How life changes for all, from empty-nesting to far-away moves

Spoiler alert: This contains significant plot points from the “Modern Family” series finale. Don’t worry. Everyone’s OK.

The three families that make up ABC’s “Modern Family” spent 11 seasons clustered in Los Angeles. In Wednesday’s one-hour series finale, they spread their wings and moved on to new adventures in places near and far.

Co-creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd wanted the characters to mirror the feelings of loyal viewers who have befriended the Dunphys, the Pritchetts and the Tucker-Pritchetts over 250 episodes.

“Chris and I have always liked finales where people are in some form saying goodbye, because that’s what the audience is doing,” Levitan says. The goal: “Deliver a solid, funny episode that feels real and gives you that emotional sendoff I think everybody craves.”

Mission accomplished.

The first half-hour quickly sets the moving-on machinery in motion. A scene of morning mayhem – Luke (Nolan Gould) wakes up Dylan’s and Haley’s twins, family members cross paths in the second-floor hallway, Phil (Ty Burrell) stubs his toe – illustrates overcrowding in the Dunphy home.

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Phil and wife Claire (Julie Bowen) decide the house is too crowded and tell their three adult children that one will have to move out. Haley (Sarah Hyland) asks for an exemption, claiming daffy Dylan (Reid Ewing) is “a special-needs husband.” That doesn’t fly.

Meanwhile, as Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson)  prepare for a housewarming party where they will introduce their adopted baby boy, Cam learns the Midwest football coaching job he missed out on is available.

He’s planning to decline because he’s worried about uprooting Mitchell and daughter Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), but he blurts out his smoldering resentment with regard to the job offer, Cam-style, in front of a household of guests. A self-conscious Mitchell agrees to the move, but then tells Claire he felt forced into it in such a public setting.

Gloria (Sofia Vergara), meanwhile, is enjoying her budding career in real estate, but fears husband Jay (Ed O’Neill) and sons Manny (Rico Rodriguez) and Joe (Jeremy Maguire) won’t need her anymore. Manny’s heading out to pursue his film career, too.

It’s family upheaval times three.

By the end of the first half-hour, Mitchell sincerely commits to moving to rural Missouri out of love for Cam, consummating the decision with a karaoke duet, and Jay tells Gloria the family will always need her as he encourages her to embrace her career.

And Phil and Claire go from maximum occupancy to empty nest in minutes, as Alex (Ariel Winter) announces she’s got a new job – and maybe a boyfriend – in Switzerland; Luke says he’s going to attend the University of Oregon; and Haley and Dylan have found a new place.

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In the second half-hour, we get to the farewells. Mitchell, Cam and their kids stop by the Dunphy place to say goodbye, but they don’t actually leave because their flight is delayed by warnings of a tornado, flooding, hail and even locusts.

The stops and starts lead to interrupted hugs, touching moments – Cam is moved when Jay says, “Both my sons are leaving” – and aggravating ones, as when Jay protests time-killing pastimes: “Can we be done with games?”

The delay gives siblings Claire and Mitchell time to bond over their time as young skating partners, an experience that traumatized Mitchell and was the focus of a first-season episode. They steal their trophy from the rink and re-create their ice duet to “Hungry Like the Wolf.” 

“This is more sexual than I remember it being,” an uneasy Mitchell says.

Jay and Gloria aren’t moving on, but she wonders whether their marriage is in danger when he appears to repeatedly ignore her. Instead, he’s transfixed conversing with a foreign language app via earpiece and surprises his delighted wife by speaking to her in her native Spanish. He also commits to joining her when she visits family in Colombia. That’s amor.

Fortunately, we get one final comedy of errors from Phil in his never-ending attempt to bond with his father-in-law. As Jay lies on his bed seeking Spanish translations of his words – “Could I please have a spoon?” – Phil misinterprets that as a request and gets into bed to offer a supportive hug.

That shocks Jay, leading Phil to interpret the latest mix-up as “having added yet another embarrassing incident to our storied history, I will slink out.” But this once-shaky connection is much stronger now and Jay expresses appreciation for Phil’s support. 

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Meanwhile, in a last, cruel attempt at sibling bonding before going their separate ways, sisters Haley and Alex trick their naive brother, Luke, into re-creating a video they made as kids with him as their pet dog, Woofie. At the end, they’re all sad, realizing their lives are headed in different directions. Luke remains clueless, acknowledging the need to stay in touch with his sisters. 

“I don’t want to be one of those pathetic guys that lets women manipulate them,” he says. They pull closer together.

Back at the Dunphy home, Phil and Claire forlornly inspect an empty bedroom, taking in the imminent departure of their kids. When Claire asks what they will do now, Phil responds: “What people have always done: leave the porch light on. They come back.”

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Eventually, we get a family selfie that becomes the long-awaited super-hug, a weepier-by-the-dozen embrace in the Dunphy front hallway that recalls, at least to this writer, the group hug that closed an earlier sitcom classic, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” (It’s also a gesture that now seems alien in the social-distancing age of coronavirus.)

Both the characters and viewers deserved a well-earned cry, especially after the writers inserted a series of false-start embraces as “a way of avoiding the treacly ending by doing it multiple times but then ultimately getting to the actual one,” Lloyd says. 

Some sweet callbacks remain: Mitchell and Cam on a flight with their new baby son, much as they were with daughter Lily in the series premiere, and Jay and Gloria struggling with lawn chairs at Joe’s soccer games, echoing long-ago times watching Manny play.

Finally, we see evening exteriors of three familiar homes, with the lights going off at the Pritchett house, the Tucker-Pritchett place (where – surprise! – Haley, Dylan and their twins now live) and the Dunphy abode. After the briefest of pauses, the Dunphy porch light flips back on, a sweet nod to Phil’s sage prescription for empty-nesters.

The moment moved O’Neill, who recalled how impressed he was when he saw the porch light reference in the script. “I thought that was so sweet.”

This being TV, there was still a brief closing segment between the final commercial and the credits. Writers didn’t want to step on the moving porch-light image, so they closed with something found in every home: framed family photos, ending with a portrait of the clan, their all-white outfits splattered with mud, from the Season 1 finale.

It has special meaning for Lloyd. “I always loved that episode and that portrait is the only thing I took from the set when the series ended,” says the producer. “I thought that if we had to land on one image, that’s a good one because it is sort of metaphorical: Families are messy, but beautiful at the same time.” 


This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Recap: ‘Modern Family’ says goodbye with emotional series finale