Photo: ABC/Ron Tom

It’s somewhat comforting to see that Modern Family isn’t done with Dede just yet. When she died earlier this year—off camera and out of nowhere—it felt like a very random choice that resulted in a good episode, but that wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Dede was never a major character, but it’d feel weird for the show to not spend a little time exploring how the family is coping, right?

“Putting Down Roots” isn’t a Dede-centric episode per se, but it uses her death in a way that’s interesting. When her husband Jerry (Ed Begley Jr.) comes to visit the family and deliver the things Dede left to them, everyone finds themselves not only reminiscing about their time with her, but also what that means for their present and their future. Perspectives change, and that means characters reckoning with choices in a way that feels honest, which is never a bad thing.

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When Jerry shows up, he has three things: jewelry for Mitchell, a car for Claire, and a tree that Dede’s ashes have been infused into. The two siblings have to decide who gets the tree, but that’s an easy one; Claire doesn’t want it and Mitchell, whether truthfully or not, jumps at the chance. This rather ridiculous setup actually pays off in the long run. As the episode rolls on, each subplot develops around the objects that represent Dede, which allows the show to muse on ideas of the past influencing our present and our future.

For Cam and Mitchell, that means arguing about promises they made to each other years ago. While Cam’s grievance seems substantial—Mitchell agreed to move back to his family farm some day—Mitchell’s feel slight. But Cam intends to get his promise, so he fulfills his own from ages ago, watching E.T. for the first time and buying Mitchell a bunch of roses. But Mitchell’s not eager to go live on a farm, and he admits to his husband that he has no real intention of moving to Missouri.

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That makes some sense. After all, they have a life here that’s deeply rooted (yes, I did it). But Mitchell not budging is a sign of a larger problem, and he realizes that later on when Jay—once again in the week’s worst storyline, which involves him learning to apologize to his wife—comes to say a few words to Tree Dede (TreeDe?). Jay apologizes for being difficult during their marriage, for always digging his heels in and refusing to compromise. Mitchell hears it all, and he sees himself in that past behavior. It’s moving and feels true to the characters, even if Mitchell immediately seems to regret telling Cam that they can move back to the farm when his father needs him to.

The past, present, and future collide everywhere else too. Claire’s initially hesitant to accept the beat-up old car, but Phil convinces her to give it a spin before they decide. Then, when memories of her losing her virginity in that car come flooding back, the two switch roles. It’s all pretty predictable, but it works in the end because there’s conversation rather than fighting. Phil and Claire act like an actual adult married couple for once. Phil talks about not being comfortable with the car and the memories, and Claire lays out the more relevant memory behind the car, which is her mother talking to her about sex in a way that was meaningful and accepting instead of shaming.

Then, there’s the continuation of Haley’s pregnancy storyline. An old toy box from their childhood resurfaces amongst Dede’s stuff, and a doll inside sends Haley into a panic about what it’s going to be like to look after a newborn. The doll is fake, but the feelings it inspires are very real. Once again, Sarah Hyland does wonderful work as the panicked mom-to-be. She’s truly shining this season, finding a depth to Haley that nobody could have predicted was there. She fluctuates emotionally all episode, reveling in the joy of being a mother while also being terrified of everything that’s involved with that. The doll ends up burned and missing a limb, but her ability to defuse a situation with Alex and Luke leaves her thinking that maybe she’ll handle all of this just fine.

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The way these storylines all revolve around a central theme is key to the episode’s success. “Putting Down Roots” is the kind of episode that feels appropriate for Modern Family in its tenth season. It reacts to the past while looking towards the future, and that feels meaningful.


Stray observations

  • Alex and Luke now know about Haley’s pregnancy. I feel like the show is doing a good job with the pacing of this story, not rushing all the moments or piling too much on all at once.
  • Haley’s always had one piece of advice for when Luke fights with Alex: “Don’t break Alex, she’s our safety net.”
  • I don’t know if I miss Dede, but I wouldn’t have argued with one more Shelley Long appearance this season, that’s for sure.
  • Totally off topic, but I watched Cheers’ “Endless Slumper” the other day, and Shelley Long is a comedic wonder in that episode (and pretty much every episode, obviously).

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