Thanksgiving, and really any holiday that acts as an excuse to eat a lot of food with your family, is often a time of conflicting emotions for many people. Not everyone has the same experience, of course, but there does seem to be a pretty common thread amongst those that do get together. On the one hand, there’s the joy that comes with being with family, with people that know you, that have been there throughout your life, and who you (hopefully) know you can lean on if need be. On the other hand, there are so many different personalities within a family that it can be hard to keep the peace. Something tells me that this divide will be especially highlighted in 2016, with the election of Donald Trump threatening to make that Thanksgiving dinner table all the more heated.

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Considering all the various personalities that make up the families of Modern Family, there’s relatively little conflict in “Thanksgiving Jamboree.” These families hardly ever argue about politics, religion, or really any hot-button issue. Their conflicts are smaller, and perhaps more human. Their conflicts are the result of pettiness, insecurity, and the disappointment that naturally comes with love. Modern Family‘s relative apolitical nature, especially in its later seasons, can leave the show feeling toothless at times, but it’s a tact that works for “Thanksgiving Jamboree.” Here, the conflicts are relatable and personal, and buoyed by the narrative focus that comes with keeping the whole family together for an entire episode.

For this particular Thanksgiving, Cam and Mitchell are hosting a Thanksgiving Jamboree, which is basically an excuse for Cam to bring a little bit of his childhood into his current home. So, there’s authentic Missouri hay bales, a real petting zoo in the backyard, and a deep fried turkey to go along with all the country charm. Of course, everyone brings their own baggage into this idyllic setting. First there’s Claire wondering what terrible thing Mitchell did in order to agree to this party. Then there’s Phil, who’s distraught that Haley might be skipping the family’s traditional Thanksgiving football game to go to Cabo with Rainer (yes, they’re apparently still a thing). And of course there’s Jay, who’s struggling to deal with the all-knowing presence of a blood pressure monitor secured to his wrist.

“Thanksgiving Jamboree” takes a low-key approach to these problems, never really working everyone into a frenzy—though there is a brief moment of chaos when a goat dies—instead choosing to bask in the struggle that comes with the smaller moments. For instance, there’s a lot going on in Phil’s initial inability to accept that Haley and Rainer are heading to Cabo. He feels his daughter slipping away from him, so he falls back on a reliable parenting tactic: the guilt trip. He tries to make her feel guilty by talking about tradition and family, but that’s before he has his own revelation. A nasty encounter in a pharmacy leaves Phil feeling like a petty, selfish person, and he knows he doesn’t want that. So, he goes back to Haley and opens up to her about the conflicting emotions at the heart of her newfound independence, represented by her new job and relationship: he’s both proud of her, and yet sad to see so much of her life taking place away from him. It’s a moving emotional crescendo, and one that hopefully moves this story away from the overly familiar beats that often make up plots about daughters dating older men.

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“Thanksgiving Jamboree” even manages to find some fun in Claire’s usual paranoia. Here, she not only sniffs out that Mitchell did do something wrong—it turns out he accidentally gave away Cam’s Fizbo costume—but when Cam forgives him for the misdeed, she assumes that he must have done something even worse. A lot of times Modern Family doesn’t handle Claire’s conniving ways too well; more often than not, she comes across as needlessly cruel. This is different though, as the hidden truths are real, and there’s fun in seeing everyone try to dance around them. Plus, there’s the payoff of Cam and Mitchell agreeing to be more honest with each other, only to blind themselves to the fact that Lily has perhaps picked up on their propensity for lying.

There really is a lot jammed into this single episode—Alex and Dwight end up kissing, Gloria barely keeps Joe away from his first lesson in death, and there’s a scarecrow that looks an awful lot like Mitchell—but for the most part, everything is given the appropriate amount of room to breathe. So, when Jay finally realizes that leading a healthier life isn’t a death sentence, but rather a way to make sure he’s around to comfort Joe when he needs him, it’s a moment that lands. Really, “Thanksgiving Jamboree” is all about how families manage to come together even as they grow older and apart. There’s a solid lesson in there: the holidays shouldn’t highlight the tension in the differences in our families, but rather celebrate just how far everyone has come.

Stray observations

  • “What a man does behind his water heater is his own business.”
  • Cam is really excited that Mitchell is participating in his Jamboree: “It’s your turn to feel the burn on the churn!”
  • “Doctors call it ‘hysterical impotence’.”
  • “I’ll go to; I’m out of ramen and xanax.”
  • When Claire sees Mitchell churning the butter: “This reminds me of the time I walked in on you watching Top Gun.”
  • Phil apparently watches a lot of Grey’s Anatomy, but he fast forwards to all the romantic parts.
  • The look on Claire’s face when Phil lays into Rainer during the football game is priceless. You know she approves of ruthless aggression.

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