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A final Modern Family Thanksgiving is stuffed with tension and lessons learned

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Ever since I took over the Modern Family beat for The A.V. Club a handful of seasons ago, I’ve been wont to mention two things: that Manny is maybe the most insufferable sitcom character of all time, and that there’s a bitterness that lies just below the surface of Cam and Mitchell’s marriage. Every couple on Modern Family fights, but Cam and Mitchell always indulge in a particular, sharp nastiness that suggests their marriage is perhaps a little rougher than most. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in trouble, but I’ve long thought the show has subtly hinted at them being a pair that has to work a little harder just to stay together. They’re performing a tenuous balancing act.

This season in particular has dropped a lot of hints about the rocky state of their marriage, from fighting over a talking fridge to disagreeing about a potential move back to the family farm in Missouri. Now, with “The Final Thanksgiving,” the show offers up one of its clearest indicators that Cam and Mitchell’s fights are noticeable, as the main plot of this episode involves all of their friends thinking that they’ve split up.

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It all happens when the two are shopping for Thanksgiving and the day is just too crammed with things to do. So, they split their to-do list and go their separate ways. When Mitchell runs into a friend, he mentions him and Cam “just splitting up,” and that soon leads to a whole lot of gossip. Before long, every one of their friends is texting Cam to make sure he’s okay, while no one is texting Mitchell to see how he’s handling the dissolution of his marriage.

From there, the episode digs into Cam and Mitchell’s dynamic in an interesting way. Cam reasons that he gets all the support because he’s the more emotionally volatile one. That’s no comfort to Mitchell though. He still wants his friends to check on him, and even when he goes to a Thanksgiving party and clears things up, he’s desperately trying to show them that he’s just as emotional and vulnerable. That mostly leads to him attempting to cry, and it’s as awkward as it sounds. He’s just not capable of those kinds of feelings. I’d chalk it up to living under Jay, to be honest.

What’s interesting is how the episode both allows Cam and Mitchell a resolution while still insisting that there’s some very real, palpable tension in their relationship. They are opposites, and while that’s made for a successful relationship so far, you can still feel the tension in trying to bridge the gap between them. Mitchell is appalled to learn that Cam once faked a break up in order to see if their friends would offer him moral support. He also rolls his eyes when, at the end of the episode, Cam seeks emotional validation after Mitchell gives him a subtle compliment. There are tics and behaviors here that, over the course of a relationship, have become less charming. I’d guess Mitchell once adored Cam’s need for affection and assurance. Years later, it’s grating. I don’t know if the show will ever truly dig into these wrinkles, but it’s still nice to see them on display.

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The rest of the episode is actually a pretty pleasant surprise. Gloria’s needless exploitation of Claire is incredibly annoying and stilted—her and Jay don’t pay for someone to come clean their windows? Give me a break—but that’s a lone annoyance in an otherwise solid Thanksgiving episode. Predictably, Claire is struggling to “do nothing” now that she’s quit her job, and Haley is struggling to do something nice for her mother and make Thanksgiving dinner this year.

That’s the kind of basic setup that simply works for an episode like this. There’s no truly outlandish scenarios. There’s just character-driven chaos and insight. I don’t care for Manny’s revelations about snagging a rebound girlfriend, but for the most part Claire’s arc works well. Of course she feels rudderless, and that creates an interesting parallel with Jay; it wasn’t all that long ago that she was trying to get her father to be less involved in the closet business he’d just handed to her.

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There’s also a great call back to Jay flying a plane into Phil’s face, and what that means in the grand scheme of parenting and parent-child relationships. The episode comes close to being a little too gendered when it comes to fathers protecting their daughters, but for the most part it pulls back and simply tells the story of how Phil, as he ages and deals with kids who are becoming adults, is maybe more like Jay than he’d previously assumed. There’s something sweet in there, the idea that certain human instincts are coded into us. But Phil also pushes back, thinking that anger isn’t always the answer, hoping that both him and Jay can strive to be better. In essence, the episode strikes a good balance between honoring the past while looking towards the future. Not bad for the final Thanksgiving.


Stray observations

  • I don’t know, Alex’s chef ex-boyfriend is the kind of one-off character that I find aggravating more than anything else.
  • More evidence that Cam and Mitchell’s relationship is publicly fraught: their friends have taken bets on whether or not it lasts.
  • “Our dad!” “That will never not be weird.”
  • “Spineless bootlickers. God I miss them.”
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About the author

Kyle Fowle

Kyle Fowle is a freelance writer based out of Canada. He writes about TV and wrestling for The A.V. Club, Real Sport, EW, and Paste Magazine.