Photo: ABC/Eric McCandless

Cam and Mitchell must have a bevy of dark secrets in their past, because karma just keeps coming for them. They’ve been through a lot this season, their marriage pulled in a number of directions due to kitchen renovations, an intrusive Pam, and Mitchell’s uncertain job status. But they’ve always managed to pull through, finding their way back to each other after each argument or stretch of rocky road. At the beginning of “Mother!”—no relation to the Darren Aronofsky film as far as I know—they’re finally given a little bit of good news: Pam is moving back home, and is taking Lily with her so that she can visit her grandma. It’s the moment they and we have been waiting for, as Cam notes that Pam has stayed with them for just over a year.

Finally, they have some alone time, which means it’s time to cook breakfast naked and sing about “cooking frittatas while wearing nada,” as any couple would do. Their peace is quickly interrupted though, as DeDe shows up and, as usual, inserts herself into every intimate situation she can find. She tells them to get dressed so that she can hug them, and then proceeds to infect the lives of every member of the family. She jumps between houses, referring to herself as “homeless” since her marriage is unraveling.

DeDe has always been a complicated character. She’s not as obnoxious as Pam, but her rather outlandish behavior is sometimes too overbearing, even on a show that’s known for outsized characters. Her presence, much like Pam’s, often only serves one purpose: to create chaos and push the other family members apart. She creates conflict and anger wherever she goes, and that leads to a lot of predictable storylines. Shelley Long is certainly a welcome presence at any time, but DeDe can be very one-note.

What’s admirable then is the way that “Mother!” flips the script. It begins as a rather traditional DeDe-centric episode, but by the end has transformed into something a little different, commenting on complicated, frustrating family dynamics along the way. Before that final bit of subversion though, the episode follows a pretty familiar pattern. DeDe hops from one house to the next, leaving a trail of family members who are completely done with her passive aggressive nonsense.

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For the most part though, this more familiar story hits its mark. There’s a lot of charm in the various storylines, and even the cruelest bits of comedy seem to work as a setup for the episode’s final resolution. Essentially, “Mother!” is telling a complete story across three different plots. The most important and prevalent is Cam and Mitchell’s realization that DeDe has been controlling their lives since the beginning. When it’s revealed that her and Cam have sent 743 emails to each other, Cam says that they’re innocuous, meaningless messages that have nothing to do with Mitchell. When he checks them though, there’s small nudges meant to lead them to certain decisions, from the moment they moved in together to the decorating decisions going into their kitchen remodel. For people who consider themselves fiercely independent and constantly look for approval from others, this bit of information is devastating.

The other two plots aren’t as consequential, but they’re funny enough to sustain the episode’s momentum when it cuts away from Cam and Mitchell. The first sees Phil, Luke, Haley, and Alex scrambling to deliver bad news to Claire during her post-spa “window,” which everyone in the family has identified as her calmest moment. It’s the rare time she’s cool with whatever her crazy family has done, so it’s the best time for the girls to ask to skip their Mother’s Day trip, and for Luke and Phil to let her know that they ruined her Pritchett Closets presidential portrait. Of course, the whole thing goes to hell, but in the meantime we’re treated to some good comedic beats, like the whole family dumping laundry on DeDe to hide her presence from Claire, or DeDe walking in just as Phil says that they need to make sure the house is as relaxing as it’s ever been.

Even Manny and Jay, who’ve been in some of the most disappointing and insufferable storylines of the season, get their own moment to shine. They’re airing a movie premiere at the house, organized by Gloria, after Manny and Jay reluctantly collaborated on a short film. While the central thrust of the conflict is typically abhorrent—Modern Family loves to assert that Gloria is loud and obnoxious—the progression of Manny’s life is more than welcome. He’s been a flailing character for some time now, so some sense that he’s working towards a goal, creating a short film that ended up being the talk of his class, is a nice bit of character progression.

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The heart of the episode is in the final sequence though, as Gloria “premieres” the short film and DeDe makes her presence known, causing the family to air their grievances. What’s unique is the way that the episode then flips the script. After Mitchell gets a few words in, Claire steps up to defend her mother, saying that everyone seems to be pretty happy with their life, so why does DeDe, who guided them to certain decisions, deserve their scorn? It’s a little too neat and tidy, but it does boast a message that I think resonates. We can all be a little harsh when it comes to our families, cursing them as they cross boundaries we wish they wouldn’t. While passive aggressive or overbearing mothers and fathers are certainly frustrating, a lot of their actions come from a place of love. “Mother!” is a nice reminder of that, and one of the better half-hours of the season.


Stray observations

  • DeDe upon suddenly entering the unlocked side door to Cam and Mitchell’s house: “What if I was a deranged psychopath?” Mitchell: “I’d start with hi Mom, what are you doing here?”
  • Manny’s movie seems...not bad?
  • After their fight, Cam is wearing a shirt that says “Ben and Jerry, the only men I need.”
  • Apparently Bill is taking Alex on a trip to the Grand Canyon, complete with motorcycle.
  • “It’s not easy being the one who always knows best.” The most Claire moment of all the Claire moments.

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