At its core, Virgin River is a romance. It’s also the quintessential small-town show in that even with two very defined leads, everyone in town is involved in practically every storyline. And like every show of its kind, Sue Tenney’s romantic drama, based on the Virgin River books, has expanded its ensemble of characters as it’s evolved. Time might pass very slowly in Virgin River – these characters are only about to experience their first Christmas since the show premiered in 2019 – but that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of things happening.
From the many romances and their ups and downs, to a natural disaster, a drug ring, and some great friendships, whatever it is you want, Virgin River has it in spades. And though the show has been known to go overboard with the drama, it’s also delivered on the domesticity and the found family feels people look for in romantic dramas.
The best episodes of Virgin River don’t just follow a storyline, they understand that at the heart of this town – of this show – there is a sense of kinship and community, and a belief that everyone, absolutely everyone, is family. Even when the rest isn’t exactly clicking, that’s a pretty nice sentiment.
With Season 5 premiering today on Netflix, we’ve put together a guide to some of the most essential episodes of the show, including a couple that are premiering today — so if you want to avoid spoilers, bookmark this post for later. Otherwise, get ready to head to Virgin River.
The first episode of the show that uses a natural disaster (a power outage that forces everyone to gather at Jack’s bar while a big storm threatens the town) to advance the plot is also the one that finally reveals Mel’s (Alexandra Breckenridge) backstory, and in a pretty effective way. This hour focuses on what happened in her past, and how it colored who Mel is today. Virgin River Season 1 is, in many ways, a story about how hard it is to move on from grief, and this episode respects that journey as it uses flashbacks to show us Mel’s marriage to her late husband, Mark (Daniel Gillies).
Even with the big cast, it’s hard to call Virgin River anything but Mel’s story, and this is an essential episode to understanding the woman whose journey we’re following, and whose happiness we’re rooting for. It’s also a pretty heartwarming hour that sends the message that yes, even though it might be hard, it is possible to move past grief.
The first season finale delivers in the way of drama, with some cliffhangers to boot. The love triangle that really isn’t one between Mel, Jack (Martin Henderson), and Charmaine (Lauren Hammersley) comes to a head, thanks to Hope (Annette O’Toole) revealing that Charmaine is pregnant with Jack’s kid(s). Mel, who’s understandably upset, makes the decision to leave Virgin River for good. The episode also sees Preacher (Colin Lawrence) trying to protect Paige (Lexa Doig) from her abusive ex-husband Wes (Steve Bacic) and Hope and Doc (Tim Matheson) finally finding their way back to each other.
It’s a pretty emotional hour — it also sets the stage for Season 2 and how the show will deal with cliffhangers going forward. It’s also the episode that pretty much establishes that when Virgin River has to choose between being a small-town show or a romance, it’ll probably always err on the side of romance, with Mel and Jack at the center of it all.
The fifth episode of Season 2 offers a little more background on Jack, thanks to a group of Marines who visit Virgin River. Season 2 does a really good job of peeling back the layers of Jack’s past, in the same way Season 1 focused on exploring Mel’s grief. Crucially, the show doesn’t need to forget her pain to focus on his, instead Virgin River explores Jack’s PTSD in a slow, gentle way that allows both character and viewers to find their footing with the storyline.
On top of that, this episode cements one of the things fans enjoy the most about Virgin River: Mel and Jack’s communication. There’s a lot of drama in this show sometimes, but more often than not, Mel and Jack are dealing with it by talking to each other, and that’s a pretty nice change of pace.
Season finales are quite the spectacle on Virgin River, and the second season finale doesn’t disappoint in that regard. We get to see Hope and Doc renew their vows, and we get a new villain in the form of Wes’ twin brother Vince. Even a show as focused on the good things as Virgin River needs a bad guy. But that’s not the worst part, as the episode ends with the most devastating cliffhanger possible: Mel finding Jack bleeding out at his bar after being shot.
Before that, though, Mel and Jack exchange “I love you”s, and it seems like they have never been in a better place. Virgin River doesn’t hand-wave away their issues, but it does pretty firmly send the message that those issues don’t have to prevent you from finding happiness. And then, of course, there’s the cliffhanger, because what’s Virgin River without the drama?
An incredibly poignant episode of Virgin River, “Life and Death” says goodbye to Lilly (Lynda Boyd), one of the show’s most endearing recurring characters. It isn’t really a surprise, but the death still packs a punch and Lilly’s last few scenes are particularly gut-wrenching as she and the show have to come to terms with not just her death, but the daughters she’s leaving behind, including baby Chloe.
Virgin River has always dealt with the subject of death particularly well and this episode is no exception. There are no perfect endings, not in real life, so the show doesn’t tie all loose ends for Lilly, but it does give her a fitting sendoff by exploring who she was and what she meant to the people who loved her.
If “Life and Death” centers on Lilly, the subsequent episode, “The Sun Also Rises,” centers on the town and how grief is, in many ways, a communal experience. The entirety of Virgin River comes together to say goodbye to one of their own, and also, to help her family start to move forward. The funeral scene is particularly emotional because it feels like a real funeral, with Lily’s daughter Tara (Stacey Farber) unable to get through her eulogy, Mel struggling with attending another memorial service, and Doc filling in for Hope.
Up to this point, Virgin River had been primarily concerned with how we handle grief in many different ways, and how love might not be the solution to all of life’s problems, but can be your saving grace in the hardest times. “The Sun Also Rises” is the perfect bookend to that, as the show and its characters take the next step and focus on healing.
After an uneven Season 4, “The Long Goodbye” finally delivers a lot of the answer’s fans had been waiting for. Mel’s baby is revealed to be Jack’s, and four seasons later, Charmaine’s twins are revealed to not actually be Jack’s. Fans might not be that surprised at the twist they’d been calling for a while, but Jack and Mel truly are, and the show rides that cliffhanger into Season 5.
“The Long Goodbye” is also a quintessential Mel and Jack episode. The couple not only get great news regarding the baby, they also get engaged in a scene that’s seasons in the making. Plus, Ricky (Grayson Gurnsey) leaves to join the Marines, Hope seems closer to being herself, and Brie (Zibby Allen) and Brady (Benjamin Hollingsworth) are finally in a really good place, just as Brie is forced to confront the reason she ran away to Virgin River.
In the aftermath of the fire, Virgin River’s townspeople come together to help each other, as Hope steps up and Jack comes through to save the day. In the midst of it all, Mel is suffering in silence due to her miscarriage, even as she fights to save Chloe and help Hazel (Ava Anton). Meanwhile, Mike (Marco Grazzini) and Brie’s relationship takes a turn for the romantic as Mike is there to support Brie as she testifies against the man who raped her.
The episode ratches up the tension perfectly, with every scene building up to the last one, when Mel can finally let go and share her grief with Jack. Before, there were things to do, people to help. By the end, she, and the audience, can finally let themselves feel the pain and the loss — together.
The episode after the heartbreaking reveal of Mel’s miscarriage is aptly titled “From the Ashes,” and we see both Mel and the town trying to rise from the ruins, both literally and metaphorically. It is a hard episode, one that sees Mel and Jack dealing with their pain, both together and separately. But “From the Ashes” also takes pains to show that the people that love you will always be there for you – and for Jack and Mel, those people just happen to be an entire town.
Elsewhere, Brady finally catches on to what’s going on between Mike and Brie and Preacher’s new relationship solidifies, as Hope gives a speech that brings the town together.
“Labor Day,” ends the first half of Season 5 — three more “holiday” episodes are coming on November 30th — with a bang, as Brady, Mike and a surprised Jack take down a drug ring. Also, Mel and Jack make a decision about their future and Brie and Mike go on their first “date,” Muriel (Teryl Rothery) and Cameron (Mark Ghanimé) come clean about their relationship, and we finally find out the real father of Charmaine’s babies.
But since this is Virgin River, just when it seems like things are going to end without too much of a cliffhanger, Mel gets a call from her sister. She’s found letters from her mom to someone in Virgin River, and that someone might just be Mel’s father. Who could it be? We’ll have to wait a few months to find out. But at least the episode leaves both Mel and Jack and Brie and Mike in a really good place just in time for the holidays.
Lissete E. Lanuza Sáenz is a lawyer, critic, and editor. She also hosts the I’m Not Yelling, I’m Latina podcast.
TOPICS: Virgin River