This post contains spoilers for Season 5 of Jane the Virgin.
Jane the Virgin ended on Wednesday, as it tells us telenovelas must do, with a wedding. After five seasons, Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and Rafael (Justin Baldoni) tied the knot in front of their family and friends, a heartfelt ending to a heartfelt show that has followed them from an accidental artificial insemination to co-parenting a son now capable of reading on his own. But there’s a frustrating tangle to this happy union that cheapens it ever so slightly: a storyline earlier in the season that resurrected Jane’s presumed-dead first husband, Michael (Brett Dier).
There are those who might argue that Jane the Virgin is not a show about “real” life—it’s based on a telenovela, after all, and leans heavily into that genre’s flavor and tropes. But though the show dwells in a world that’s more dramatic and a tiny bit more magical than our real one, it has pulled it off by staying grounded in emotional reality and weaving in complex issues of religion, sexuality, abortion, and immigration smartly and with a kindness that’s sorely lacking elsewhere on TV. (One of the show’s favorite devices is contrasting the wackiness of Rogelio’s telenovelas with the complicated, imperfect happenings of the world the Jane the Virgin characters inhabit.) That’s what makes this misstep stand out so much: The way the show portrays love after a major loss lacks its usual emotional realness.
Michael’s return this season seemed, at first, like the show also returning to its roots: Jane spent months torn between Rafael and Michael before finally marrying the latter. Then, Jane the Virgin underwent a three-year time jump after Michael apparently died and left Jane a widow—only to reappear at the end of Season 4 with amnesia, courtesy of perpetual villain Sin Rostro (Bridget Regan). Jane struggled with the idea that Michael was back but that his new personality, “Jason,” was all that was left. Then, thanks to a reappearance of the show’s “magical snow” motif—really, plaster falling from the ceiling—Michael regained his memories and connected, again, to a wary Jane.
That’s when it became clear to viewers: The newly returned Michael—the man she had been happily married to—wasn’t a serious option anymore. Instead, his return was simply a way for the writers to allow Jane to officially “choose” Rafael this time, not once but twice: first over Jason, then over the real Michael. That decision is driven even further home when Michael reappears toward the end of the show, engaged to a character we’ve met exactly once before, with a baby on the way, and musing about how they all ended up where they are “supposed” to be.
This storyline operates on the assumption—or at least, caters to viewers who hold it—that Rafael and Jane’s love after Michael’s death would never be “true” because he was her second choice. That does such a disservice to the very concept of love after grief and loss. Opening one’s heart after grief or entering a relationship with someone who has that past trauma is a challenging and complicated experience, not one to be down-rated just because it wouldn’t have happened if the previous partner were still alive. The Michael Returns plot reads like Rafael’s wish-fulfillment fantasy: that he can have the satisfaction of Jane formally choosing him this time over her late husband. In real life, a man who’s marrying a young widow doesn’t have that luxury and would need to accept that he is simply a different chapter of her life, not part of a competition.
We’ve seen this kind of relationship done justice before—on Jane the Virgin itself, in fact. Jane’s grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) has slowly learned to open her heart again after being a widow for years, and in this final season, she’s fully embraced her marriage with new love Jorge without any suggestion that it lessens her love for her late husband or is lessened by her having loved before. With this kind of role model right in front of the audience, Jane didn’t need to reject Michael to be with Rafael. It’s hard to see logic in a storyline that insists Alba and Jorge’s relationship can be a happy ending, but Rafael and Jane’s can’t unless she rejects her first husband.
It’s not about whom Jane ends up with. The show has always done a remarkable job of showing the strengths and flaws of all three members of its central love triangle, and as recently as Season 4, I marveled at how beautifully the writing seemed to understand that Jane and Rafael’s rekindled romance was no less beautiful or romantic than Jane and Michael’s past love had been. How rare to show that whole, painful process of Jane opening up and finding love again, without discrediting anyone involved. Bringing Michael back just to prove that Jane has moved on, then, felt not only redundant—we’d already seen that she’d moved on—but a little insulting. Insulting to Rafael, who was forced back into the jealous-guy mold he’d long left behind. Insulting to Jane, whose life suddenly had to revolve around choosing a guy when she’d long since left those days behind her. And insulting to Michael, a character who deserved better than to be a plot device for his wife and her new love in his final appearances. Don’t get me wrong: Jane the Virgin still leaves behind a legacy to be proud of. I just wish it hadn’t stumbled over this hurdle when the finish line was so near in sight.