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‘Jane the Virgin’ Finds the Comedy in Tragedy, and Vice Versa

Spoiler alert: Do not read this unless you have seen “Chapter Seventy-Eight,” the March 23 episode of the CW’s “Jane the Virgin.”

As I watched the opening scenes of this week’s “Jane the Virgin,” a few questions percolated in my mind.

On a day on which I felt extremely nerve-wracked about the state of the world (again), was it a good idea to watch this particular installment of the show? Last week’s closing image had the central characters dropping to their knees after Xiomara’s cancer diagnosis was revealed. That scene was enough to almost destroy me. Would tonight’s episode finish the job?

Well, yes, it did. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In those opening scenes, “Jane the Virgin” did its usual thing — it mixed comedy, serious interludes, and soapy elements as it depicted everyone’s ongoing challenges and emotional dilemmas. But everything felt a little bit off. Was it right, I wondered, for the show to be mixing in a healthy dollop of silliness — Petra’s embarrassing crush, Rafael’s mistaken idea about Petra’s obsession, the spa follies, the chicken-breast joke — into what promised to be a very serious episode?

Yes, it was, I realized, as I reflected on how something hilarious or weird always happens on terrible days. At the most difficult moments, when you just don’t think you can get it together but you have to, it’s not unusual for someone to make a joke or cut the tension with sarcasm or flop out of a mud tub in a weird way. And so you laugh. Life is just a messy, unpredictable mixture of good, bad, impossible, and unusual, and “Jane the Virgin” reflects that reality, while being constructed and presented in the most detail-oriented way possible.

The show is not sloppy, but it explores the untidiness of real life incredibly well. The script by Valentina Garza and Micah Schraft (and overseen by showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman) did a fine job of allowing the characters to feel off-balance while honoring the importance and gravity of their lives at that moment.

In the end, it all worked — thanks in part to director Justin Baldoni (a.k.a. Rafael), who neatly balanced the physical comedy, the heavier scenes in doctor’s offices, the struggles each person experienced, and the sucker-punch scene near the end. I’m not ready to talk about that yet. Please bear with me at this difficult time. (Check out Variety’s interview with Baldoni on directing this installment of “JTV.”)

Jane The Virgin -- "Chapter Seventy-Eight" -- Image Number: JAV414a_0274.jpg -- Pictured (L-R): Jaime Camil as Rogelio, Justin Baldoni as Rafael and Ivonne Coll as Alba -- Photo: Michael Desmond/The CW -- © 2018 The CW Network. All Rights Reserved.

What tied the whole episode together was the very idea of everything feeling off-balance.

Jane, frazzled and in full-on Family Crisis mode, was both amusing and desperate as she tried to comfort her mother, explain theology to her son and then slither out of a mud bath. A spa day wasn’t a normal thing for the Villanueva women, so even the setting was a little strange (as were the many breasts floating around, a grace note that was funny without being prurient).

Jane and Xo weren’t the only people feeling as though things were spinning out of control. Petra, normally the most composed person in any situation, was way, way off. Ever since she and Jane Ramos had sex, Petra has struggled with her feelings for her, and she has felt goofy and awkward every time she’s around J.R. It was weird (and not great, frankly) that she stalked J.R. on her date. But Petra feeling out of control made sense in an episode that had everyone showing new sides of themselves as they tried to adjust to a new normal that felt wrong. For Petra, her romantic aspirations came as a surprise, and that sense of fizzy spontaneity and potential balanced out all the unexpected and difficult developments the characters were grappling with. 

Jane The Virgin -- "Chapter Seventy-Eight" -- Image Number: JAV414b_0082.jpg -- Pictured: Yael Grobglas as Petra -- Photo: Greg Gayne/The CW -- © 2018 The CW Network. All Rights Reserved.

Alba, who’s usually quite resilient and unflappable, was calm with her daughter but so upset that she yelled at a store clerk. Mateo, who’s already lost Michael, tried to figure out how God and prayer fit into his wish to make everything OK. But the oddest part of the show was the one that was purposely quiet: Rogelio was muted and restrained.

He wasn’t angry about Alba’s outburst. He supported Xo at the doctor’s office and when she discussed her treatment options, he was there for her. He didn’t overdo it on any front. Who was this man, and what did he do with the real Rogelio de la Vega?

In all seriousness, Jaime Camil’s performance was a masterpiece in this episode. At no point did I get the impression that Rogelio was holding back some inner desire to be dramatic; he was not suppressing an instinctive tendency to make Xo’s illness about him. Over the show’s four seasons, he’s grown, and his ability to listen to the people around him, and temper his behavior in response to their feedback, is one of the things that makes him so lovable. Far from being a stereotype of a Latin lover, which is what he could have been, especially in the early days, he’s actually quite the model of woke manhood. He enjoys spa days as much as anyone, he’s a good listener (well, sometimes), and his ability to be his own distinct person is not threatened by the needs or priorities of the many complex women around him. (Insert infinite lavender heart emojis.)

Such a change in the character could have come across as abrupt in the hands of a lesser actor. But the writing for the show, especially this season, efficiently and entertainingly got us to this point, and the work of Andrea Navedo (Xiomara) and Camil has been exemplary. Ro has learned how to tone down his exuberance and self-absorption when he needs to, and Xo has learned to lean on him instead of trying to be the tough, self-reliant single mom who’s only truly close with her daughter. Marriage has been work for them, and all that effort — to find the right balance of supportiveness and independence — was on display in this episode.

OK, now to the sob-worthy stuff. I realized that there were so many lighter or comedic elements in the first two thirds of the episode, because the last couple acts contained scenes that were just …. wow. Even for “Jane the Virgin.”

We’re used to Gina Rodriguez being a perfect unicorn who can transition not just within a scene but within a sentence between comedy and tragedy, and she had opportunities to display that genius versatility in “Chapter Seventy-Eight.” Her taking refuge in her research and color-coded binders made me feel seen (let a worried gal have her tabs, bookmarks, and manila folders, thank you). And yet you always knew that under her manic activity and supportive energy was the kind of terror that is hard to articulate, because it’s too large and frightening.

Everything felt off — again, intentionally so — because the world changed for everyone, and their lives would never be the same. Even if she beats it, Xo will always be the person who was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. “Jane the Virgin,” a show about finding your place in the world, knows that changes in our identities aren’t something we get to control. Sometimes we just have to react, and hope the people around us not only have our backs, but grow and change with us. Jane lost her husband, and right when she reconnected with Raf in a real way, her mother got cancer. She processes it all through words and stories. Someday, I may be able to relate to this show, just a little bit. 

Jane The Virgin -- "Chapter Seventy-Eight" -- Image Number: JAV414a_0083.jpg -- Pictured (L-R): Ivonne Coll as Alba and Gina Rodriguez as Jane -- Photo: Michael Desmond/The CW -- © 2018 The CW Network. All Rights Reserved.

The inventive and compassionate execution of these kinds of themes allowed “The Leftovers” to destroy me on a weekly basis for the last three years. “Jane the Virgin” has managed this impressive feat too, for 78 installments, on a CW budget. We don’t deserve this show. It started out fantastic, and it’s gotten progressively better. That’s in large part because as the lives of its characters have gotten harder, more complicated, more joyous and interconnected and difficult and spontaneously lovely, opportunities for sucker punches (the good kind) have proliferated.

Two of the things you learn during an awful crisis like a cancer diagnosis: Who is there for you and who you are. Xo didn’t know how attached to her breasts she was — you know what I mean — but it turned out, they were a huge part of her identity. Her diagnosis brought that home to her. They mattered to her appearance, to her sense of who she was, to her feelings about her attractiveness, and to her sexuality. And that’s not even the full list of feelings she had about these objects, which our culture is fascinated with and yet we talk so little about.

So the scene in which Xo laid all that out for Rogelio was incredible, for any number of reasons. Navedo gave you the sense that Xo was discovering these feelings as she spoke about them, though, of course, the actress no doubt worked on that speech for days, if not weeks. And yet there was no sense of her monologue being studied or over-rehearsed. She was in the moment, and every word was vibrantly alive and transmitted a huge array of emotions: Nervousness, fear, uncertainty, love, terror and connection. That scene was the most difficult and cathartic moment of the episode, and Navedo nailed every single aspect of it. She was flawless.

In an ensemble in which other characters are often larger than life, and frequently get a bigger slice of the storytelling, Xo is often in the background, but given the chance to take center stage, Navedo crushed that scene. And my heart. Reader, I sobbed. I might still be a little teary.

Sometimes, when you’re in a bad spot but holding it together, someone being nice to you is what sends you over the edge. And that’s how I felt when Rogelio said all the things that Xo needed to hear, in just the right order. They worked it out, and this horrible experience drew them closer together, and that was the beauty mixed with the pain. They celebrated this complicated moment partly with a breast party, which remained offscreen, because this is not HBO, and also something are too private for even the Narrator to know about, which is as it should be. (I felt for the Narrator in this episode; I’d bet most of us viewers were trying not to spin out or lose it, and he was right there with us.)

It’s complex, ambitious, emotionally grounded writing like this that puts “Jane the Virgin” in the conversation about the best shows on TV, along with “The Leftovers” (RIP). It’s also up there with its spiritual siblings, “Atlanta,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “One Day at a Time” and “The Good Place,” because all these shows understand that every day is both a tragedy and a gift, and there’s no way of separating those things. That which doesn’t kill us sometimes makes us laugh, occasionally makes us stronger and often gives us cause to be grateful for the good things in our lives.

I give endless thanks for this show. And now I’m off to buy a case of Vicks VapoRub.

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