When, earlier this year, Modern Family’s showrunners and producers mentioned that a major death would come this season, most speculation centered on Jay. He’s the oldest in the family, and his death would certainly give the show a lot of different stories to tell. Well, if this week’s episode includes the major death they mentioned, it’s hard to classify it as “major.” That’s a bit of a tease in fact, as it’s not Jay or anyone else in the immediate family that bites the dust, but rather his ex-wife and mother of his children, Didi. It’s more than a little ridiculous that ABC went with such a misdirection in talking about an upcoming death— I’ll eat my words if somebody else dies this season— but despite that bit of marketing nonsense, “Good Grief” is actually an effective, moving episode, one that packs an emotional punch that the show hasn’t seen in a long time.

Part of what makes “Good Grief” so effective is that it begins like any other themed episode. It’s Halloween, and that means the family is preparing for a night of costumes, trick or treating, and in Jay’s case, a delicious sandwich. There’s a great gag during the cold open, which sees Phil, dressed as a fly, getting caught in a spiderweb Claire, dressed as a spider, is trying to put up just inside the front door. When the door is opened, a voice booms “welcome to hell,” and the mood is set. That mood— goofy, funny, in the spirit of the season— doesn’t last long though, as Claire, Mitch, and Jay get a call about Didi passing away. They don’t have the details, but they know that their mother/ex-wife is no longer with them.

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“Good Grief” handles the shift in tone beautifully. It doesn’t hop right into the grieving, instead peppering in just enough humor. When Mitch shows up at Phil and Claire’s house, he goes right in for a comforting hug, only to be thwarted by the legs of Claire’s spider costume. That little bit of comedy keeps the mood light while never shying away from the reality of what the family is going through. Once the news hits, the show makes another smart choice by having everyone cope with it in different ways. The varying reactions allows not only for a fair amount of comedy, but it also creates conflict that feels related to each character. It’d be easy enough for the show to simplify Didi’s death and deliver familiar, predictable reactions rooted in easy jokes, but this is something different.

What results is a complicated and genuinely moving portrait of grief, even if it is wrapped up in sitcom tropes. While Claire and Mitch set into a pattern of emotional swings, and both Cam and Phil struggle to deal with their complicated spouses, everyone else in the family finds their own way to deal with the news. Haley instantly begins binge eating, Luke can’t stop making jokes, Gloria worries about Didi haunting her from the grave, and Alex, who believes she’s the only one handling things normally, eventually seeks comfort in sex with her boyfriend Bill (the always welcome Jimmy Tatro).

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These various coping mechanisms provide the episode’s comedy. There’s Haley suddenly becoming smart because, as Alex points out, she’s finally not starving herself. There’s one beat after another, like Haley worrying about Alex “taking it harder than anyone” before walking in on Alex and Bill, or the reveal that Lily has been putting statues of Didi—a Christmas gift from years past from the self-centered grandmother— around the house in order to terrify Gloria because if there’s anything Didi would have wanted on this day, it’s “messing with Gloria.” This is one of the funniest episodes in quite some time, and I think it’s because the death of Didi allows for comedy that’s rooted in character rather than situation. Cam mentions that Didi is in the afterlife “surrounded by loved ones hearing…” and Phil’s “welcome to hell” chime finishes the sentence, and it’s a beat that’s perfect because of the earlier setup and because of what we know about Didi. She was sweet, but she was also an overbearing monster that drove her family crazy.

That contradiction is what leads to Mitch and Claire fighting with each other. Mitch wants to tell nothing but good stories about Didi, while Claire remembers that her mother once told her she “ate ice cream like a prostitute.” “Good Grief” doesn’t let the fighting devolve into pointless bickering, instead allowing the two perspectives to tell us a lot about Didi and her relationship with her kids. When Claire and Mitch reconcile, they have to admit they have different relationships with their parents. Where Mitch loved his mother dearly, he struggled to connect with Jay. Claire was just the opposite, butting heads with her mother and sharing a lot in common with Jay.

That conversation, where the two share their experiences and come to an understanding, is truly beautiful. It rings true, too; love can be shared equally, but there’s always an imbalance in any relationship, even within a family. People, be they parents, children, in-laws, or friends, aren’t perfect. We can give them labels and titles that suggest some sort of responsibility, some sort of level of love that’s more than others, but there’s still the human factor. There’s still different personalities, and they can clash or meld in unexpected, toxic, or joyous ways. Didi’s death doesn’t really matter from a viewer’s perspective, but what’s great about “Good Grief” is that it makes clear that her death matters to the characters of Modern Family. 

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Stray observations

  • Jimmy Tatro with the line of the night, talking about being surrounded by death at his job: “no one ever feeds the station goldfish.”
  • Cam is always full of sayings: “You don’t teach your dog to play the banjo and then skip the talent show.”
  • Alex dressed up as RBG is oh so perfect.
  • For once, I love the episode’s final tag. Didi’s death story is ridiculous, but the best moment is Phil nonchalantly reciting that she was “briefly swallowed by a whale.”

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