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Jane the Virgin has never shied away from big twists. So what makes its latest so special?

The shocking developments of “Chapter Fifty-Four” make looking backward just as fun as moving forward.

Sure would hate for anything to happen to this happy moment!
The CW

Every Sunday, 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 February 5 through 11 is Chapter Fifty-Four, the 10th episode of the third season of The CW’s Jane the Virgin.

(Spoiler alert, etc., and so on.)

When Jane the Virgin isn’t sharing warm family stories or wrenching out its audience’s still-beating heart, it’s layering storyline twists on top of each other and twisting them into complicated knots. A single episode — hell, a single scene — of Jane the Virgin can easily contain more game-changing moments than most dramas attempt over a full season. The telenovela-inflected Jane embraces its soap opera roots with obvious relish.

For “Chapter Fifty-Four,” though, the show combined its strengths — family stories and telenovela melodrama — to pull off a pair of twists in its final minutes that will change the series forever, chasing the devastating shot of Jane’s husband Michael (Brett Dier) suddenly dropping dead with a three-year time jump.

I already knew about both surprises when I watched the episode, since a hazard of being a writer who specializes in TV is that there’s just no avoiding spoilers this big (especially once Jane the Virgin showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman published an open letter to fans explaining the decision to kill Michael, which was apparently a long time coming). So I didn’t have the same experience as the episode’s live audience, didn’t get to experience Michael’s death as a swift punch to the gut — not to mention the heartbreaking reaction of Jane herself (insert requisite “Gina Rodriguez crushed it” acknowledgement here). I basically watched this episode like I first watched Fight Club having learned the twist ahead of time — looking for clues and bracing myself for the rug to get pulled out from underneath me.

Watching “Chapter Fifty-Four” knowing exactly what’s coming somehow both heightens its power and cuts it off at the knees. Every sentimental flashback to Michael’s childhood and his first date with Jane feels like watching a slow-motion wreck; I quickly lost patience for other storylines, like Jane’s mother Xo trying to impress her new boyfriend’s daughter. And when the dual twists finally happened in the literal last two minutes of the episode, I was more relieved than anything else.

But no matter what happens next, these changes accomplish a couple of vital things for Jane the Virgin, both retroactively and for the story going forward.

As Jane’s narrator says to open the episode: “Looking back, you could say it felt different right away”

Character deaths are one of TV’s go-to ways to shake things up. And as my colleague Todd VanDerWerff painstakingly researched, TV has been killing off more and more characters recently, for better and (more often) for worse.

Now, character deaths are not uncommon on Jane the Virgin, which deliberately uses telenovela tropes to create a world that operates on scandal and intrigue. But in the case of Michael, Jane made sure to foreshadow and plan for his death enough that, looking back, it all makes perfect sense — and, yes, feels different.

I’m not even talking about the most obvious line from way back in season one, when the narrator insisted that Michael would love Jane “until he drew his very last breath” (which, in turn, prompted many to assume he was going to die sooner rather than later). I’m talking about the way Jane the Virgin has told the story of Jane and Michael’s romance and, more specifically, their fledgling marriage.

After teasing a persistent love triangle in season one before finally landing on #TeamMichael, and getting past the scare of Michael getting shot at the end of season two, Jane the Virgin pivoted to letting the pair live out the marriage of their most pleasantly dull dreams. They went house hunting, drew up monthly budgets, hosted sedate dinners. They developed a cordial rhythm with Rafael (Justin Baldoni), the father of Jane’s child and former third point of the aforementioned love triangle. They ate Honey Bunches of Oats (Jane the Virgin sure loves Honey Bunches of Oats, pick up a box of Honey Bunches of Oats today!).

But Michael dropping dead of complications from that gunshot throws all of these minutiae into stark relief. Now all the stages of Jane and Michael’s brief marriage — meticulously putting their family together, learning how to accept and help each other’s flaws, fantasizing about their future — feel like cruel teases, their petty fights wastes of their precious time together.

Michael’s death, in other words, makes a whole lot of what looked like table setting feel much more pressing in retrospect. It also ensures that Jane’s ongoing story will have an undercurrent of deep sadness for the life she lost, the life she could have led with him.

And then there’s the time jump.

This midseason time jump isn’t just about Jane getting past Michael. It changes the game for everyone.

Sure, Petra’s bonding with her twins now, but what about in three years?!
The CW

Like killing off characters, flashing forward in time is a longstanding tradition for TV shows, especially when they need to jolt plots out of stagnation. Doing so midseason is much rarer, but as FX’s The Americans proved just last year, that choice can be a smart way to let characters live out stories that might be less compelling in the moment, jumping ahead to let us pick up where things get interesting again.

Per Urman’s letter, the decision to skip three years was largely intended to give Jane enough time to mourn Michael without letting that grief swallow the show whole — which, fair enough. But the show also had several storylines outside of Jane and Michael’s that will be hugely different three years in, like Rogelio (Jaime Camil and matchmaker Darci (Justina Machado) falling for each other right when they agreed to have a platonic baby together, or Petra (Yael Grobglas) recovering from the trauma of being paralyzed by her long-lost twin. Also, Rafael may plead guilty to cooking his father’s books, while his sister continues to sleep with a murderous drug kingpin. (This is a telenovela, remember?)

Basically, the time jump teases a total change in the show’s status quo right at a moment when most of the characters were settling into their own juicy storylines. And while watching Rogelio and Darci date or Rafael adjust to prison or Petra bond with her kids could have been interesting, jumping past the means to get to the end is a gutsy, risky move for this show.

For two and a half seasons, we’ve watched Jane and everyone orbiting her have to make lightning-fast adjustments to the constant upheaval in their fictional lives; now we’ll pick up with them all at a completely different point in their story. As with any plot on Jane the Virgin, there’s no telling quite where this all will go — but as with any plot on Jane the Virgin, there’s a good chance its ambition and heart will make for some great TV in the end.

Jane the Virgin airs Mondays at 9 pm on The CW. The first two seasons are available on Netflix, with the third available on The CW’s website.

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