The Middle premiered a week after Modern Family back in 2009, and for most of those years the modest middle class, middle American sitcom was overshadowed by its progressive sibling. Modern Family won a boatload of Emmys and influenced the next decade family comedies while The Middle quietly and dependably performed well for its devoted audience. Then in March, Roseanne came back as a mega-hit and tilted the TV landscape toward heartland shows like The Middle, just in time for its last run of episodes. And The Middle made them count, ending with a one-hour finale on Tuesday that tied things up sweetly and neatly with some really lovely lines about what it means to be part of a family.
Eldest Heck son Axl (Charlie McDermott) decided he was taking the job in Denver, which meant he was leaving Indiana and the nest. Frankie (Patricia Heaton) put on a brave face and tried to act like she was cool about it, because she worried that if she was too clingy he would never come back and visit. Sue (Eden Sher) wanted to force a moment with her brother, which he resisted. Brick (Atticus Sheffer) seemed more concerned with what he'd do with their bedroom now that he had it all to himself. And Mike (Neil Flynn) was his usual stoic self.
After some funny scenes of getting ready to go, including a family trivia contest to see who would get Axl's car (Sue won the prize even though she lost the contest), Axl and Brick finally stopped acting like it wasn't a big deal that he was leaving. Brick told his brother that he's just trying to figure out what his life will be like now that Axl's not always in it.
"You're like my arm or something, like having to suddenly learn to write with your left hand," he said. Sue joined them, and she and Axl finally had the moment she'd been craving where they reminisced about the times they had growing up. That's when Sue explained to her brother why she was so happy being the middle child.
"The middle is the safest place to be," she said. "You've got love on both sides of you."
On moving day, Mike gave Axl a beautiful gift. Mike got his father's watch repaired and passed it along to his own son, with the latitude and longitude of the Heck house engraved on the back so Axl never forgot where he came from.
Speaking of long-distance, Sue's longtime crush/onetime lover Sean Donahue (Beau Wirick) found a snow globe she gave him in his bag while he was trying to go through airport security. Upon seeing the snow globe, he realized that he was still in love with Sue and tracked the Hecks down on the road.
Sean asked her where she got the snow globe, and she told him she found it in the trash. He explained that he had originally purchased the snow globe for Sue but threw it away when Axl told her she was dating someone else. He professed his love to her, and she reciprocated, saying "I love you so much back." Sue promised to hold onto the snow globe until he got back from his volunteering trip in Ghana, and then she promptly dropped it on the ground. But it didn't matter, because the snow globe did what it was supposed to: it brought them back together.
The Hecks got back on the road, and when Axl said to take him off the family data plan because he wasn't part of the family anymore, Frankie could no longer keep it together. She had Mike pull the car over and she got out, saying she couldn't go to Denver. She couldn't take that her family would never be together like this again.
"It's the end of an era," she cried. "It's never going to be the same again."
"That's the way it's supposed to be," Mike said, sagely. It's true; it's the natural order of a family. And this was a beautifully bittersweet note to play in the finale of a family comedy as clear-eyed as this one.
The show then gave us a flash-forward, narrated by Frankie, that showed where the kids ended up in life: Axl eventually moved back to Orson and had three boys just like him. Sue and Sean got married, which means the Hecks finally became Donahues after all. And Brick wrote a series of books about a boy who licks cars just like him. Also, he grew a beard that looked amazing on him.
Meanwhile, Frankie and Mike never won the lottery or fixed the wallpaper or patched the hole or replaced the washing machine. "But for all the things we didn't have, we sure had a lot," Frankie said, summing up what made The Middle — one of TV's most genuine depictions of lower middle class family life — so wonderful in the show's final moments.
It was a dignified send-off for a show that ran for over 200 episodes and never experienced a significant dip in quality. As a show, it was a lot like its characters: humble, hard-working and dependable.
ABC might be wishing right about now that The Middle wasn't ending, but this is the final farewell. Neil Flynn will be series regular on TV for an incredible 18th straight season, but not on this one; he'll be on the upcoming NBC series Abby's. But do not despair. The Middle got to end on its own terms and pat itself on the back for a job well done. That's the way it's supposed to be.