Everyone deals with death differently: Claire smiles at inappropriate times, Luke dives into TV and video games, Phil gets in the mood. The Dunphy parents struggled with how to deliver news to their son that the neighborhood’s aging ray of sunshine, Walt, had passed away. The old man died peacefully while writing a very angry letter to the Postmaster General, and will no longer be around to watch Claire through binoculars or sweat out his voluptuous Meals on Wheels volunteer. While Luke will miss the comforting glow of his television set, he was old, and this means he can now co-opt it for his own room. People die, but soon enough life moves on. That’s what the pause button is for, right?
But major life milestones are never supposed to go as smoothly as this. For all her Type A hangups and what can largely seem like a cold exterior, Claire was worried that Luke’s failure to lock himself in the closet was a sign he’d grow to lead an emotionally barren life. He and Walt were friends, yes, but his elderly neighbor was miserable and had no one to scatter his dog tags when he died — was her precious baby headed for the same fate?
It’s difficult to lecture on the importance of grieving properly, if there is such a thing, when the face of the late Heath Ledger takes over you each time you mumble the word “dead.” (If you need a little help generating tears, think of Michelle Williams’ acceptance speech at the Golden Globes beforehand.) Even Phil thought his wife’s facial tic-meets-coping mechanism was weird, although his “Walt’s dead” description felt like he’d just come out of a Netflix binge with his own belated Lost theory. Rather than let Luke loot Walt’s home like he was encouraged to do, Claire decided to hover, following her son around into submission, (her own) teary submission. Now that’s the Type A crazy we know and love!
While this episode was largely about loss, it was also about fathers. And Cam’s father just so happens to be a cowboy! Merle Stonewall Tucker (Barry Corbin), one of the finest gents in all of Missouri, was in town for a visit. He’s the kind of guy who wears denim jackets on all occasions, expects cold beer after any kind of manual labor, and considers Mitchell the more feminine one in his son’s relationship — at least as far as Jay’s concerned. A meeting of the parents can typically be an uncomfortable affair, but for the sake of a committed relationship, shared home, and cute baby girl, you’d expect both fathers to table whatever issues they have and share a meal. It’s not like the pressure would be on Jay and Merle to collaborate on a karaoke routine following dessert; since they were entertaining Cam was probably saving his Barbra Streisand for the after-dinner brandy anyway.
Still, seeing their son living with… somebody else’s son has been difficult for these two “tough guys” to accept over the years. If it makes it easier for Merle to swallow by assuming Mitchell was the more slender, effeminate, womanly one (and lavish him with jewelry), so be it. I’m all for Tucker family reunions, but this subplot was unfunny and entirely frustrating. Mitchell has referenced Jay’s struggle to come to terms to his sexuality in the past, usually resulting in humorous misunderstandings over balls you throw and balls you attend, but there’s never been much of a question as to whether or not he’s a supportive and loving father. In one way, exposing Cam’s dad as the larger opposition to their union adds another dimension to the intra-family dynamic, proving Jay to be more open and accepting than we all give him credit for.
But two aging alpha males bickering over whose son is daintier, because it makes them feel as if he isn’t gay, risks undoing all the greatness we’ve experienced from Jay over these three seasons. And having him take the bait, as the two ultimately bond over how uncomfortable the idea of a gay son is (“Yep, we got two sons and they’re gay for each other”), whittles him down to a one-note stereotype (get off my lawn!), or, like Gloria, the worst version of himself. Did we mention it wasn’t that funny?
NEXT: Thinking about sex or underage drinking? Not on Uncle Manny’s watch