Shameless could just as easily be called Restless, seeing as how it almost never sits still for long. It’s among the show’s strengths; the episodes nearly all begin with some kind of time lapse, however brief, following the events of the preceding episode, lending the series an immediacy that mirrors its characters’ desperate circumstances. There’s really no such thing as downtime for the Gallaghers, and no relief even after the dam breaks.
“Iron City,” for possibly the first time in Shameless history, deals with the immediate aftermath of the previous episode, often to devastating effect. By no accident, it’s also likely the best hour of television the show has ever produced, and when Emmy campaign season comes circling back, its voting body shouldn’t be surprised if they end up watching it more than once. It’s submission-worthy for damn near the show’s entire cast.
Wisely, John Wells’ script picks up right where “There’s The Rub” left off, with Liam in the throes of acute cocaine toxicity and Fiona being processed and booked. Fiona spent the bulk of the episode locked up, and her incarceration made for some of the most effective material I’ve seen depicting the dehumanization and psychological devastation of prison life. It’s not unfamiliar material, but it’s used to great effect because of the choice to chop Fiona’s brief jail stint into separate, distinct scenes rather than rushing through the formalities in order to spend an episode mining the same territory Orange Is The New Black has staked out so well.
In these sorts of stories, there’s often a lot of attention paid to the “bend over and cough” aspect of prison processing—and there’s a good amount of it here too, played fearlessly by Emmy Rossum—but the smaller, subtler moments were even more affecting. The worst of it for me was the moment when Fiona was marched into the falling snow while being transferred. I’m not sure I’ve seen a moment quite like that. I immediately understood how horrific that must be, to walk outside, inhale cool, fresh air, feel a snowflake land on your skin, and see the distant lights of faraway buildings before being tossed into the back of a van and hauled to the next corral.
But as difficult as it was to watch Fiona go through all that, “Iron City” didn’t let her off the hook. Adorable Liam thrashed and convulsed so violently that he’s strapped to his hospital bed when Lip is finally allowed to see him. Lip is the one who has to see Liam unconscious, with tubes and wires wrapped around his little limbs, and the one who has to hear the doctor rifle off the immediate, and potentially permanent risks to his health. Lip’s rage towards Fiona and ambivalence about scraping up 10 large to bail her out is completely understandable, and Jeremy Allen White and Rossum nailed her hard-earned prison phone call. They were both going through hell, and as the audience, we got to see how knowing Liam’s condition and not knowing were equally excruciating in different ways.
“Iron City” finds Frank in even worse condition than Liam, nearly killed by Roger Running Tree’s sweat lodge and Sammi by his side. Upon his 56th visit to the general hospital—two shy of the record—Frank gets the prognosis he’s been working towards since he started drinking at 12. He’s going to die. Soon. I never thought I’d mourn the potential passing of Frank Gallagher, but the doctor’s report knocked me back, and it occurred to me that, though I’m as loath to admit it as most of his children, I’d be sad if Frank wasn’t around. And Shameless could very easily kill him off, given how the show has evolved into an ecosystem that can lose just about any of its characters, save Fiona, and be no worse for the wear. (Even Ian’s biggest fans could concede that his absence hasn’t been as deeply felt as they would have imagined.)
I’ve written a lot here about how Shameless most meanders when the writers are trying to figure out what to do with Frank, but he’s the standard-bearer of the show’s beyond-black humor, and Shameless wouldn’t be quite the same without him. Somewhere during the course of these three-and-a-half seasons, this scrappy little show crept under my skin. And I might not have realized how true that was if I hadn’t seen Frank’s breakdown after he rolled himself out of the hospice. I even care about Frank. I’m relieved when he’s missing for a few episodes, but I also don’t want him to die. Damn you Shameless.
I thought Fiona’s prison stint might be spread over at least two episodes, but I wasn’t disappointed to see it wrapped up within one. Especially given how it came about, with the knife-twist of having Fiona rescued by Mike, who put up his condo as collateral to get her sprung. It compounds the regret Fiona was already feeling about her affair with Robbie. That she shanked a solid, caring, compassionate guy for a few illicit thrills was bad enough; that he was willing to ride in on a white horse and rescue her at her lowest, all things considered, is worse still.
Fiona’s final scene was a perfect note on which to end the episode, with Fiona returning to Gallagher Manor to find it completely empty, as the extended clan celebrated Liam’s release from the hospital. With Liam’s long-term health still up in the air, and the child welfare agent preparing to pounce, the Gallaghers are far from clear of the storm Fiona’s negligence has created. She’s home, but it might be a while before she’s truly part of the family again.
- I know there’s a ton of stuff I didn’t get to, but if I exhaustively wrote about how amazing this episode was, the review wouldn’t go up until Tuesday and would be 70,000 words, not including Infinite Jest-style footnotes.
- I gotta assume this won’t be the last opportunity Fiona has to give Robbie up as the source of the cocaine, which is going to make for an incredibly complicated decision.
- The Sheila/Roger Running Tree stuff as silly as it has been, but Joan Cusack got a few more scenes to show how heartbreaking she can be as Lonely Sheila. Also, I gotta say that the Roger Running Tree plot is the type of thing that demonstrates the limitations of episodic television reviews. Frank’s incapacitation drove this episode, as Lip tried to track him down to keep Liam out of foster care, and the sweat lodge was the catalyst for that. Granted, it’s ideal when you enjoy the journey as much as the destination, but episodic reviews force you to evaluate stuff that isn’t quite ripe for evaluation yet.
- Anybody else get the impression the goal is to eventually move Frank back in with Sheila? I don’t know if I love that, but I’ll wait to see.
- Debbie picked a great time to introduce Matt, what with everyone distracted with Liam. Though that will be an ongoing conversation, presumably.
- Lip, meanwhile, didn’t pick the best time to finally pull his academics together, because it certainly won’t be his main focus now. Also, how awesome is Lip’s roommate?
- Sammi: “Liam is black?” I sure wish the show wouldn’t keep throwing that in my face. I’m watching a show in which a black child was born of two white people, and my compliance with that ought to be enough.