One of the best things about watching Jane the Virgin is that it is an activity I share with my dad. (If you’re wondering whether or not he, too, has opinions about The Love Triangle, the answer is: Yes.) This, obviously, made “Chapter Ninety” a unique joy, being, as it was, an episode that shone the kind of heart-squeezing spotlight generally reserved for the Jane-Xo-Alba triad instead onto Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and Rogelio (Jaime Camil), and their still-blossoming father-daughter bond. Yes, please! Love a lovely father-daughter friendship, love an intergenerational artistic collaboration, love color-coordinated suits and matching prop astronaut helmets, 10/10, would recommend.
Even without such a personal connection, though, I would be giving this week’s outing high marks: After several episodes in a row of frustrating wheel-spinning, “Chapter Ninety,” firing on all the tenderly drawn cylinders it does, marks Jane the Virgin finally returning to form. Gone are the hysterical extremes The Love Triangle forced Jane, Rafael (Justin Baldoni), and everyone else in their orbit into; here to (hopefully) stay is the BIG-but-delicate character development Jane’s telenovela over-the-topness has historically made space for.
In a move that almost makes me think that Jane, too, knew it’d been off the rails for awhile, for much of “Chapter Ninety,” this return to form is extremely literal. As in, from Alba (Ivonne Coll) and Jorge’s (Alfonso DiLuca) hormone-propelled romance, to Petra (Yael Grobglas) and JR’s (Rosario Dawson) parenting-adjacent relationship processing, to the soapy deepening of Jane and Rogelio’s father-daughter relationship, some of the series’ most recognizable emotional themes/visual storytelling elements (the abstinence flower! the animated wedding night sex sequence! the stoop-sitting heart-to-heart!) stage a triumphantly unsubtle return, while at the same time, Jane’s pilot script deep-dive leading to a “discovery” of the five-step formula for telenovela success—a formula our Latin Lover Narrator promptly puts into use to frame the remainder of the episode—gives us all the cheeky form we could possibly want.
But although bringing back familiar narrative beats and playing around with form are both signature Jane the Virgin moves, “Chapter Ninety” takes a page out of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s book. That is, rather than using the familiarity of these elements in the reiterative, play it, Sam way Jane normally does, giving characters who have been through it all before a chance to realize how much they’ve grown and changed since the last time they found themselves in whatever storyline/facing whatever antagonists (see, she said grumblingly, the return of the dang Love Triangle), “Chapter Ninety” goes the iterative route, taking the elements we’re all familiar with and applying them to different characters, in different scenarios, with the end goal of cracking open new avenues of storytelling by building on old ones already well-established.
To put it more simply: Jane and Michael walked from guilt-inducing abstinence flower to saucily animated wedding night so that Alba and Jorge could run.
That much simplifying risks becoming reductive (thanks, JR, for putting the fear of your judgment in me), but in racing Alba and Jorge through the first three seasons of Jane and Michael’s sexual frustrations—and in driving Petra and JR into the kind of deep relationship/parenting talk territory it took Jane and Rafael multiple seasons (and Jane and Tyler Posey’s Adam half a season) to get into, and in speeding through Jane’s falling out with Rogelio in a fraction of the time it took similar fallings out with her mom and grandma to resolve—all in the course of a single hour, “Chapter Ninety” almost aims to be reductive. Or, not reductive, but acute: Because Jane the Virgin already spent all that time slow-walking investigations of how those arcs might evolve, now we can skip right to the good stuff. The point of Alba wanting to run (well, speed walk) down the aisle is not really because she’s so hilariously hot for Jorge, she can’t wait the three months it would take the church to be ready for a full mass—it’s to make the point that life is long and surprising and full of gifts, and it’s worth seizing every moment of happiness, as soon as you possibly can. The point of Petra and JR racing from JR’s “maybe I can try to hang out with the girls some” to “alone time building sundaes in the Marbella lobby” to “I can’t believe Other Jane tattled that I yelled at your girls, who btw are Too Entitled™” to “let’s untangle the rawest parts of the shitty childhoods we had in common and how differently they shaped us as adults” to “I maybe got a law-adjacent job… in Houston” isn’t for the show to be able to find a way to write JR off in the same way it did Adam—it’s to heighten the stakes in Petra’s endgame arc in a visceral, complicated way. The point of speeding Jane and Rogelio from giddily victorious This is Mars pitch collaborators to teammates in Operation: Convince River (Brooke Shields) to Sign On to Jane losing all faith in her ability to write when she finds out Rogelio made a deal with her publisher to buy back her book copies if they didn’t sell isn’t to hamfistedly illustrate the five-step telenovela formula anyone who’s been watching Jane the Virgin for any length of time will immediately recognize—it’s to give Jane (and us in the audience) a chance to celebrate Rogelio’s messy, mistake-prone, always-loving dad-ness in the way we regularly get to celebrate Xo and Alba’s messy, loving mom-ness.
On that note, if there is anyone who this otherwise sharp episode didn’t serve, it’s Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), who’s only managed to claw her way into being more than just a family cheerleader this season in her and Rogelio’s sex + masturbation subplot a few episodes back. But although “Chapter Ninety” clearly wanted to give Xo back some of the agency over her own narrative that she’s lost since starting chemo, the effectiveness of her scheme to plan a blowout wedding for her mom and Jorge hinged on her contributions being so peripheral to the emotional drama at the heart of their romantic journey as to be all but invisible. Storywise, this worked! Her flower-driven meltdown in the face of Jane and Alba’s come-what-may chillness was an effective shock to wedding joy system. In terms of giving Xiomara something to do beyond A) convalesce or B) support her family’s melodramas, however, it was less successful.
Although his stories with both Jane and Luisa (Yara Martinez) have had more productive play this season than Xo’s across the board, Rafael, too, is still suffering a bum case of Fringe Role-itis. Last week I celebrated the promotion of Petra to one of the series’ obvious central heroes, and I stand by that, but her elevation seems lately to have meant Rafael’s sidelining. He has had major, major things happen to him, and we almost never get to see him deal with them outside of the bounds of his direct interactions with Jane or Petra—or, this week, Luisa. And though his head is a place we’ve never been as deeply settled in as we have Jane’s, being so entirely outside it, for so much of this season, has been both disorienting and dissatisfying.
That said, the season isn’t even half over! We’ve got time yet to get back into Rafael’s head space, and with Sin Rostro’s minion taking such a suspicious interest in his home and children, there’s hope that big, Rafael-centric things are still to come.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.