One of the things I love about Jane the Virgin is that for all the ratatat plot it crams in week to week, the many wild ideas holding each episode together can always be boiled down to a single idea that’s so simple, it could pass as the moral to a children’s story.
This week’s moral? Use your grown-up words.
If you haven’t been watching the series for the past five years, the fact that the entirety of “Chapter Eighty-Four” can be summed up by this one short phrase might seem miraculous. Over the course of a single hour, after all, Jane (Gina Rodriguez) is sent chasing down divorce papers on a fishing boat, Rafael (Justin Baldoni) is sent chasing down emotional security in the face of a scheming Jason (Brett Dier), Jane and Rafael are sent chasing down ways to calm Mateo (Elias Janssen) after he sees the ghost of Michael Past, Jason is sent chasing down inner peace (and eventually more) in his final break from Jane, Petra (Yael Grobglas) and Jane are sent chasing down sisterhood in the face of three screaming Solano kids, Rogelio (Jaime Camil) is sent chasing down forgiveness from River Fields (Brooke Shields) after accidentally sending her to the hospital for the third time, and River is sent chasing down her greatest professional accomplishment yet as she films a whole day of The Passions of Steve and Brenda with a half-paralyzed face and single-handedly “solves” race-based pay disparity. That’s so much! And yet, the characters taking the time to sit down, talk, and not be immature children about their differences turns out to be the solution to the Gordian emotional knot at the heart of each story.
It would be an exercise in silliness to try and run down the specific ways in which this lesson plays out for each individual character in each individual plot line. (Just watch the show!) That said, the dramatic release we get from two of this week’s stories as a result of grown-up conversation is so indicative of Jane the Virgin’s signature strengths that it would be a crime not to address them. So—and with the utmost respect to Rafael’s “man enough” emotional maturity, Jason’s aggressive-verging-on-abusive date manipulations, and Michael’s (!) SPOILER (!!!)—let’s take a moment with the Petra/Jane and Rogelio/River stories in “Chapter Eighty-Four” and do just that.
One of the Big Ideas Jane has prioritized wrestling with since the pilot is whether people, both as individuals and in relationship to each other, are fixed points—or not. When the project was initially announced, the the Virgin part of the title, seemingly cementing Jane Villanueva’s identity in a specific religious/moral identity, gave plenty of people pause. How could a series that so thoroughly limits its storytelling potential with a title like that ever have legs? Would Jane be the Virgin forever? How could any audience sustain its interest in her story if that were the case?
You watch the show (I hope), so you don’t need me to go into detail about how that turned out: Jane is no longer the Virgin, but now something or someone new every week. You know, like a real person! (As the Latin Lover Narrator notes in the opening to “Chapter Eighty-Four,” Jane the Real Person is not one thing, but many, shaped by a childhood of telenovelas, Catholicism, and sun shining only on her, all which made her who she is today: Bossy, super faithful, and super romantic.) And Jane isn’t alone—aside from Rose/Sin Rostro and Magda, both of whom are cartoonishly evil, there is no character on the show who hasn’t been developed as multi-dimensional and capable of real, human change. Like, for example, Petra, who started the series out staking her territory as Perfect Jane’s perfect nemesis, and who now, half a dozen years into their relationship, is breaking down on Brunch Sunday while holding a talking stick (use your grown-up words) inside an indoor tent as she tells Jane how hurt she was that she put Petra last on the list of people to confide to about Jason’s sudden appearance. Because, obviously, as far as Petra is concerned, Jane is her best and closest friend.
Spoiler alert: Jane thinks of Petra as the sister she never had. Cue the hugs, cue the tears, cue the mutual dishing about relationship turmoil and Jane advising Petra to “accidentally” butt-dial JR (I told you we hadn’t seen the last of her!) as a bid to crack a door back into that relationship. Petra! Jane! What complex, interesting, lovely growth you two have worked through these last many years—and what a relief that talking about that growth, like grown-ups, let you both appreciate it.
While it starts out much sillier than Jane and Petra’s arc, Rogelio and River’s (a.k.a. Rigelio’s) storyline, which starts with Rogelio learning that River is being paid twice as much as he is and responding by ruining the next day’s takes with various outbursts of sustained raspberries and armpit farts (“I wouldn’t DREAM of overreacting! Acting is reacting, after all, so I will react in a professional way!”), ends up showcasing an equally important Jane the Virgin signature: Reasoned and impassioned sociopolitical engagement. In this case, Jane the Virgin works the sociopolitical muscles it’s been developing for four seasons and uses the pay disparity between River (the famous white American woman) and Rogelio (the less famous Latino immigrant) to engage both the current Time’s Up fight for gender pay parity in Hollywood, and the less-discussed but equally critical racial pay disparity that not only exists alongside the gender pay gap, but is exacerbated by the anti-Other sentiments being roiled up in the current cultural and political climate by Trump and all the white nationalists who look up to him.
Political engagement can be such a slippery slope, but in having the two biggest divas on the show be the ones to step back, be introspective, and actually talk to each other about the real, hard stakes they each have in the situation, Jane is able to engage the spikiest parts of the subject is the slyest, most moving, most blatantly anti-Trumpist way they’ve done yet. (“River clearly deserves to be paid what she’s getting,” Rogelio tells Xo between hard conversations with River, “but so do I. It’s my telenovela, my culture, my years of work. This has been my dream, to be famous in America, but with everything that’s going on right now… Why am I so desperate for validation from a country that doesn’t seem to value or accept me?” Cut to: Jane horrified at an article about an article titled, “Trump tells ICE, ‘Deport the Illegals.’ Massive family reunification failure.” Jane!)
This early in the season, the juiciest developments of Jane’s epic telenovela romance are still building, but with all these rich extra-romantic developments, I’m just enjoying the ride.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.