Shameless: “My Oldest Daughter”
A-

Shameless: “My Oldest Daughter”

Shameless hit an honest-to-goodness stride in the back half of last season, and by the end of season three, I was fully convinced that the pretty-good-to-very-good show I’d been watching was actually an excellent show with an ill-advised haircut. “Simple Pleasures” was a slight downshift, but considering the show’s established start-slow pacing, it was an auspicious beginning to season four that solidified the Shameless streak. So it’s not surprising that “My Oldest Daughter” worked incredibly well, but why it worked so well is a little curious.

One of this show’s greatest strengths is how richly and thoughtfully the writers have populated its universe, thereby rendering a physically small neighborhood with a panoramic scope. There is a massive amount of characters, not one of which feels detached from the universe, even when they sometimes feel narratively superfluous. With the revelation of Frank’s mystery eldest daughter Samantha, we’re about three characters away from Southside Westeros. (That show would be called, what, Game Of Porcelain Thrones?)

If there’s something “My Oldest Daughter” is missing, it’s that wide scope. Ian is still missing-in action, and Sheila was benched this week. There are no doings at the Milkovich Estate, either. And Fiona’s relationship with Mike is early enough in its development that it doesn’t anchor the show the way Fiona’s relationship with Steve did. If I’d seen that description on paper prior to seeing the episode, I would have expected something that felt slight, but that wasn’t the case here. If anything, Shameless suddenly felt laser-focused, and the result is an episode with more intimacy than Shameless is usually able to create.

The Fiona story has basically everything I want from a Fiona story, and gave Emmy Rossum an opportunity to display all of the character’s best and worst qualities. I’m really enjoying Fiona’s development at Worldwide Cup, which makes me feel like my investment in the show is really starting to pay dividends. Fiona has really matured, and she’s a person who so clearly wants to grow, I appreciate that the writers have given her an opportunity to do so. (Especially considering how much humor they wrung out of Fiona’s assortment of odd jobs—wading through a pool of shit and other delights.)

Fiona’s promotion to salesperson gives her an opportunity to show the pluck she’s used to keep her family relatively sane and fed more often than not. She jumps right in, applies herself, and starts killing it on day one. Season-one Fiona would have probably started a fight with Mike about how he was giving her a promotion out of pity and how she doesn’t want to fuck someone who feels sorry for her. Instead, she takes yes for an answer and starts proving she deserves the faith Mike puts in her.

Still, despite Fiona’s maturation, there’s only maybe another tablespoon in her half-empty glass than there was before. Fiona can be terribly fatalistic about her failure, professionally and personally, and that side of her takes over when a crazed motorist lays waste to the windshield of the company car. Instead of just telling Mike the truth, Fiona lies, assuming Mike will hang the blame for the incident on her. Unfortunately, Mike had already heard what happened from the police, not to mention the YouTube clip that was somehow not called “One Girl, One Cup, One Maniac with a Baseball Bat.” Mike was reasonable yet firm, which bodes well for their relationship. But as a commenter mentioned last week, this is looking like a season that will test Fiona’s capacity for growth. She’ll either rise to the occasion, or self-sabotage at every given opportunity.

The same could be said for Lip, who is still struggling with his bumpy transition to collegiate life. Lip’s is the classic “big fish in a small bowl” story, and his decision to attend a prestigious college is a brave one, but he made it not quite knowing what exactly he was committing to. That dogged recruiter sold him on a college experience consisting of him following pretty much whatever wacky academic whim that struck him, but college is proving to be real work. The women aren’t any easier, even the ones from his neighborhood, as they expect a level of ambition he’s never known to aspire to as the guy to whom the grades and the ladies have always come effortlessly.

Kevin and Veronica’s situation complicated exponentially with the revelation that V is having triplets, which means four babies on the way including Carol’s, otherwise known as the Spawn of Satan’s Threesome. Between that and Kev inheriting the borderline insolvent Alibi Room, this is the second episode in a row in which the Kev and V plot is an information dump and little else. Still, Kev and V finally feel like they are carrying a storyline of their own that feels substantive whether or not it intersects with what’s going on at Gallagher Manor.

The Samantha reveal comes courtesy of Carl’s story, which finds him hustling to find a liver donor for Frank, whose condition is rapidly deteriorating. Fiona is the family’s only suitable donor, which Carl finds out in the grossest way possible, in keeping with the Shameless tradition. But she’s unwilling to donate, and Frank casually mentions he’ll just ask his oldest daughter if she’ll do it.

I felt a lot of things at once about that cliffhanger. There is definitely that jolt of excitement that most cliffhangers deliver, even if they don’t seem quite as alluring when you take a few minutes to think about them. And if I’m being honest, I had a twinge of remorse after getting that jolt here. For one thing, while it’s absolutely plausible that Frank would have random kids, even some Fiona doesn’t know about, there’s something about introducing a new Gallagher kid this late in the game that would probably feel cheap no matter how it was executed.

By the fourth season of a television show, beats that once felt familiar and comfortable start to feel stiff and stale. That’s tough to avoid, and I don’t fault Shameless for its familiarity. I just don’t want “Frank’s got a new kid or ex-wife” to be to Shameless as “Riggins starts banging a new woman” was to Friday Night Lights: a repetitive plotline logically built on who the character is, but that still never figures out how to feel organic to the story.

I’m also worried the addition of Samantha will pull some of the focus away from the interesting new layers the writers have found in Frank’s addiction. I never know quite how I’m supposed to feel about what happens in Shameless, and embracing this show has been all about getting comfortable with its awkward, grey tones. But as absurd as it looks when Frank is squirting hooch into his eyes, Shameless has never been as—ahem—sober about Frank’s illness as it has in the past four episodes. I think a lot of fun could be mined from a culture clash brought on by Samantha’s arrival. But Shameless feels bracing and alive when it’s staring Frank’s addiction right in the boozy eyes, and I hope that doesn’t get lost when the story changes direction. 

Stray observations:

  • Speaking of cliffhangers, I’m really worried about Debbie. The way she runs into the house after her date with Creepy Fitzsimmons, as I will now be calling him, didn’t look good at all.
  • For some reason I really got a kick out of watching Fiona rock out in the car between appointments. I wish the Hollywood Foreign Press Association would toss Rossum a nomination one year to recognize her great work.
  • Ethan Cutkosky’s performance worked my nerves this week. “But he’s dying.” There was something really off about that line reading.

More TV Club