Luke gets some bad news, Cam's cowboy dad dukes it out with Jay over dinner, and Phil expresses his desire to be buried in a room full of a college girls

By Emily Exton
April 19, 2012 at 06:00 AM EDT
Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC
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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

Perhaps the best bit of parenting came from Manuel Delgado, perpetual chaperone to parties thrown by people at least four years older. Haley played up the unconventional, blended family bit to convince her mom that her “uncle” would be watching her pool party, suggesting that either Cam or Mitchell would be ensuring proper water safety and refilling the chips. While Manny did just that — exits, fire extinguishers, burn kit? —  he also used this moment of power to impart wisdom on needy girls looking for validation through unsatisfying hookups and potentially awkward post-pool revelations. Not at all what he should be doing at his age, but like football (which proved to be very dangerous) I’m not sure he wants to be out there with those who don’t know how to use coasters.

Rather than have his bones rest uncomfortably anywhere other than a women’s college without being mourned by his middle daughter, Phil was committed to finding something he and Alex could do together to create a lasting memory. It’s no secret that Alex has been overlooked, both as a character and a cast member. As far as the children go, she doesn’t get the funny-because-it’s-age-inappropriate lines that Manny does, or have the dim-witted charm of her younger brother Luke. Despite the lack of traditional humor found in her bookish persona, she’s the quintessential middle child, arguably more intelligent than her parents, with one of the best senses of comedic timing of the entire cast. And no matter what Liz Lemon thinks, nerds deserve their fun, too. I’ve enjoyed watching her get more attention this season, that’s not solely driven from her family members complaining that her focus on detail or concern for her grades/common safety practices is a buzz kill.

It was about time the Dunphy parents switched things up, spending time with a different child rather than the one who so obviously mimics their own personalities. Logistically, everything Phil was suggesting for their adventure would never work, yet Alex knew his creepy and biologically implausible attempts to induce their waitress’ labor at the Moonbeam Diner were coming from a place of love. Luke may not want to be bothered by Claire’s pestering, but she smiles when other people are crying and that’s weird — and sort of awesome. Not every classmate has a mother who will scare away a FedEx guy.

NEXT: Phil remembers his middle child, plus the night’s best quotes 

But overall it was the impromptu road trip that had the most meaning. While Jay was experiencing a relapse of his old-school sensibilities, his passing of the patriarchal torch and its accompanying tear-jerking methods meant Phil was the one leaving me drying my eyes and texting my father by episode’s end. You see as a father, it’s tough to compete with all the other cool dads out there — and not just in terms of hip slang or technological prowess, both of which Phil Dunphy excels in. Phil will forever be both amazed and infuriated by Eugene Cernan, Apollo 17 commander, “last man on the Moon,” and Best Dad Ever simply because he wrote his daughter’s initials in moon rock. Phil may not have passed NASA’s entrance exam, but he knows how to improvise. All those pony memories he thought were with Alex will eventually be forgotten, but her beautiful initials on the sign of that roadside diner will exist forever — or at least until Dairy Queen comes along to snatch up its World’s Greatest Milkshake recipe.

QUOTABLES

“It was very peaceful. Not the letter that was full of threats, but…” –Phil

“I can’t believe I got ’em this stuck. I’ve built beds my whole life: bunk beds, dog beds, cow beds.” –Cam

“First of all it’s Merle. “Mervis” isn’t a name, it’s a sound.” –Mitchell

“Phil do we really have to go through this again? I told you I would do everything possible to make sure that your skeleton ends up at a science class of a women’s college.” –Claire

“Adventure? We are throwing dog tags into an already polluted ocean where they will probably choke an otter.” — Alex

“Young lady, I don’t think you’re ready up here for what you’re planning to do up there.” –Uncle Manny

“I would make the buildings and he would inspect them and if they weren’t up to code, ay yi yi, the paper work!” –Gloria

“I already yawned a little in my mouth!” –Phil

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I just found out my face does this!” –Claire

“You know what I’ll never forget? The time my dad spent an entire day trying to create a special memory for me. Or the time when a pregnant lady slipped in my vomit.”  –Alex

So what did you think? Will anyone really miss Walt? Was this episode merely a stepping stone before the upcoming season finale, or did “The Last Walt” leave its mark on the moon that is your television-loving brain?

Parents just don’t understand… and neither do kids or spouses in this hit ensemble comedy
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  • 09/23/09
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