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Modern Family sneaks in one last Halloween scare, and makes it count

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I’ll be the first to admit, I’m an absolute sucker for a themed holiday episode. Holiday episodes allow sitcoms to return to reliable, familiar tropes again and again. With any other episode that might be inexcusable, but with a holiday episode it’s more than welcome. Part of the charm is watching something that coincides with the season you’re living through; it’s why we watch horror films during October, and why December is dedicated to multiple viewings of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

“The Last Halloween” is a solid episode because it doesn’t try to do too much. It takes three simple ideas and then tracks the story from A to B to C. There’s Phil trying to finally scare Claire; Mitchell and Cam dealing with Lily attending her first ever party alone; and Gloria suddenly worrying about her age after being rightly identified as Jay’s wife. Yes, that final story sticks out like a sore, infected thumb, but it largely doesn’t ruin an episode that manages to use Halloween to explore some interesting character dynamics while executing a few laughs.

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The episode is essentially split between meaningless diversions and more fun, loose stuff. “The Last Halloween” manages to put an end to some tiring storylines while also engaging in some Halloween fun. The worst of the bunch is, unsurprisingly, Jay and Gloria’s meandering, pointless story. There are some interesting ideas here: Gloria feeling old after rightly being called Jay’s wife, and Jay feeling old because Joe wants to spend Halloween with his friends. There’s plenty of room for comedy and emotion there, but the show mostly goes for rote jokes, climaxing with a truly awful Drag Queen punchline. Why can’t this show figure out this section of the family?

Things are better elsewhere. I wouldn’t call the simultaneous dates of Alex and Luke entertaining per se, but they do accomplish something: putting an end to two relationships that never made a lot of sense. Alex’s date with Bill ends when he discovers that she accidentally sent nudes to a coworker of his, and Luke’s ends when Janice realizes that, as a more rebellious teenager, her current lover pranked her house, which seemingly led to her divorce. It’s all so contrived and silly and devoid of any laughs, but at least we’re done with this nonsense. Bill was fine, mostly because Jimmy Tatro is great, but Janice has been an inconsistent and distracting presence. Modern Family never committed to this relationship, so it’s best to just toss it to the side and move on. Maybe now Luke and Alex can get something satisfying to close out the series.

Luckily, “The Last Halloween” finds more inspiration in a pair of reliable character-driven stories. There’s nothing new when it comes to Claire being the tough one in her relationship with Phil, but this story is a bit different. This is Phil trying to scare Claire once and for all, and the sheer magnitude of his plan is delightful. He spends a whole year setting up a Psycho-esque encounter that actually scares Claire. The twist? She loves how “twisted” Phil is becoming now that they’re older. She was worried about the complacent life they’d have after the kids left home, but is now excited about playing scary pranks on each other. That’s not what Phil signed up for—“can’t we just travel?”—but it’s a good bit of storytelling that gets a lot of laughs out of Phil and Claire’s dynamic while leaning into the Halloween theme.

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The final story, of Mitchell and Cam reckoning with the fact that Lily might be at a party without adult supervision, isn’t always successful, but I think it’s interesting. I keep calling for Modern Family to give Lily more meaningful stories, and this is a start. She feels like a real person here, and Cam and Mitchell feel like real parents. The issue isn’t that Lily is at a party with a boy and has maybe brought him home, but rather that she’s been tricked by said boy; he used Lily to get close to her friend, the girl he really liked.

Lily’s heartbreak, even in that small moment, is palpable, as is Cam and Mitchell’s worry for her. The parent-child dynamic resonates, with Lily originally shrugging her parents off because they can’t possibly offer any guidance, to reluctantly accepting their heart-to-heart because they truly can relate to having feelings for boys who don’t return those affections. It’s nice to see these three as a family, and not just as caricatures that serve as vessels for easy punchlines.

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Stray observations

  • “Some of this is my actual blood.”
  • Cam definitely gets points for the “Judge Judy” costume.
  • “This is my actual cheerleading outfit.”
  • “Straight people always take our best stuff.”
  • “Can you adopt a second child to take some of this off of me?”
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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.