We should not still be choosing sides in a love triangle in Jane the Virgin's final season. The early years of The CW telenovela pivoted on Jane's (Gina Rodriguez) romantic entanglement with her boyfriend-turned-husband Michael (Brett Dier) and her baby daddy-turned-almost fiancé Rafael (Justin Baldoni), but the show has always done its best work elsewhere: in its delicate explorations of faith and sexuality, in its illumination of immigration stories, in the fraught but unbreakable bond between three generations of Villanueva women. This is the Jane I would like to be celebrating.
Instead, I'm here to re-bury a reanimated love triangle because it did not come back the same. When Jane lost Michael in Season 3 due to what seemed to be a fatal heart condition, the show took a while to find its footing again. But Jane the Virgin flourished in Season 4, juggling a love story for Alba (Ivonne Coll), a devastating cancer diagnosis for Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), and the gradual rekindling of Jane's romance with Rafael. I was (and am) ride-or-die Team Michael, and even I was won over by Jane and Rafael that year. The friendship they'd developed since Jane married Michael gave their relationship a sturdy foundation. They had earned a happy ending.
Bringing Michael back from the dead in a bold Season 4 finale cliffhanger shook up Jane's dynamic with Rafael, taking the show full circle as it entered its final season. Maybe Jane and her not-so-late husband would find their way back to each other; maybe she would choose to stay with Rafael. In either case, Michael's return was an opportunity for closure. It had all the makings of classic Jane the Virgin drama: a wild telenovela premise grounded in real, complicated human emotions. But as it played out, every episode made it more apparent that this version of the love triangle didn't have the same soul. As Jane told her mentor earlier this season, "It doesn't feel like great material when you're living it. It feels horrible." Michael's return felt horrible.
Jane the Virgin resurrected Michael as a new man, revealing that he'd been living in Montana as a ranch hand named Jason after Rose (Bridget Regan) faked his death and gave him amnesia. Jason was Michael's polar opposite: taciturn, unsentimental, not a cat person (ouch). Even after he got his memories back, Michael remarked that he felt like two people. Dier has done great, poignant work this season, first making Jason feel like a stranger and then bleeding aspects of Michael back into his performance once his memories returned. But the show doesn't have a clear sense of who this new Michael is. He remembers his life before Montana but still claims not to know how FaceTime works; he insults how "sappy" he used to be just one episode after writing sweet notes to Jane in the margins of her book. There isn't a medical road map for this sort of thing — as Jane put it, "the brain is an inexact science" — but Michael's dueling personalities make his dynamic with Jane harder to grasp. Whether he feels more like Jason or Michael seems to change depending on what the story needs from him in that moment.
Jane the Virgin was never all that curious about Michael's life outside Jane, but the show doesn't seem interested in getting to know him at all now. Michael's experience is objectively traumatizing: He's an amnesiac victim of electroshock torture who recovered his memories after spending four years as someone else. And yet the series has neglected to give him space to process that trauma. Michael had ties to other characters who could have helped reintroduce him to his old life, but Jane the Virgin could only see Michael through Jane's eyes, so it put an overwhelming burden on her, straining the same relationship it was trying to bring into focus.
Michael and Rogelio's (Jaime Camil) friendship — Jane the Virgin's purest bond — was the saddest casualty of the show's narrow perspective. Series creator Jennie Snyder Urman previously told TV Guide, "It's not really about Michael and Rogelio. It's more about Michael and Jane." She added that it didn't feel right for the boys to be having a good time while things were so raw for Jane and Rafael, suggesting that Michael isn't "the guy that goes to get mani-pedis with Rogelio anymore." But that reunion was only conceptualized as mani-pedis, instead of a weighty conversation between friends, because Jane is the only character whose emotional connection to Michael has been treated as real in Season 5. Even his relationship with Mateo (Elias Janssen), a child he helped raise only to become his boogeyman, no longer seems to matter to anyone, Michael and Mateo included.
Ultimately, the show has been unwilling to reckon with the fact that a kind of horror story had to play out in order to bring back Jane's love triangle. The Season 5 premiere came closest to digging into Jane's shock: She admitted to feeling like she'd "been erased" when Michael didn't remember her, and she veered from denial to agony in a show-stopping monologue that made it clear she wasn't anywhere close to fine. Jane and Rafael's immediate responses to Michael-Jason were prickly, unexpected, and theoretically fascinating. But the series needed to give more weight to Jane's grief and Rafael's depression, the latter of which was minimized into a gotcha! plot twist. And if Jane and Rafael were going to treat Michael like an inconvenience, Jane the Virgin couldn't do the same.
Michael's reappearance brought out the worst in Rafael at a time when Jane the Virgin was trying to emphasize his growth. "I think we've really taken care to make him a person who's making different choices than he would have made when we began," Urman told TV Guide. And Rafael had matured, especially in his relationships with Jane's family, which got a tender spotlight in the premiere. As Xo and Rogelio took turns checking in with him while he pulled back to give Jane space, the show did justice to Rafael's internal conflict. But his attitude toward Jane in the wake of Michael's return was bafflingly insensitive otherwise, even in light of the eventual reveal that he was dealing with depression. Had he really put so much effort into bringing Michael back into Jane's life only to ask her to turn him away two days later?
Rafael spent most of the season's early episodes pestering or outright guilting Jane into getting her divorce papers signed; he responded to the news that Michael's memories were back not by asking Jane how she was feeling but by insisting that she get that divorce, even as she begged him to give her a beat to take it all in. He even dismissed Mateo's safety and undermined Jane's parenting by siding with their son when Mateo disobeyed Jane and ran into the street. That was the low point in this season's characterization of Rafael, who stopped getting the villain edit when the show suddenly emphasized that he was just trying to protect himself from getting hurt again. But for most of the beginning of the season, Rafael — like Michael — was treated like a problem for Jane to solve. The pressure he put on Jane didn't put him or their relationship in the best light, which hasn't helped the season romanticize Rafael as her "true love interest."
Rafael's behavior only made Michael look better during the love triangle's last gasp. While Rafael pushed Jane, Michael's actions were rooted in the desire to take as much burden off her shoulders as possible. When his memories returned, he told Jane that he still loved her but wanted her to take the lead. When the pair took a trip to Montana to reassess who they were, he assured her that she didn't have to be nervous; he had "a lot of hope" but no expectations. And with their hay fights and bull lassoing adventures, the Montana getaway was also a reminder that Michael brings out Jane's playful side in a way that Rafael does not.
The heartbreaking end to Jane and Michael's relationship was framed as a story about two people who loved each other but had become different people — writ large by the fact that Michael was, in a much more literal sense, a different person. But the show couldn't figure out who that person was, in part because it couldn't conceive of Michael outside of what he meant to Jane. Gina Rodriguez and Brett Dier sold their intimate breakup scene, but Michael's inescapable Jason side added a layer that didn't need to be there. Jane was already dissecting their crumbling romance through a more grounded lens, as they realized that her discomfort with his old detective work, which he'd kept up in secret, had driven more of a wedge between them than they knew.
Jane the Virgin has always split the difference between paying homage to telenovelas and being one, but the balance has felt uneasy this season. Jane needs to be rooted in its characters' humanity to sustain its most over-the-top plot twists. With the return of the love triangle, the show has limited itself too much to Jane's perspective to do justice to Rafael and Michael as characters, and it feels hollow to watch Jane chasing and rejecting ideas instead of fully formed people.
At the height of Jane's confusion, Petra advised her to stick with Rafael because Michael was "an echo from the past" and picking him would be like "going back." Michael did feel like an empty echo this season, but he shouldn't have. Jane the Virgin's high-wire act between being a telenovela and being about telenovelas is best when it makes Jane's real life messier than her stories. In her book, Jane gave herself a happy ending with Michael because life did not. Turning him into the abstract concept of "the past" risks turning Jane's life into just another story. Petra told Jane that she and Rafael are "destined for each other." It's a hopeful thought, and the show is clearly taking Petra's side. But her drunken advice prompted Jane to make a rash decision, putting her divorce papers in the mail before she was ready. Jane was able to undo that damage. It's too late for the show to do the same.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS Corporation.)
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)