“It doesn’t feel like great material when you’re living it. It feels HORRIBLE.” — Jane to her mentor in “Chapter Eighty-Six”
The thing about clichés is, they don’t come from nowhere. Clichés are clichés—tired, obvious, overplayed—because they contain some nut of reality; they nod to some shared experience that, tired or not, lots of people have, lots of the time.
This is to say: My 30th birthday was also comically dismal. I mean, I didn’t have to deal with the nightmare of my dead husband suddenly showing up, alive and amnesiac, at my door after my son’s father/my almost-fiancé took it upon himself to go find him. Nor did I have to deal with that amnesia lifting and my old feelings rekindling into just enough confusion that, to protect his own heart, my almost-fiancé kicked me out of our house and accidentally turned my son against me. Nor did I have to deal with the psychic shock of, half-blind from grief, walking in on my abuela’s naked green card husband. (Mine was more “microwave-defrosted week-old chicken and someone else’s leftover cake.”) Still: Je suis (un peu) Jane. Thirtieth birthdays, brimming as they are with all our hopes and fears about truly growing up, are a big can of emotional worms. Yes, it’s a cliché. But it’s true.
Yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s true might as well be Jane the Virgin’s call sign. Never once has showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman met a cliché that she couldn’t tame, find the truth in, and turn into a stealth storytelling weapon. This is why we love Rogelio (Jaime Camil) and all his frequently selfish diva antics. This is why we love the frenemies-turned-sisters arc between Petra (Yael Grobglas) and Jane (Gina Rodriguez). This is why we love—or at least appreciate—the lopsided romances at the hearts of longtime widow Alba’s (Ivonne Coll) fake green card marriage to Jorge (Alfonso DiLuca), and Petra’s rekindled romance with shy-to-trust JR (Rosario Dawson). It’s why we buy Jane running away from her own unicorn birthday party, and why we buy that her hasty escape ends with her weeping in a ditch, clutching the cocktail napkins and stray scraps of paper she’d spent all episode writing her not-very-detached “detached narrator” thoughts on, embraced on all sides by her mom, her grandma, and Petra.
It’s also, of course, why we buy the return of the Jane the Virgin Love Triangle. We can hate it (god, I hate it), but the eternally gutting romantic geometry lashing Jane, Michael (Brett Dier) and Rafael (Justin Baldoni) together is as grounded in reality as clichés come—and if the misery of “Chapter Eighty-Six” (god, it was miserable) was good for anything, it was for proving that very fact. Jane is still in love with Rafael and their future together; Rafael is still in love with Jane. Jane is still in love with Michael and the past they shared; Michael is still in love with Jane. Jane and Raf coming together in his presumed-dead absence is not unfair to Michael; Jane’s feelings for Michael rekindling at his reappearance is not unfair to Rafael. Michael’s hope that Jane might still come back to him is not unreasonable; neither is Rafael’s self-protective fear that she’ll do the same. Jane needing to take time to sort her feelings out? More reasonable still. Michael’s death having been faked is a flash of unreality, but everything that has sprung out of it to reform the elastic triangle binding the three of them is utterly real.
Which is why the Jane the Virgin Love Triangle is so infuriating: It’s just gutting. There is no winning. And not only does “Chapter Eighty-Six” takes pains to remind us of that fact, cutting from wrecked lover’s face to wrecked lover’s face throughout. It takes just as many pains to remind us of the fact that in much of the rest of life there’s no winning, either. Alba’s happy ending with Jorge? Unlikely. Xiomara’s (Andrea Navedo) full recovery from cancer? Don’t celebrate it yet. JR ever fully trusting Petra? Try again. Sure, Rogelio’s egregious co-parenting mistake—pulling the strings needed to get Esteban (Keller Wortham) a lead role on a Mexican telenovela in order to give himself more time to bond with Baby, a move which results in Esteban breaking Darci’s (Justina Machado) heart—is solved by the end of the hour, but as Darci notes when the two men promise that Rogelio will never be such a thoughtless doofus again, “He will, and I’m stuck with him.” Life, at least so far as it is realistically reflected by Jane the Virgin, will keep being a doofus. And we’re stuck with it.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.