Tradition and routine plays a role in our daily lives, but it’s never more apparent than it is during the holidays. It’s during those specific seasons that we truly cling to some sense of tradition. The reasons can be various: it can be comforting, a way of stabilizing ourselves in an ever-changing world. It can be about leaving a lasting legacy, having something that’s unique to our family and that can be passed on for generations. It can be about creating an atmosphere that’s special; I think about how Christmas, for me at least, inspires an elevated sense of closeness with my family simply because the tradition is there. The tradition forces you into mindfulness. You remember why you engage in these traditions, and how important they can be.

As “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Phil Dunphy” understands, those traditions aren’t always easy to keep alive. People grow up and forget about the traditions, or simply move on to new places and people, leaving all of their previous life behind. That’s where the Dunphy family is at as the episode begins. Phil, of course, is thrilled that Halloween is right around the corner, so much so that he’s even glad some kids threw toilet paper all over his lawn. That’s how much he loves the traditions of Halloween; the pranks, the atmosphere, the pure joy that comes with trying to scare your family. Claire is game too, jumping out of the fridge to terrify Phil first thing in the morning.

They run into a problem though: Alex, Haley, and Luke have no interest in the traditions anymore. They’re old and cynical and too cool for the shenanigans of their parents. The big shenanigan this year is inspired by Cam’s childhood. Phil wants to get a gigantic pumpkin, scoop out the inside, and hop in and sail down the river, just like Cam used to do. The kids immediately shoot it down. Alex has a date with Ben, Haley has an audition for a job on a cruise ship, and Luke has to be a total creep with two girls he’s fooling around with.

Cam finds similar disinterest in his traditions from back home, but perhaps for different reasons. He’s making meals and gearing up to watch the annual weigh-in for his hometown’s pumpkin contest, for which he’s held the record for 25 years, but he’s getting on Gloria’s nerves. Him and Mitchell have been living with her, Jay, and Joe for a while now, ever since Jay took over the renovation of their kitchen. The close living quarters, despite the gigantic mansion that they live in, has Gloria feeling like boundaries are being crossed.

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While not related to traditions, there’s a slightly similar tone to Jay and Mitchell’s storyline, and it all feeds into the episode’s climax. In essence, Mitchell is getting impatient with his father’s lack of urgency when it comes to the job of finishing the kitchen, and that forces him into a tough spot where, like the Dunphy kids, he has to confront his parent with some bad news. He takes a stand, asserting his authority, and fires Jay. He lays it on thick, letting a lot of anger go, even calling Jay’s greatest accomplishment “a closet, which is just a box of air.”

The joke’s on Mitchell though; the kitchen is done, and Jay didn’t tell him in that moment because he thought it’d be good for him to blow off some steam and be assertive for once. It’s been a common theme of the season for Mitchell. At every turn he’s been challenged to speak his mind and make sure he’s heard, so here he decides that his stained glass window will be the finishing touch in the kitchen door, not the glass Cam chose. He decides without checking with Cam, a big step forward for him. Then again, the stained glass ends up acting as a magnifying glass, and the kitchen once again burns down. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson: “You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.”

Mitchell’s outburst coincides with the episode’s climax, which sees everyone learn a lesson in acceptance and the importance of tradition. It’s not the most tightly orchestrated lesson Modern Family has pulled off, but it’s nonetheless effective. After Gloria blows up at Cam, she learns that he will be moving out and that his pumpkin record has been broken. Her outburst may have been warranted, but she also understands that it was too much, and that family deserves more patience and understanding. That’s what traditions, ideally, remind us of; they remind us that we shouldn’t take our loved ones for granted.

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Alex, Luke, and Haley go through that process as well. When Luke bungles his girl-juggling because he’s an idiot and a dishonest creep, and Haley flunks her audition, and Alex breaks up with Ben, they all realize that the one thing they can rely on is their parents’ ridiculousness. They need that in their life. It’s a constant, stabilizing force, no matter how embarrassing it might be from time to time. Sometimes you have to drop the cynicism and embrace something more joyful, an outlook that Linus espouses in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: “Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”

Stray observations

  • I have to say, Lily makes the most of her one scene tonight, a physical comedy bit where she passes out because Jay’s been using too much varnish in the kitchen.
  • Is anybody else kind of enjoying Joe now? Plenty of laughs from him this season.
  • Phil tells his neighbor that there’s four days in the year for pranks, then names three of them. “What’s the fourth?” “Nice try, Carol.”
  • Jay: “A city is like...” Mitchell: “a closet for civilization.” Jay: “This is the proudest day of my life.”
  • “It turns out you’re just the weird guy rolling down the street in a pumpkin tank.”
  • So that’s it with Alex and Ben? And he cheated? That’s one way to just nuke that relationship. Not that I’m complaining.

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