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Modern Family Recap: Child Custody

You know that kind of stunned, giddy feeling that overcomes you when someone you'd nearly given up hope on comes through in a totally unexpected but fantastic way? That emotion was pervasive throughout last night's Modern Family, for the characters and for us as well. The episode's in the running for best of the season in terms of writing and pacing, and it did more in the way of developing characters and interfamily relationships than perhaps any other single episode in the whole series so far.

The Pritchett-Tuckers/The Pritchett-Delgados
At first, it looked like the episode would be an Away We Go riff about what extended-family unit would take custody of Lily if something should ever happen to Cameron and Mitchell. (“God forbid!” “I said God forbid.”) We weren't thrilled with the idea of the guys touring through Jay and Gloria and Claire and Phil's houses Goldilocks-style, testing each out. Fortunately we were spared that fate: Aside from a brief immersion in full-on Dunphy madness (one of the best ensemble scenes we can remember, especially when Luke announced, “Dad, I'm going to teach myself to juggle,” then grabbed the knife-block, which Cameron then snatched and Mitch seamlessly replaced with a bowl of oranges), Jay and Gloria were the prime candidates from the get-go, and Gloria is just over the moon about it. (“It would have to be a very tragic accident.” “We would be so happy!”) She whisks Lily off to the mall and the guys go out with Jay and Manny to a sporting-goods store to stock up on equipment for Manny's upcoming camping trip. Manny’s not thrilled about the trip, which leads to the kind of exasperated brow-beating from Jay, and an aborted attempt to scale a climbing wall, that Cam is concerned would ruin Lily for life. “I think I hear Future Lily sending us a message from her stripper pole: 'Thanks, gay dead dads, this dance is for you.'” Mitch remains firm about Jay and Gloria, until later when Gloria returns with Lily and Lily's two newly pierced earlobes. (“You punctured our daughter!” “But I didn't just do the gay ear, look.”) Meanwhile, Cam (who's personally gunning for his Missouri farmer family to take the reins) changes his mind when Manny, having heard the guys discussing Jay's not-exactly-cuddly parenting styles, steps in to defend his stepdad. We cut to a scene of Jay and Manny having a full-on heart-to-heart in the car on the way back from the mall, Manny confessing that he was afraid he'd get teased in the shower on the camping trip and Jay telling him he's the bravest kid he knows (then swatting his hand away from the radio settings — “I told you about that before” — maybe the most realistic moment of the series so far). In the end, Cam and Mitch pick Jay and Gloria as Lily's guardians (Gloria: “When something horrible happens, you are going to be all mine!”) and take out her new earrings, but not before sneaking in a baby Carmen Miranda photo shoot, duh.

The Pritchett-Dunphys
This clan broke off into two nearly independent story lines this week. First, Haley and a girlfriend are roped into driving Alex to cello lessons, but when they get to her teacher's house and nobody's home, what else is there to do but drive to the high school, break in, and fill up a frenemy's locker with shaving cream? We thought we might have to launch into a protracted gripe about the ridiculous teenaged girlspeak that Haley and her friend are forced into (lots of nail-filing and use of the word “skank”), but we'll save that for another time, because what wound up unfolding was just so great. We've been hankering for some more semi-meaningful bonding between Haley and Alex all season, so were thrilled to see them running down the empty school halls together, Haley having scooted after Alex — and not her own friend — when a security guard finds them out. They run together into the locker rooms, crouching behind a shower stall, laughing, scared, together — like they're actually sisters and not mortal enemies from warring planets, for once. (“Go to your happy place.” “But we just broke into my happy place!”) And when they finally escape to the car, you can sense a change between them. Alex wonders if perhaps she's now acquired a taste for badness, then confesses to Haley that she'd skipped her music lesson earlier by directing them to the wrong house, and that in fact she hates playing cello. This conversation was actually a prelude to Manny and Jay's heart-to-heart, and was perhaps more disarming — it was the first time in a while the show had allowed its characters space to actually grow and change and get to know each other right there onscreen.

Claire and Phil's story line took longer to push itself into new territory, but got there eventually, too. It started out with Claire sneaking Luke in to see a child psychologist, having growing increasingly concerned with his poor grades and distractability and general loopiness — and knowing that Phil would balk at the idea of anything being wrong with the kid. And that's because, of course, as has been established so many times, Luke is basically mini-Phil, spacy and daffy in so many of the same ways. Oh, but Phil is there to meet her at the doctor's office, having sniffed out her plan, and so together they confront the news that Luke is just “above average” and overstimulated, and Claire’s real fear: that Luke is going to turn out exactly like Phil. This leads to Phil sulking hilariously (“Oh no, which one of these is my driving machine?”) and Claire being defensive, and both of them managing to leave Luke in the doctor's office parking lot. They realize this later that night, just in time to be greeted in the driveway by a stretch limo (chartered by some warm-hearted newlyweds) with Luke's head peeping out of the sunroof. (“I knew you'd come back, and then you didn't. So I decided to go find a phone. That's when I saw a stray dog and I played with him for a while ... ”) As he scampers away, unfazed as ever, Claire relents, apologizing to Phil and admitting she's just worried about the kid. “Please don't let me screw up our son!” she pleads. “You know why else he's gonna be okay?” Phil comforts her. “Because somewhere out there is a worried little girl who's making lists and labeling bins and he's gonna find her.” And that's when we almost cried. We could get used to this.

Photo: Michael Desmond/ABC