Modern Family Recap: Down in Calexico

Photo: Peter “Hopper” Stone/ABC

“Spoiler alert.” How often do we get to use that warning for an episode of Modern Family? In a series — and particularly a third season — marked by episodic plotlines and very few surprises (Claire’s inevitable loss in the town council election barely counts), last night’s season finale was a refreshing change. Things happened. Some of it was cruel. Some of it was over-the-top and silly. Some of it makes us nervous for season four (Gloria’s pregnancy hormones, we’re looking at you). But in a season that often felt insular and repetitive (the uniformly fantastic cast couldn’t always make up for the fact that their characters were often written more like caricatures than multidimensional people), we were happy to be a little shaken up.
Here are some things we learned:

1. Cameron and Mitchell don’t get the baby.
If we had one major complaint about season three, it was that Modern Family had begun to move away from more subtle and relatable story lines in favor of a bigger and broader style of comedy. So at first the sheer zaniness of incorporating a telenovela plotline into Cam and Mitchell’s adoption quest seemed to gloss over the real agony of the experience. Which isn’t to say the situation didn’t call for humor: It’s a sitcom, after all, and Gloria acting as translator to all of the drama at the hospital was undeniably funny and perfectly executed. And if we’re going for awesome caricatures, the sexy priest and the saucy nurse and the noble, not-dead ranch hand fit the bill.

But when we learn that the baby’s abuela wants to raise him and that Cam and Mitchell’s frantic trip to Calexico to pick up their new son was all for naught, it’s time for a more understated brand of humor. We’ve had Very Special scenes on Modern Family before, but when Mitchell wanders away from the gas station to lie down on the ground, it felt like one of the most honest moments of the show. Mitchell is tired; he can’t take anymore. Cam agrees that they should just take a break and stop the adoption process. They had to skip Lily’s dance recital to go on this wild goose chase, and enough is enough. The last we see of Cam and Mitchell is the two of them, lying on the grass, broken, defeated, holding hands (just the right amount of physical affection). It’s heartbreaking and sweet, and it gives us hope that this break that they’re going on together will involve a lot more than bickering and one-upping.

2. But there will be a Hispanic baby on Modern Family after all.
That carsickness Gloria was struggling with on the trip to Calexico (in the Prius, just in case you missed the overt product placement)? It turns out that was actually morning sickness. Depending on where season four picks up, we envision lots of sexy maternity clothes or sexy onesies. Either way. There will be plenty for Gloria to get worked up about. And surely there will be a lot of angst on Jay’s part about becoming a new father again even as his grandchildren are beginning to graduate from high school.

It was good, then, that this episode gave him some practice. When Cam and Mitchell and translator Gloria rush off to Calexico, Jay is left to get Lily to her dance recital. Manny has never really acted like much of a kid, of course (charcuterie is more his speed), so Lily is a challenge: She’s into dancing and asking “why?” questions and being annoying. And when Lily gets stage fright, it’s up to Jay to give her a character-building pep talk, even though he’d rather be golfing. Although we’re not sure that doing her solo (shouldn’t she be doing a group number at her age?) with her grandfather is actually a sign of great character, it is a cute moment, and a sign that Jay is ready to share his softer side with a brand-new creature.

3. Haley is going to college. And Dylan is kind of mature (and double-breasted).
Modern Family did a nice little bait and switch with this one. The promos for last night’s show led us to believe that Haley and Dylan were going to move in together after graduation (it seemed to be inevitable after their reconnection in the Disneyland episode). Rather than going to prom (“Proms are lame, it’s just an excuse for dressed-up dorks to ride in limos and hump each other”), Haley plans a nice evening at home for her parents, Dylan, and Luke. She went to the mall and got a job, she registered at community college, she went to the grocery store to shop for ingredients to make her family dinner. She acts so mature and un-Haley-like that Claire thinks they’ve gotten a new daughter much like her brother was supposed to get a new son.

But then Haley drops the bomb about moving in with Dylan (“Are you doing sex?” asks Luke), which leads Claire and Phil to imagine elaborate scenarios of what will happen to Haley if she goes through with it — this involves pregnancy and bad skin and nuclear codes and the robot wars. It’s Luke, then, who saves the day by revealing that yesterday he stole a piece of mail from that college where Haley had been waitlisted — she got in! And even though Claire despises Dylan almost as much as Luke hates Lily, they can all agree on what’s best for Haley: She’s gotta go to college. But first, a night to remember with Dylan at prom in Phil and Claire’s borrowed clothes. Sweet. Burning questions: Will we ever see Dylan again? How much screen time will Haley get in season four?

4. Alex is not doing as well with the gentlemen as we were led to believe.
Remember those dorks who want to get dressed up and hump at prom? Well, this year we’re led to believe that, despite her terrible dance moves, Alex is one of them. This season we’ve seen Alex growing up and discovering the opposite sex. It started with her making out with the fellow ranch guest in Wyoming. Then there was the time she had the neighborhood boys who were bullying Luke wrapped around her nerdy little finger. And in Disneyland it seemed she might even rival Haley for a cute college boy’s affections. So when Alex She’s All Thats down the stairs to meet her bad boy prom date (we think she looks like a happy medium between “adorable” and “super sexy” — thanks, Claire and Phil), we have no reason to doubt that they will have amazing chemistry. And they do. It’s just that he doesn’t know he’s gay yet (this being Modern Family, the rest of us do, instantaneously). Alex is a pre-beard; she is stubble. Oh, sister, we can relate. And yeah, Modern Family loves a good gay joke, but we couldn’t help but belly laugh at Alex’s date’s reaction to photographer Phil’s line, “This time with flash.” It was fun to see Alex do her gay pal a solid, but we’re curious to see if next season will find her with a love interest who appreciates her dork girl power.

5. Claire and Phil are … still Claire and Phil.
Good for Claire and Phil. Things are okay with all of their children. Haley’s going to college. Alex is growing up and going out. Luke might have hoarded a whole season’s worth of mail (great callbacks in the last minute of the show), but his most recent theft shows that he actually has the ability to express love for his sister. The Dunphys are doing fine. Perhaps the biggest challenge for season four is giving Claire something to do aside from stressing about her kids (we’d love to see more of the Claire who’d ride her husband’s hot new car to the beach and take some time to savor the sun). Will Claire’s ambitions finally lead her to set her sights on something outside of the Dunphy household? That would be a surprise of the best sort.

Modern Family Recap: Down in Calexico