The same way that memories of the low points of a long weekend with your own extended family fade in comparison to the sunnier moments, our little gripes with this season of Modern Family are gradually shrinking away. It helps that last night’s season finale was one of the season’s better episodes — it had heart without cheese, drama that relied on something other than inter-family squabbling, cross-family interlocking story lines, an abundance of well-meaning disasters, and a high concentration of left-field one-liners (“It’s just a sausage, it’s not like it’s on our flag”).
It’s Jay’s birthday and, much like last season’s finale (remember the Hawaii trip?), all he wants to do is go relax somewhere — and all his family does is thwart this very simple plan. We’re not sure how many seasons the show can end on this plot, but we like it as a way to highlight the clan’s chaotic but eternally well-meaning solipsism, and Jay’s position as the lynchpin of the whole messy machine. Like last year’s finale, there’s a twinge of sadness — everyone know Jay’s not getting any younger — and a real sweetness in how he gradually picks up all the pieces they drop trying to be nice to him. And of course every little plan goes haywire (including the Dunphy kids’ sweet tribute video, really a cleverly disguised tour through season-two memories), aside from the most unlikely one — Manny dragging Jay’s fishing boat into the swimming pool so he could finally have his relaxing afternoon on the water — though of course that, too, gets a little messy as soon as the whole family decides to come aboard.
After very successfully reenacting a classic childhood photo of his own (this involved lots of spaghetti), Phil suggests to Claire that she and Mitchell re-create a favorite shot from when they were little for their dad’s birthday present. The shot — Claire in bell-bottom jeans, a blue rainbow T-shirt and braids, and Mitch in a full-on sailor suit, posing in their old backyard — is selected, adult-size versions of the garb attained, and their old house sought out. Nobody’s home when they ring the bell, but no matter; within minutes they’ve not only scaled the back fence into their childhood backyard (“Of course you’d baby out, this is just like pool-hopping.” “I never saw the fun in that — it made going in grandma’s pool less special”) but found themselves chased up into their (stunningly well-kept) childhood treehouse by the giant slobbering dog that they were never allowed to have. Claire busts out Jay’s backup gift — a bottle of wine she opens with Mitch’s shoe (“How did you learn to do that?” “Where did you get a sailor suit on short notice?”) — and drunken sibling talk commences. Discussed: memories of the house, how Mitch can’t pee outside, whether they’ll have to split Jay’s inheritance three ways with Manny. Somehow we’d kinda forgotten that he’s technically their stepbrother. Season three, please try to wring a little more uncomfortable lulz from this fact, okay?
Meanwhile, Phil goes out shopping and runs into his arch nemesis, Gene Whipple (a power-walking Rob Huebel). “Gene Whipple! My college rival. Captain of the cheer squad. Winner of every robot battle. Every second I spent with the guy made me feel worse about myself. The only thing I could compete with him in was close-up magic.” Conveniently, he also runs into Gloria and commences to kind of accidentally on-purpose trick Gene Whipple into thinking he’s married to her. After all of his and Claire’s sweet moments this season (much as we don’t love her on her own, they’re a pretty great, goofy little couple), this made us a little sad. It made Phil sad, too, when Gene Whipple confessed he always figured Phil would marry that Claire Pritchett girl. Cue sad-eyes and relentless atonement and, finally, one very well-executed coin trick. He’s an all right guy, that Phil. Now, if only he’d fix that broken stair.
Two shocking revelations: Lily apparently does not lack the capacity to act like a little shit, and Cam is not a man of endless patience. Burned out, he dumps her off with Gloria for the day and trots off to run errands for Jay’s birthday party. A free man! But first he commiserates with a lovestruck Manny, who’s about to go hang out with a girl whom he fears will ask him to play softball. He has a glove, but, um: “I’ve only used it once, and it was to take a torte out of the oven.” Cam gives him some pointers (apparently once having taken up softball to impress a potential suitor of his own, we gather), then gets a call from him later while in line at the bakery. “Every time I open my mouth I say something stupid. I called her bedroom ‘fantaisy.’ That’s not even a word!” Manny laments. Cam starts feeding him lines over the phone — “You are the prettiest, smartest girl in the sixth grade. I know you’re only 11, but I can’t stop thinking about you!” — that get him judgy side-eyed out of the bakery, trapping Jay’s cake inside.
And so, with the rest of the family variously indisposed, that leaves no one but Jay to go retrieve Jay’s birthday cake. Which he does, but only after retrieving Mitch and Claire from their old backyard after their car is towed. We loved the scene of Jay driving them home, scolding them, as they slump in the backseat on each other like little kids too proud of their own adventure to feel fully shamed. (“These pants are new! Climbing over that fence, I might’ve wrecked ‘em.” “Rectum!”) Between all the sibling- and stepbrother-in-law-bonding, it’s hardly a surprise when, at the end of the episode, as Cam and Mitch watch their big weird family pile into the boat in the swimming pool, the subject of a little brother for Lily comes up. Not exactly a season-finale cliffhanger, unless you’re concerned about whether or not they’ll be able to find a kid that’s at least as cute as her.