Sometimes the TV speaks the truth, and tonight it nailed a huge part of parenthood: fear. It's horrible, people. The world is full of ways for your children to be hurt, and to hurt themselves. And this week I cringed right along with Claire as she tried to get her children past their fears while not being sure she was telling them the truth. Because that's what you have to do as a parent: tell your children it's going to be all right, when you don't have any more confidence than them that it really will be.
It helps that the confessional, especially at the beginning, was used as well as it has been this season. The characters confessed their greatest fears (Phil: "That I'm too much of a perfectionist"), and then had to face them. Gloria concocts a plan to help Manny get over his fear of roller coasters — a fear that is keeping him from going to a birthday party — by suggesting they all go fishing on a pier where there just happens to be a roller coaster. (Jay is pleasantly surprised to hear that Manny likes to fish, and Gloria explains: "He comes from a long line of fishermen and smugglers. I encourage the fishing.") Claire takes Haley to her third driving test, the crucial last try before she has to wait another six months to try again, and at the same time tries to figure out how to get Alex past her refusal to go to the school dance. Mitch and Cam confront their fears of not being adequate parents when they invite their pediatrician over for brunch and Lily calls her "mommy."
And Phil decides to take Luke into the crawl space under the house to find out exactly what the cable guy was talking about when he mentioned "a nice little collection under there." This is the heart of the episode both in terms of humor and in terms of relationships. We've seen a little bit of the bond between Phil and Luke before, but this was an extended ode to the geeky awkwardness that makes them soulmates. Pumped up at the prospect of finding pirate treasure or the like, the two put on their protective gear and unscrew the vent protecting the crawl space, only to be startled immediately by a small rodent running out. "It's going to take a little more than being trapped in a small enclosed space with a wild animal to rattle your old man," Phil assures Luke, and now we're in trouble. Phil is scared, but he can't show that to Luke — not when they're bonding. After Phil sticks his head in briefly, Luke tells him that he let out a little scream. "That was the house settling, I told you," Phil mutters. And after Phil concocts Plan B — sending in a camera attached to Luke's remote-control truck — and then loses it in there, the two initiate a brief, desperate yelling match. It's Luke that can't stand the tension. "Truce?" he asks immediately, and the two shake hands to end the moment of conflict. It was a moment when they didn't have each other, and imagine the loneliness; no wonder they jumped at the chance to end it.
I also identified with Cameron's fear of being rejected as a parent by his adopted daughter. "She's made her choice!" he wails, fleeing the room, after Lily says "Mommy" for the second time in the pediatrician's presence. Cam invited the doctor over in the first place as a way of validating his parental fitness, and come to find out her presence points up the two missing elements in the family they've constructed: Ethnic identity and "lady bits." It also leads to one of the most explosively funny moments in a very funny episode — the feel-good moment when the doctor tells the story about her family and defying stereotypes, then drives away like … a stereotype.
And I thought that this might have been one of the best (because most honest and poignant) "group hugs" the series has managed yet. The voiceover about fear being an essential part of parenting rang true, and was illustrated perfectly with Manny's (and Jay's) coaster ride, Alex being asked to dance ("but what if they don't?" she asks her mother hesitantly after putting on a brave face all day), and Haley driving off on her own. We have to be there to rescue our children, and then we have to stand back and try to act like we don't think they need rescuing. Either way, it's scary.
- When Phil makes his perfectionist observation in the opening confessional, Claire reminds him that this isn't a job interview. That reminds Phil of his greatest fear: Job interviews.
- Claire: "She has trouble paying attention to two things at once." Haley: "Always a good quality in a driver."
- Jay's role on the show is to be clueless about the young people inhabiting his house. And never better than this week, when Gloria says "The roller coaster," and gives him a meaningful look he's supposed to grasp. "I understand about twenty percent of what goes on around here," he grumbles.
- "I didn't hear any subtext."
- "We're trying to make a friend, not initiate a three-way."
- "This is how NASA does it! Now hand me the Itty Bitty Book Light."