'Modern Family' Season Finale Rests in Peace

A death in the family brings the gang together.

The circle of life continued for the tight-knit bunch on "Modern Family." In fact, it's been a major theme for the acclaimed ABC comedy since day one (who can forget Cameron holding up baby Lily to the iconic "Lion King" song in the pilot episode?) and was explored to an equally literal level throughout Season 4: from the birth of Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and Jay Pritchett's (Ed O’Neill) baby boy, Fulgencio Joseph Pritchett, to, well, a death in the family in the finale.

While death is not typical family-sitcom fodder, "Modern Family" worked it out and regained some of its signature charm that's sadly been hit or miss all season. As Rachel Stein of Television Without Pity put it bluntly, "Even if I hated the rest of Season 4 (mostly just seven eighths of it, really), 'Goodnight Gracie' was one of the best episodes of 'Modern Family' ever. The plotlines were fun and unpredictable, the ensemble was well-used, and the conceit was incredibly sweet."

The episodes are always best when the whole gang hangs together, and the finale almost nailed it on that point (Lily and baby Joe were absent), sending the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clan to Florida for a funeral. "Obviously the word funeral doesn't conjure up any heartwarming or humorous thoughts, but on this show that's exactly what you'll get it," wrote Leigh Raines of TV Fanatic. The death was that of Phil's (Ty Burrell) mom, Grace, a character we've never met — which is probably for the best. While her death was not a surprise (she'd been sick), it still tugged on the heartstrings as the fam gathered to support Phil and his dad, Frank (Fred Willard). Not to mention that Phil teared up — a particularly poignant moment.

"Good night, Gracie"

Before his mom passed, she left personal notes for Phil and the Pritchett kids. The most notable were those for Phil and Alex (Ariel Winter). Phil's included Grace's dying wish … to Phil's surprise, it's not to throw her ashes in the Pope's face. Instead, it asked Phil to set his dad up with a nice lady from the neighborhood, Annie Fitzsimmons (Anita Gillette). Why? "Single men are in short supply here, and a lot of scheming harpies will swoop in before your father knows what hit him. I love Frank, but he'll follow anything with a casserole," she wrote in her farewell. Clearly, by retirement community standards, Frank is quite the stud. While Phil was completely against the idea, Claire (Julie Bowen) insisted he at least pursue her last request.

Following some mishaps involving Claire taking the reigns and mistaking Annie's brother for her boyfriend, Phil does eventually talk to her, and she's as wonderful as his mom thought, leading him to have one last motherly moment and warm hug with the kind stranger, who — if Grace's last wish is ever realized — might someday be his stepmom. Fans were thirsty to see Claire and Phil support each other, and her concern added some much-needed depth. Alan Sepinwall of HitFix put it best: "There are times when I watch the show and wonder why Phil and Claire stay together (or Mitchell and Cam, for that matter), but even though he took pleasure in getting her to admit what they thought was her mistake, there was an overall sense of warmth between them throughout that's often been lacking in the past."

Like grandmother, like granddaughter

Alex, who insisted her relationship with Grandma Grace was deeper than that of her siblings, was shocked to receive an old lighter with an abrupt letter that read only, "This is a lighter." Little did she know that the Florida humidity glued the card shut. After prying it open, the message inside was personal and touching. The lighter, in fact, once belonged to Paul Newman, Grace's favorite actor. She snagged the keepsake after he forgot it on the table of the restaurant she worked at as a young woman. One customer saw her slip it in her pocket; it was Frank, and that's how they met. The moral of Grace's note to Alex … and of the episode:

More awesome moments

Cam (Eric Stonestreet) took to the retirement community like a fish to water. Mahjong, anyone? He befriends the local ladies group and claims that he's thrilled to be away from the day-to-day drama of his Cali lifestyle. But when he starts gossiping, it's pretty clear who the dramatic common denominator is. But we already knew that, didn't we?

Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who helped Gloria to get a years-old bench warrant for conspiring to commit prostitution (she didn't do it!) dismissed in a Florida court, discovers that he's still got the magic touch. He's been disenchanted with his boring desk job as an attorney lately and might head back to the courtroom in Season 5.

Jay reunites with the older woman he had a very special first experience with (wink, wink) when he was 18, before heading off to war. He always thought fondly of her as a kind, angelic beauty. What he didn't expect was that he wasn't quite as memorable to her:

There's little doubt that Season 4 signed off on a much-needed high note, considering its inconsistent season, but not everyone was on board. "While there are good amusements in all the subplots, this episode feels cluttered for a finale. It’s too packed with ho-hum characters we’ve never seen," wrote Vulture's Zach Dionne. But overall, the episode was well-received — particularly by fans — and as Billy Nilles of Zap2It commented, "['Modern Family' has] been known for expertly marrying its farcical comedy with a heartfelt celebration of family. 'Goodnight, Gracie' is a fine example of that formula, proof that this show has steam to run on for as long as ABC allows it."

Here's what more fans are saying about the finale on Twitter! Sound off in the comments below.

Watch the full ep: