forget a single idea. And when she gets stuck for a minute, she takes a step back, looks at the color-coded outline plastered to her wall, and realizes that she needs to stop glossing over the roots of her stories with exposition and excavate them for real. In order to make the story work, she tells her family with a tone equivalent to a “well duh!” forehead smack, she has to go back to the beginning.

Meanwhile, two other plotlines are converging in a way that makes it clear this show isn’t shying away from its roots, either.

In one seemingly less consequential corner is Rogelio, trying to bring telenovelas to an American audience without diluting what makes them great. In “Chapter Eighty,” his famous collaborator River Fields (played by Brooke Shields, get it?) dismisses telenovela twists like secret twins and amnesia as contrived — and then accidentally eats a pot brownie, watches a telenovela with Xiomara, and loves it so much that she immediately eats her words.

In the other, more mysterious, corner is Rafael, who was dogged by the question of who his birth parents are for years before he decided finding out wouldn’t be worth it. But when Sin Rostro dangles the possibility of information in front him of him, he can only hold out for so long before he relents and goes to visit her in prison. There, she drops what is apparently such a huge bombshell that he can barely function afterwards. He even drops plans to propose to Jane, and when she asks him what’s going on, he deflects by kissing her passionately — as if he has to savor whatever time he gets with her.

Rafael’s refusal to tell Jane what’s happening leads everyone to speculate wildly about what might be going on with him. At one point, Alba laughs that “if this were a telenovela,” the twist would have to be that he’s somehow Jane’s brother. The fact that I thought exactly the same — and was only convinced otherwise by Rafael reacting to the news by having urgent sex with Jane — speaks to how well this show has established its telenovela bonafides. After all, as Jane reminds Rafael, Sin Rostro kidnapped their son just minutes after he was born; it’s not so outlandish to think he had learned something both truly devastating and supposedly implausible, given their history.

So while the real twist doesn’t turn out to be incest (thank god), it does turn out to be both shocking and perfectly understandable given the show’s careful foreshadowing.

Bringing Michael back(?!) is a huge twist that nonetheless makes perfect sense

Yep, that’s right! In the final few seconds of this finale, just a few scenes after Jane insisted that Rafael was “it for [her], forever,” Rafael opened the door to his apartment and revealed with visible angst that Michael is still alive.

There is, of course, a chance that it isn’t Michael at all. He did (supposedly) die of a rare heart condition rather than some splashy disaster, and this wouldn’t be the first time the show’s pulled a twist involving a twin or a lifelike mask — nor, for that matter, the second. But even given just the briefest glimpse at his pained, earnest face as Jane gasps in shock, it seems far more likely that Michael is back. So what now?

That question will likely drive the beginning of the show’s final season. On the one hand, this feels a little frustrating, given how well Jane handled its love triangle and how beautifully it dealt with the aftermath of Michael’s death. On the other, it’s no coincidence that Jane realizing she had to go back to the beginning to tell her story right happened right before Michael, a pivotal part of the beginning of this show’s story, came back into her life. (Plus, given how much Rogelio fought to keep amnesia in his American telenovela, I’m gonna go ahead and guess that that might be part of Michael’s storyline when the show returns.)

No matter how this storyline shakes out, Jane the Virgin has proved time and time again that it’s capable of handling bombshells that would crater other shows with an impressively deft touch. And even if it is reverting back to the #TeamMichael versus #TeamRafael posturing that drove its romantic storylines in the beginning, everyone on this show has lived through years of joy, pain, grief, and celebrations. Even with Michael back in the picture, there’s no chance that this love triangle, nor anything around it, will be at all predictable.