Photo: The CW

I hope everyone has tissues handy for tonight’s Jane The Virgin. Or an absorbent shirt that won’t irritate your eyes when you wipe tears away. I thought I was emotionally prepared for Xiomara’s breast cancer storyline, but “Chapter Seventy-Eight” had me straight-up sobbing at multiple points. I didn’t even cry this much when Michael died, but that’s because his death was foreshadowed so heavily that I expected it to come sooner or later. Xo’s cancer diagnosis came out of nowhere, and it’s taken the show in a heartbreaking direction as everyone worries about the future for a beloved member of the Villanueva family.

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Now that Xo knows she has stage-3 invasive lobular carcinoma in her breast, it’s time to consider steps for treatment, and this episode is all about Xo figuring out what is best for her while her family tries to offer support. This is a big storyline for Andrea Navedo, and this episode is a high point in her time on the series, showcasing the richness and depth of her characterization for Jane’s fierce, fearless mother. Those are the main qualities I associate with Xo, and even though she’s had moments of vulnerability, I’ve always viewed her as a pillar of strength for her daughter, who has had to lean on her many, many times in this series. Xo’s diagnosis strips her of this power, and Navedo does exceptional work capturing the mix of fear, uncertainty, and detachment that has overtaken her character.

Valentina Garza and Micah Schraft’s script doesn’t shy away from the devastating rush of feelings that overtake someone after a cancer diagnosis, and there are a lot of layers to Xo’s current emotional state. She’s being asked to make huge decisions about surgery when she hasn’t even been able to fully process what is happening to her, and that detachment is one of the most interesting aspects of this episode and Navedo’s performance. You can sense Xo’s difficulty accepting her diagnosis, and she makes this explicit in her conversation with Rafael, the only person in the cast who fully understands what she’s going through. Rafael’s past experience with cancer doesn’t come up very often on the series, to the point where Xo completely forgot that he’s gone through his own struggle, but they have an important bonding moment that helps Xo gain clarity about how to proceed.

Photo: The CW

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Much of Xo’s confidence has come from her body, and she’s completely shaken when she’s faced with the possibility of losing both her breasts. The biggest tearjerker moments focus on this dilemma, starting with a montage that has Xo going through her closet and remembering how each outfit represents memories of the past. Appreciation and pain go hand-in-hand in this scene, and Navedo shows how much joy these clothes have brought Xo and how distraught she is that she might be losing this aspect of her identity.

Clothing might seem like a superficial thing to be concerned about in this situation, but it represents something much bigger. Xo makes this clear when she has a big talk with Rogelio about how surgery might change their physical relationship, and Xo’s frankness about her anxiety wrecked me in this scene. Not because it’s sad, but because Navedo and Jaime Camil bring so much honest emotion to the conversation. Xo decides that she’s going to have a single mastectomy because she loves her boobs and wants to keep the healthy one, and once she makes this decision, her confidence returns and she regains the strength that is at the core of her character.

Everybody reacts to Xo’s diagnosis in different ways. Jane researches like mad and builds up a hefty binder full of options, and she thinks that a double mastectomy is the best decision to guarantee that the cancer doesn’t return. She’s processing her feelings through her writing, and her relationship with her mom is the thing that breaks through her writer’s block and gives her new confidence in her work. Mateo has turned to prayer to save his abuela, and it creates an interesting conflict for Rafael, who isn’t religious, but doesn’t want to rip away the hope that prayer gives his son.

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Photo: The CW

This is a great episode for Justin Baldoni, who also makes his Jane The Virgin directing debut this week, and he brings a lot of tenderness to his performance. There’s an obvious internal conflict when Rafael hears his son talk about prayer, and he has a major moment of discovery when he explains that prayer doesn’t fix problems, but gives people the strength to push through hard times. I love that the show is continuing to explore the value of prayer, which doesn’t necessarily have to be an overtly religious act. Rafael doesn’t believe in God, but he’s realizing the value of faith and how it can bring people together when they need to be there for each other.

Rogelio delays the production of The Passions Of Steve pilot so that he can be there for his wife, even though Xo insists that he continue working on the series, but Alba doesn’t know that. We didn’t see much of Alba last week when the family was waiting to hear Xo’s biopsy results, but she plays a much bigger part now that she has confirmation her only child has a life-threatening disease. Alba’s initial reaction was to pray, but after seeing how distraught she is, Rogelio suggests that she talk to someone other than God to put her mind at ease. He wants her to see a therapist so she can process her emotions with a trained expert that doesn’t have a personal connection to the situation, but he makes a huge mistake by inviting a therapist to ambush Alba during lunch, which only makes things much worse.

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Photo: The CW

The opening flashback shows moments of sickness in Xo’s childhood, when Alba would soothe her with vivaporu, a magical ointment that would remedy most ailments (it’s actually just Vicks VapoRub). The vivaporu can’t help a pregnant Xo with her morning sickness, and the final scene in the flashback is a turning point for Xo’s relationship with her mother. That opening flashback ties into the episode in multiple ways. It shows Xo’s history with illness and establishes the vivaporu as a remedy that connects generations, which comes into play for the touching scene on the Villanueva porch swing when mother, daughter, and granddaughter all apply the ointment for some temporary relief in a trying time.

But that final moment of Xo throwing up also informs a lot of the Alba and Rogelio storyline. Alba lashes out at her son-in-law because he answered a phone call from his agent at the medical supplies store, and when she calls him out for always thinking of himself first, she’s not just talking about Xo’s current situation. She’s calling Rogelio out for abandoning Xo when she was pregnant, and while none of that is explicit, that longstanding resentment is a huge part of Ivonne Coll’s performance.

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The intensity of the Xo storyline is balanced by the zaniness of Petra’s attempts to admit her feelings to JR, which begins with Rafael overhearing his ex-wife rehearsing her proclamation of affection in front of a mirror. Petra refers to her as Jane instead of JR and brings up the bad timing with everything happening with her mother, so Rafael assumes that she’s talking about his girlfriend, which makes things really awkward when Petra shows up at the Villanueva house to offer her condolences and deliver a pot of borscht. Jane has no time for this silliness, and when Rafael tells her that Petra is attracted to her, Jane immediately asks Petra about it and gets some very sassy clarification.

Last week I wrote that JR needs Petra to verbalize her feelings if they’re ever going to be a couple, and that’s the main thrust of the subplot this week. Text messaging isn’t going to work, and neither is a private lunch where Petra acts like this is a sexual relationship rather than a deeper emotional one. JR wants to see some real vulnerability, and she gets it when Petra follows her to a date and accidentally gets in a car accident. In all the chaos, Petra reveals how rattled she is by this entire relationship. She’s not a person who obsesses about what she’s wearing or overanalyzes texts or stalks people, and she’s so enamored with JR that her entire disposition is changing. That scares her, and seeing this different side of Petra is what convinces JR to pursue a relationship with her. They make a love connection at the end of the episode, and this burst of happiness is a refreshing break from the heavy subject matter that surrounds it.

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Stray observations

  • This show has hit two home runs with chapters directed by principal cast members. (It’s also had a lot of great episodes directed by Melanie Mayron, who plays Professor Donaldson.) Justin Baldoni and Gina Rodriguez have a deep understanding of how these characters interact with each other, and they’ve gotten very powerful performances out of their co-stars. I hope they both get the opportunity to direct more episodes because these have been damn good.
  • I have the feeling that Jane’s book about her relationship with her mother is going to be extremely well-received, sell a ton of copies, and bring her the success she’s always dreamed of as a writer.
  • Costuming plays a major role in this episode, most significantly in the aforementioned Xo montage, but also for Petra’s storyline. It becomes very clear just how desperately she wants JR when we see her in yoga pants and a t-shirt after being rejected, and she must be a total mess if she’s willing to wear something so far outside of her usual chic, polished style.
  • This episode has almost no sensational telenovela elements, and while the narrator announces the impending arrival of a new villain at the end of the episode, he stops himself from saying too much because this isn’t the right time.
  • “Where’s the binder?”
  • “Why couldn’t it have been pasta night?”
  • “The heavier the borscht, the lighter the burden.”
  • “I can do things, too! I’m a very hands-on mom. Girls, get in the tent, please. Mateo, you too. You can take my iPad.”
  • “And that’s when Alba realized that River Fields wasn’t the only one who suffered an unfair brow-beating.”
  • “I have been kidnapped. Twice!”
  • “She wouldn’t have driven into a car wash for me, let alone a car.”

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