Brow Beat

There’s No Jane the Virgin Character I’ll Miss More Than Cold, Conniving Petra

Yael Grobglas striking an authoritative pose in this still from Jane the Virgin.
Yael Grobglas in Jane the Virgin. Kevin Estrada/The CW

When Jane the Virgin wraps up its five-season run on Wednesday night, television will lose one of its most innovative shows. Peppy, bright, and unafraid to spell out the subtext of every scene with infectious enthusiasm via its narrator (Anthony Mendez), the CW’s meta-telenovela proved over and over again that there’s plenty of intelligent writing, formidable acting, and boundary-pushing experimentation to be had outside the conventions of moody, masculinist prestige TV. The series’ signature accomplishment—which it pulled off in just about every one of its 100 installments—was to weld soap-opera tropes like evil twins and hostage situations to complex, recognizable emotions. Jane the Virgin started with 23-year-old Jane’s (Gina Rodriguez) accidental artificial insemination with her boss’ boss’ boss’ sperm. But it’s really about how Jane managed, after that curveball on the cusp of adulthood, to embrace motherhood, pursue a writing career, find two wonderful partners, reconnect with a father she had never met, and of course, help bring down the international crime lord who kidnapped her child and gave her husband amnesia.

Over the last half-decade, Jane the Virgin’s guiding emotional wisdom has led its core characters to blossom and mature. In fact, much of the final season saw Jane torn between her returned-from-the-dead husband, Michael (Brett Dier), and the father of her child, Rafael (Justin Baldoni), with the writers using that resurrected love triangle to illustrate just how much those characters have changed. But no character has grown as much as Petra (Yael Grobglas), and no character will be harder to say goodbye to. The much-needed sourball who kept the proceedings from turning sickly sweet, Petra began the series as Rafael’s wife and thus Jane’s foil. Now, she ends it as the show’s most complicated character, as well as its most convincing argument that, no matter what absurdities or inequities life throws their way, a person does not have to be defined by their trauma.

Among its other accomplishments, Jane the Virgin has been remarkable as a transcontinental, multigenerational saga of the Villanueva family. (The show’s debt to Isabel Allende, among other influences, is acknowledged by Jane’s love for the Chilean novelist.) The Latinx focus is notable on its own, especially when it comes to the series’ treatment of social issues like immigration. But the Villanuevas’ warmth and empathy—not to mention their gradual and confident embodiment of the American dream—serve as a contrast to another matriarchy: that of Petra, her mother Magda (Priscilla Barnes), and, eventually, Petra’s twin girls Anna and Ellie (Mia and Ella Allan). At the show’s debut, Petra was a cold, model-esque blonde, the kind of wealthy, untouchable sophisticate Jane could never be, and the kind of conniving, ruthless schemer Jane would never want to be. In Season 1, for example, Petra threatened to falsely accuse Rafael of domestic abuse and to take custody of Jane’s baby.

But it was always easy to understand, if not sympathize with, Petra. If Miami native Jane represents the kind of culturally hybridized rootedness that takes place a generation or two after immigration, Petra, who was born Natalia and fled the Czech Republic after an acid attack by her jealous ex Miloš (Max Bird-Ridnell), embodies the chronic distrust of stability that such a life engenders: Anything can be taken from her at any time. Petra’s fears weren’t irrational, either. Rafael dumped her, her mother manipulated her, and her only asset, the Marbella hotel, constantly shifted ownership during the show’s run. Hardly any of her past remains after her move to the U.S.—not her identity as a violinist, not her relationship with her mother, not even her name. Petra did a lot of awful things, but her terror that she’d lose everything she’d transformed herself to get was comprehensible, as was her willingness to do anything to cling to all she’d gained. And with her family and ex constantly seeking to control her, it makes sense that Petra would constantly be on her guard lest she be taken advantage of again.

All of this made Petra a frequently terrible person, particularly in the early years when she was so desperate to stay with Rafael that she inseminated herself with his only remaining semen sample without his approval. (Rafael’s cancer treatment rendered the rest of his sperm unusable.) Since making peace with her divorce, though, Petra has been fascinating for her journey toward betterment and independence despite her self-protective, sometimes just self-centered, instincts. She’s still impatient, imperious, and sharply unsentimental, but she’s also unlearned her mother’s lesson that fortune and luck are zero-sum games despite living through the worst of circumstances. (She spent much of the third season forcibly paralyzed and made to watch as her evil twin, Anezka, took over her life.) Not coincidentally, this path away from her past, when she was directed by her mother to seduce certain men, has led to newfound relationships with other women: her precocious daughters, her assistant Krishna (Shelly Bhalla), her on-again, off-again girlfriend J.R. (Rosario Dawson), and most of all, Jane. The show has always given Diane Guerrero’s Lina the title of Jane’s best friend, but it’s Petra who has clearly become our protagonist’s ride or die.

In the uneven final season, as Jane kept ping-ponging between love interests, Petra deepened even further by making peace with her abusive mom’s possible death and realizing, for better or worse, how much her own childhood influences her strict parenting style. And as befits a woman who was taught to marry rich, Petra became a businesswoman herself. Or, as she tells her ex-husband Rafael, “The Marbella satisfies me in a way no lover ever could.” Grobglas delivers that line with a wolfish satisfaction, and it’s as good an example as any of the snideness and searching that she’s brought to Petra since the premiere. (The show also recognized the actress’ versatility by having her play the two-faced Anezka in multiple seasons.)

Unlike her co-star Rodriguez, Grobglas usually plays Petra at a more affected pitch, appropriate for a larger-than-life character who finds it easier to eschew her hurt and disappointment, and thus appear superhuman, than to sit with her very real feelings. But Petra knows that growth is a process—or as she tells Jane: “I’m a more selfish person than you, so sometimes I forget to think about other people, but I’m working on it, OK?” As Jane the Virgin comes to a close, I’m sad we won’t see any more of her voyage. Goody two-shoes Jane will get the happy ending she was always destined to have. She deserves it—but I’m more in awe of the happy ending Petra has been clawing for since the very beginning.