Spoilers ahead for the Halloween episode of Modern Family Season 10, called “Good Grief.”
Modern Family was making headlines even before it premiered its tenth (and possibly final) season on ABC when it was announced that the show would deliver a death. Although no details were given at the time about who could bite the dust, it didn’t feel likely that the death of a random minor character would have been worth mentioning to hype the new season. A member of the family seemed likely to be the one to die, and we just had to wait and find out who.
Well, the Halloween episode of Modern Family that is usually an episode primarily filled with holiday shenanigans took a somber turn with the reveal of who died. It was none other than DeDe, Claire and Mitch’s mom and Jay’s ex-wife. Despite the fact that DeDe only appeared in seven episodes (played by the always wonderful Shelley Long), she had a significant presence based on her impact on other characters’ lives. Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan has explained why DeDe was the one to get the axe, saying this:
We’re just trying to, at this point, put our characters through something new and interesting and challenging for us, so I think you’re right. That is one of the things that make this complicated and interesting. Whenever people have any kind of a complicated relationship with somebody, and then they die, it brings up a lot of things. So when we were talking at the beginning of the season about some different places to go, this idea came up, and we liked it. There will be, in fact, another episode that will deal with ramifications of this.
Surprisingly, Modern Family hasn’t dealt with death too many times over the ten seasons that have aired so far. The folks behind the scenes made the choice to kill off DeDe because her relationships with the various characters were complicated, and their reactions were all bound to be different. Claire and Mitch understandably had the strongest reactions, and Claire came to the heartbreaking realization that she was “as mean to Mom as she was to me.”
In a nice touch, Modern Family took the time to show Jay grieving in his own way. He hasn’t always spoken about his ex-wife with the most fondness, and DeDe actually turned up at his wedding to Gloria to tell her that she’d come back to haunt her. Nevertheless, she was his wife for many years and the mother of his two eldest children, and he expressed grief in his own way. As it happens, for Jay, “in his own way” meant “in relation to sandwiches.” This is a sitcom, after all.
DeDe’s death might have been a letdown to any fans who were waiting for one of the main members of the cast to have their character killed off, especially after one actor stated that “it’s probably not an older character” that would die. Shelley Long didn’t appear in the episode, although Claire did listen to a voicemail from her mom. Fortunately for any who would have been disappointed if DeDe got some sort of mundane death, Modern Family went appropriately over-the-top for her.
She died due to a heart problem that she generally disliked speaking about. On a trip to Greenland with her women’s group, she was saved by wolves and swallowed by a whale without suffering any ill health effects. Then, she died peacefully in her sleep at the hotel, holding onto a sheaf of directions for the hotel employees. It was a very Modern Family way to handle death.
Steve Levitan went on in his chat with EW to explain why Modern Family put the death in its usually silly Halloween episode:
This seemed like the logical choice because it so directly affects three of our main characters. It was also just a very nice send-off to the character and to Shelley Long, so it seemed like the thing to do. The idea, though, for setting it on Halloween came about because, well, I’ve always had a love for people going through something that is unexpectedly serious while in a silly costume. I’ve always just loved that sort of thing. We always do Halloween shows, and they’re a big part of this year’s series, so we thought, “Well, let’s try to do something that’s wildly different this Halloween.” And since it is, strangely enough, a holiday that deals with so many themes of death and things that are scary and all that, it seemed in a strange way appropriate.
After a decade on the air and plenty of Halloween episodes under his belt at Modern Family, Steve Levitan decided to do something very, very different. The decision to combine the promised death with the Halloween episode certainly meant a half-hour unlike any other the show produced before, and not just because the characters were processing death while dressed up in costumes that did not fit the somber mood.
Other shows might have simply used the Halloween theme for the cold open and then gone totally serious for the rest of the episode, perhaps even sending characters to a funeral. Modern Family went in an atypical direction, and the result was an episode that will likely keep people talking more than they would have for any old episode of a sitcom getting long in the tooth.
It is oddly fitting that Halloween is the holiday chosen for the death episode. Admittedly, Steve Levitan’s desire to drop serious news on characters in silly costumes wouldn’t have worked for Thanksgiving or Christmas, as neither holiday is one known for people dressing up in costumes, but it’s also fitting that Halloween is a holiday that deals with death. Instead of death in the mix because of people dressed as ghosts and zombies, the episode incorporated death with the passing of DeDe.