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Modern Family Recap: Death Comes for Walt

MODERN FAMILY - "The Last Walt" - Claire delicately helps Luke cope with the fact that his friend and their old neighbor, Walt, has passed. Phil takes Alex for some father-daughter bonding time, and Haley throws an unauthorized party. Meanwhile, Jay and Gloria go over to Mitch and Cam's to have dinner with Cam's father, Merle, who is in town visiting -- and awkwardness and tension seem to be the rule of the night -- on "Modern Family," WEDNESDAY, APRIL 18 (9:00-9:31 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/PETER "HOPPER" STONE)
AUBREY ANDERSON-EMMONS, BARRY CORBIN, ED O'NEILL, SOFIA VERGARA

One of the comforts of watching Modern Family is that we know the stakes will never be very high — by minute 29 of the show, we know that sitcom magic will prevail and everything will work out just fine. On a series where profoundly bad things don’t often happen (the last death on the show, after all, involved an elaborately zany clown funeral), it was a good shakeup to watch the Dunphys cope with a genuinely sad occurrence.

R.I.P. Walt, the grumpiest of grumpy old men, who expired while writing an angry letter to the postmaster general. Rather than delving into Very Special Episode territory, last night Modern Family did what it does best — displayed all of the clumsiness and bad behavior and straight up stupidity that arises when well-intentioned parents don’t necessarily have the emotional intelligence to express their concern for their children. And if this explains Phil’s next-level doofiness last night in dealing with the aftermath of Walt’s death, then it goes double for Jay and for Cam’s dad, Merle, who both picked up Walt’s nasty old man baton and ran with it straight into Mitchell and Cam’s bedroom.

It seems that everyone has their own ways of coping when it comes to dealing with bad news. For Claire, it’s the way she smiles insanely as she breaks the news to Luke that his friend Walt has passed away. “You looked like the Joker,” Phil gasps at her afterward. For Luke, it’s … watching TV. He doesn’t react much to Walt’s death at all. Shrugs shoulders, goes back to playing video games. The rest of the episode finds Claire desperate to get some kind of emotional reaction out of Luke, who has never been a beacon of sensitivity. So if he goes to Walt’s house not to get material for a Tuesdays With Morrie–style memoir but to carry off Walt’s old TV, and if he’s not that interested in the memorial gardening project Claire suggests, well, it’s not surprising.

We do eventually get a small breakthrough when Claire brings Luke back to Walt’s overheated house (he kept it that way so Kim, the Meals on Wheels lady, would have to take her sweater off) to return the TV. After Claire nervously breaks the bad news to Kim and a delivery guy (“I just found out my face does this,” she says, attempting to explain her creepy smile), we learn that Luke used to look out his bedroom window at night to see if Walt’s TV was on, so he’d know if Walt was up. He’s gonna miss that, he tells Claire. It’s not quite Alex P. Keaton having a breakdown after his best pal died in a car crash, but it’s as emotional as we can expect Luke to be.

Phil, on the other hand, is supposed to be the sensitive one! His first impulse is to lie wildly to Luke about the circumstances of Walt’s death (for Phil, “breaking it slowly” means concocting an elaborate story that involves a coma, some eye fluttering, more coma, and eventual death). He almost makes Claire look like the sane parent. Phil’s plotline then veers off so that he and Alex can have some rare camera time. It turns out that Walt’s estranged daughter won’t honor her father’s last request to throw his WWII dog tags in the ocean. Realizing that he has plenty of fond memories with Luke and Haley but not so many with Alex (it’s 80 percent his fault), Phil decides that he should bring Alex along on an adventure to honor Walt’s wishes (“Adventure? We are throwing dog tags into an already polluted ocean where they will probably choke an otter,” Alex moans). He’s almost convinced Alex of the beauty in the act (“It’s kinda Navajo,” she concedes) when a random bird swoops down and snatches Walt’s dog tags away — a move that signals just how silly this is all gonna get.

Adventure Plan B is to trek 50 miles away to the Moonbeam Diner, supposed home of the world’s greatest milkshake. The machine is broken, but all is not lost — the waitress is pregnant and past her due date. Here is where Phil crosses that fine line from lovable to deranged: When he slams himself around and even makes the poor waitress fix their wobbly table in the hopes that this can be his and Alex’s big special memory, “the time we delivered a baby.” His plan is foiled by the arrival of a doctor (foiled!) and some dramatic puking (did we need another broader-than-broad element here?), but Phil gets back on the right track with the story of the astronaut who carved his daughter’s initials into the moon’s surface. Phil’s full-on sweet mode is restored as they leave the restaurant and the camera pans to the Moonbeam Diner sign, where the initials A.D. are etched. Aww.

Phil isn’t the only dad acting ridiculous out of misplaced love for his child. Last night we finally got to meet Cam’s dad, played by character actor great Barry Corbin (of Northern Exposure and One Tree Hill fame), who has seemingly, in his old age, morphed into oatmeal-schilling-era Wilford Brimley. Merle is the perfect foil for Jay: the tough country guy to Jay’s tough city guy, two macho men who have never gotten along. Jay eventually confesses to the camera that he’s never liked Merle because Merle considers Mitchell to be “the woman of the relationship.” Yikes. We all know that masculinity has always been Jay’s hot-button issue, and so he doesn’t take kindly to the man who brings His and Hers watches to dinner and gives the Hers to Mitchell. “I think I might cry,” Mitchell swoons in response to the gift, and Jay — deadly serious — says, “Don’t.” It’s one thing for his son to be gay; it’s quite another for him to be “the wife.” In nearly every episode, Jay has to relearn that manliness is not the be-all-end-all, that femininity may even have some virtues.

It turns out that Merle is equally freaked out about his son’s role in the relationship, and their mutual bitterness devolves into a terrible contest in which Jay and Merle both giggle maniacally to demonstrate which of their sons has the higher pitched laugh. Poor Mitch and Cam think their fathers are getting along, when actually they’re being gross. (This doesn’t prevent Mitch and Cam, in an ironic twist, from mirroring Jay and Merle’s fight by bickering about whose father is tougher. We’re usually very anti-bickering for bicker champions Mitch and Cam, but in this case it adds to the absurdity of the entire argument.) What prevents us from being completely incensed by the whole thing is the resolution, with both Merle and Jay confessing that they’re both still stymied by the whole idea of their sons being “gay for each other.” It helps Merle to think that in some way, his son has ended up with a woman. It’s not a proud moment, but it’s honest and vulnerable for these befuddled, trying-not-to-be-homophobic men. “They’re both equal; neither one is the wife,” they agree. The idea that you can be a wife and still be an equal? That might just be too revolutionary for a couple of tough old fogies to wrap their heads around. Walt went to his grave a bigoted old bastard; these guys are at least trying to change.

And then we had a mostly unnecessary part in which Haley tricks the family into allowing her to host a pool party at Jay and Gloria’s. Given how much time the entire family spends together, it’s odd that Claire wouldn’t think twice when Haley says “my uncle, who already said he would do it” will be the chaperone. OF COURSE the uncle is Manny, Claire! C’mon! So Manny does his Manny routine at the party, preventing hookups and confiscating booze and making sure everyone uses coasters and knows where the fire exits are. Once again, in an episode in which the guys of the family act like buffoons, Manny comes off as the most responsible man around.

Photo: Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC