Last Wednesday's family affair at the roller rink is a tough act to follow, and the penultimate episode of season four seems to know it, playing out mostly as a half-baked slog. Everyone's in unusual situations and facing some weird pressures, which would seem to result in a recommendable episode. Not so much, although road-trippin' with the Dunphys is good.
Phil, Claire, & Co. kick things off with a series of precision-honed one-liners (“This house still holds its secrets,” “There’s only one Pete Johnson?”). Phil is borrowing a glistening R.V. and he's christened it after one of the most-covered country songs ever. (Turns out he named a llama Jolene, too.) Phil has a dream to road trip with his family to Yellowstone over the summer, which sounds so quaint and unimaginatively American until I remember my wife and I are talking about doing that exact same thing. Claire tells Phil he “shoulda called it the Roman, ’cause that’s what we’re about to be doin’.” Phil is baffled and misses yet another chance to high-five his wife for being a master partner in punnery. A second later, Claire says, “Ten days on the road with those kids? Winnebag-no.” Seriously, Phil — she can probably pun circles you. Admit it.
On the road, an endlessly smiling Phil is dazed with harmony while Claire is terrified at her family's refusal to devolve into a pack of wolves. It is kinda creepy, how well everyone's getting along — until you take a second and consider how crucial vacations really are for families cooped up in the everyday cage of life. Claire desperately could use a friend who'll simply say, “You need a vacation” and help switch on the part of Claire's brain that'll say, "Oh yeah, there's a magical solution to family dysfunction, and Vacation is thy name." (Claire's loving disclaimers/self-assurances at the end of her kid-slagging talking head asides are great, too.) (Also: If you missed the Jimmy Kimmel clip last week, Julie Bowen knows you think she’s anorexic and she doesn’t care.)
But Claire isn’t just worried — she’d rather be right about her family's craziness than enjoy a little atypical peacetime. Especially if the dysfunction is something she causes and Phil eases. Yes, Claire has entered “a full shame-spiral" ... until Haley slaps Alex in the face and Dunphy-spawn chaos ensues. It's the perfect time for Phil to slip and show his lack of expertise at piloting this hulking road machine, as well as for Claire to bust out a toldja so about his lack of expertise at predicting his family's level of savagery. "I know that tone — you're making a point!" Phil gasps. His dream of seeing the sun “dance off the Pacific” with his Norman Rockwell family is nearly dead.
Phil attends a majestic clifftop meeting of Overwhelmed and Depressed Winnebago Dads, culminating in what Luke terms "a supersad dudehug." Haley thinks Yellowstone is called Jellystone, in her Saturday-morning-cartoon-informed view of the world. Claire and the kids have a touching family roundtable while Phil's gone. They've all been feeling distanced and dealing with some embarrassing, sorry moments — Luke's heading to summer school because he botched pre-algebra, Alex was dating two guys and got dumped by both of them, and Haley doesn't have the stuff to be a Laker Girl. Phil returns, overjoyed to find his family doing Haley's audition routine — "dream come true! I don't even need context!" Then he commits to learning Haley's entire routine because he is Phil Dunphy and he is the best dad and person ever.
Over in the gymnasium, Cam has taught Lily a Beyoncé move. Cam’s “we have a gymnast in our family” versus Mitch’s “yeah … Lily goes to gymnastics class” stances perfectly show the chasm between Cam and Mitch's overinvolvement and underinvolvement, the difference between hoping your kid's a star and hoping your kid's just doing an activity she likes. Lily's daddies have very unique ways of attacking expectation and disappointment.
Mitch, never an elite school athlete, is having a hard time coping with his daughter's actual success at a sport. What is this experience? he wonders to himself as he cheers like a maniacal, macho sportsdad. (Flashback to a few episodes ago, to Mitchell having Luke teach him how to play handball so Mitch could stomp a little kid in the schoolyard.) Mitch and Cam tend to narrowly dodge moments where everyone could potentially learn about their fatherly mishaps, like Lily getting $100 from the Tooth Fairy. This time they don’t get to dodge at all: Mitch is too new to the competitive realm to realize he can't cry “YES!” when another kid falls off the balance beam and his daughter stands to benefit. Plenty of parental gatherings would’ve closed in on Mitch like bees on Nic Cage’s head, but it's mostly glares this time. It's still plenty cringeworthy.
Mitch, understanding Testerone Guy isn’t his act, decides to take an ultra-magnanimous, Every Child Is a Perfect Flower tact. Cam shows us he's been saving up the line "ticking time bun" all season. Together they wind up shaming Lily and calling her a loser in front of everyone, getting themselves booted from all future gymnastics events. Wasn’t Mitch banned from Lily's school a few episodes ago after the handball incident? Start a list, someone.
Gloria knocks at the door trying every family member's name. She sneakily busts in, allowing no questions about her methods. She and Jay set to snooping; Manny sets to informing his mother that the practice isn’t just recently looked down upon, but rather scorned “since the invention of things.” (One little tidbit acquired from the snooping: Phil, seen trampolining earlier this season, subscribes to a trampoline magazine, Bounce! Nice follow-through, writers.)
Gloria still smushes Manny's face as she tries to reassure him. Little does she know he's been writing poems like "The Umbilical Noose" and "Smother Nature." Li’l guy’s ready to rebel. ARTISTICALLY.
Gloria and Jay's snooping extends to Cam and Mitch's house, where their feelings are only getting deader and deader. Pepper was here, and they were not. Gloria, whose lacking charades skills were highlighted a few weeks back, also sucks at Pictionary, which appears to be why she and Jay have been missing out on Game Night. In the middle of this revelation, a delivery guy very scarily pops up in the entryway, no knock or doorbell. Jay is so determined he rules at Pictionary and Gloria sucks at it that he sketches a cat in lieu of signing for the package. The delivery guy nails his clue, allowing Jay to prove that he is the Rembrandt of a party game and his ability will not be besmirched.
Manny drops some knowledge on his sometimes irksome parents: "The question isn't why you two you weren't invited, it's why you're ever invited." All of a sudden I remember Jay and Gloria's baby is, uh, where? See: irksome! Manny does some sneaky maneuvering, dully showing that he, a real child, is as childish as his childish parents. But seriously, where is that baby?