Making comedy out of death is easy; making comedy out of death that is both respectful and heartwarming is difficult. Modern Family is not often a show that straddles this line. Typically, a Modern Family episode is pure comedy tied up with a Full House-like sentimental voice over and undercut by a final joke.
They have dealt with death once before with the demise of the Dunphys' neighbor Walt, but his death really only affected his friend Luke. The show’s season four finale “Goodnight, Gracie” subverted this pattern by kicking the episode off with a punch of tragedy in Phil’s mother’s death. Though we have never seen his mother Grace before on the show, we have seen his father (played by the endlessly affable Fred Willard) multiple times, so a loss for him and Phil (arguably the show’s most popular character) is a loss for the audience. Sorry, Fred Willard — I agree with you that I would have loved to see Catherine O’Hara in the now-deceased role (especially after she nailed the role of Kenneth’s mom on 30 Rock). Maybe a flashback? Let’s ignore the fact that a bottom-of-the-screen advertisement for How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life) was rather inappropriate considering the subject matter of this episode and dive into a breakdown of the episode’s many interwoven plots.
The occasion of Grace’s funeral offers the show a change of venue to sunny Florida. This trip excites some of the Pritchett-Delgado-Dunphy-Tucker clan and worries the rest. Gloria is nervous to face a longstanding court summons after her previous Floridian dwelling was turned into a brothel; Mitchell is loath to accompany her as her lawyer. Fortunately, Mitchell hits his stride when a stranger begs him to represent her in court — soon, the entire room of petty criminals is entreating his help. Not only did this give Mitchell a wonderful montage of outrageous lawyer speeches, but he also got to pull out his favorite lawyer move, “SHAME!”, although this time directed at an inexplicable something behind the judge’s booth and not an unsuspecting tween.
Eventually it’s Gloria’s turn, and the judge is so sick of Mitchell’s grandstanding that she dismisses the case immediately, though I had thought she would have fined Gloria out of spite. Gloria is a free woman and Mitchell is inspired to leave his desk job and get back into the courtroom.
While Mitchell finds his niche in the Florida courtroom, Cam finds his with a group of older ladies discussing books and playing mahjong. He fits right in with the trio — that is, until he stirs the pot, both figuratively with gossip and literally with the punch bowl. After quietly pointing out the various group members’ issues with cheating, stealing, and alcoholism to the other members of the group, the secrets come out in a bickering match that Cam furtively enjoys while insisting that drama follows him everywhere. Seeing Cam take such perverse joy in destroying a group of friends and then playing the hero to keep them together is delightfully in character.
Jay should thank his lucky stars that Gloria was busy this week, because he runs into an old fling — his first, in fact. As soon as he realizes how he knows Frank’s neighbor, he tracks her down, trying to remind her of the beautiful night they spent together before Jay was shipped off to Vietnam. She finally remembers him, but fails in her attempts to identify the memento he gave her before departing. As Jay says, “turns out she sent more men out to war than Lyndon Johnson.” An easily guessable conclusion, no doubt, but a pleasant storyline nonetheless. We rarely learn about Jay’s early adulthood.
As expected in an episode with his mother’s demise, Phil receives the episode’s main plot, as well as its emotional weight. Ty Burrell does a masterful job at portraying Phil’s deep sorrow while keeping the episode from getting too morbid by not wallowing in his grief. His parting letter from his mother, it turns out, was less of a gift and more of a request. She wants him to set his father up with a pre-approved woman before the Florida vultures come to snap Frank up — which they try to do, as we see later. Phil is appalled by the idea, but Claire pushes him, arguing that it was his mother’s dying wish. After a brief and comical meeting in which the woman seemingly has a boyfriend and Claire acts as a vacuum cleaner-selling trainee, Phil returns to the woman’s house to confess his true intentions. He is honest and sincere though he retains those classic Phil Dunphy misspeaks (“She’s not a nice girl; she’s my wife”). As he explains to the woman his mother’s weird methods of “going out of her way to take care of [people],” he breaks down with a smile still on his face. It’s not a big sniffle-y scene made to have the audience reaching for the tissues. There’s nothing forced or over-the-top about it; it’s beautiful. Ty Burrell, clear some room on your shelf for another Emmy.
The Dunphy kids and Manny represent the younger generation of the family this week — apparently Fulgencio and Lily are back in California with a sitter. While Manny embraces the laid-back Floridian lifestyle, Haley, Alex, and Luke deal with the death of their grandmother directly after being presented with her parting gifts to them. Haley gets excited over the jewelry she gets, and Luke likes his pocket watch — despite trying to test the use of the chain by swallowing it — but Alex is confused by her present: a lighter (Side note: Did anyone else think of Dumbledore’s bequeathing of the lighter-like Deluminator to Ron in Harry Potter?).
She struggles to find a hidden meaning in the gift that’s only explanation is “This is a lighter.” She did, after all, share a “very special bond” with her grandmother. In the end, it is not some journey of self-worth that unlocks the true intent behind her inheritance, but the simple fact that the card stuck together and the explanation was inside. This offers a great reversal of the cryptic parting gift trope while also allowing for a sweet story and a bit of advice from the family’s late matriarch; the lighter was Paul Newman’s and she uncharacteristically stole it, prompting her meet-cute with her future husband. This and a story of her grandmother’s love for the Fourth of July prompts Alex’s act of farewell at her grandmother’s funeral — using her bequeathed lighter to ignite a sparkler and some fireworks. If watching the audience’s reaction to the fireworks — from Haley’s tearful smile to Frank’s utter look of reminiscent joy — does not bring a tear to your eye, then you are made of stone.
We don’t see Phil give a eulogy. There undoubtedly could have been some comedy mined from this moment, but it is a trickily handled cliché that is better avoided. Fred Willard is woefully underrepresented, although this is understandable seeing as it is the season finale and every character must have their moment to shine. I teared up — twice — and laughed out loud a dozen times more than that.
What else could you ask for in a finale? Some people like to say that this show is overrated — undoubtedly the product of such tyrannical awards show success and a season unstable by Modern Family’s standards but entertaining by just about any other standards. Yes, sometimes the show’s set ups are too obvious and their jokes are too hokey, but when they want to they can punch out a really quality episode, like this one. Only around four more months until we get to check back in with the Pritchett-Delgado-Dunphy-Tucker family, and let’s hope they enter season five as perfectly as they left season four.