Ben Rosenstock: The path forward for ʻJane the Virgin’

Sunday, February 12, 2017 - 5:33pm

Character deaths on TV rarely get to me. Even on my favorite shows, the most heartbreaking deaths usually make me sad for a moment — and then, when the episode is over, I move on and think about something else. A lot of the time, too, killing off a particular character makes so much sense for the story that my appreciation of its narrative efficiency far offsets my emotional reaction to it. But man, when Jane Villanueva’s husband died on the last episode of “Jane the Virgin,” I was a wreck. I was so in shock that I didn’t actually cry; I know that the real tears will come in the next few episodes, when I’ve accepted that Michael Cordero is dead, and that he’s not coming back. As the final five minutes of the episode passed, I sat in bed with my hands pressed tightly over my cheeks, thinking: "No, this isn’t real. This is a fantasy. Jane’s about to wake up and Michael will be lying next to her and it will all be OK." But then Jane picked up the phone and I heard the word “died,” and then the show skipped three years into the future, and I knew it was real.

This is the kind of character death that hit me hard enough to briefly disable my critical faculties. I didn’t know if this was good for the show or not, and I didn’t really care. I was just sad. I felt that core sadness that you feel when anything bad happens: a breakup or a death in the family or any kind of random tragedy; I wish this thing didn’t happen.

After a while, I was able to think about it logically. The third season of “Jane the Virgin” has been a little unexciting. It’s not necessarily a step down in quality, but I’ve gotten used to the elements that previously seemed so novel when the show first premiered. It’s a reliably entertaining show, but no longer a truly thrilling, surprising one.

But there were ways to deal with that stagnation without killing off Michael. Part of me wishes the three-year time jump happened without Michael’s death — we could skip forward to a point when Michael was done with law school, when Rafael was out of jail, and we’d still have the mystery of the wedding to look forward to. For me, Jane’s marriage to Michael wasn’t a factor in the staleness of the third season.

In fact, back when Michael got shot in the second season finale, I had a long time to think about the possibility of him dying, and I ultimately decided it was better for the show to keep him alive. To kill off the love of Jane’s life, especially on the day of their wedding, right before Jane was going to lose her “virgin” moniker, seemed excessively cruel. It would shroud the series in darkness, and honestly, I don’t watch “Jane the Virgin” for its tragic twists and misery porn. I watch it to feel happy and hopeful.

Besides, in a TV world populated with decaying marriages, marriages fraught with infidelity, lies, manipulation and miscommunication, Jane and Michael were a shining light. They were a couple who occasionally fought, but who always worked through their disagreements by speaking openly and honestly to each other, learning from their past mistakes and striving to become better people. There aren’t a lot of couples like that on TV. Sure, maybe it’s “unrealistic” to have a husband as perfect as Michael, someone who’s so endlessly accommodating and understanding, but is there anything wrong with indulging in fantasies once in a while (especially in a telenovela)? Isn’t it OK to depict the gold standard of a healthy relationship, to give us all something to strive for in our own?

The third season of “Jane the Virgin,” while it might’ve betrayed the show’s first signs of age, should be commended for keeping the Jane-Michael relationship fresh, interesting and swoon-worthy. Part of me still believes the greatest sign of the show’s strength would be to marry off its main character in the second season and keep the couple together for the entirety of the show — five, or six, or seven seasons — while staying unpredictable and interesting. If anyone could do it, it’d be the writers of “Jane the Virgin.”

And yet, after having some time to mull it over, to move past my initial soul-crushing sadness and think about what the show will be going forward, I’m optimistic. It might’ve been bold to keep Jane and Michael together forever, but what the show chose to do instead is undeniably gutsy. Rather than settling for a simple happy ending (which, of course, has its time and place, and this show seems like a worthy candidate), “Jane the Virgin” is going to become a series about moving on from tragedy, about how happy endings can still be possible in the wake of unimaginable grief.

The next few episodes of the show will really be a test. Maybe it’ll become clear the show is running on fumes, that this move was a gimmicky stab at retaining interest by killing off a main character and teasing a wedding with a dramatic time jump. Or maybe the show will prove that it’s a more thoughtful show than most people ever gave it credit for, that it can keep its joyful, optimistic tone intact despite the unspeakable loss the main character has experienced. Knowing “Jane the Virgin,” I think I know which one it’s going to be.