I don’t believe the Gallaghers would eat a bald eagle for Thanksgiving dinner.
One of the biggest issues with Shameless is the show’s inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to draw a clear line between poverty and flat-out grossness. The question has never been definitively answered: Are the Gallaghers disgusting because they’re poor, or because they just are? In a New York Times piece that ran when the show first premiered, showrunner John Wells talked about how he was trying to avoid a sanitized image of poverty, like what Roseanne or My Name Is Earl represented, in favor of something much more desperate and damaged.
It’s a good goal to shoot for, but Roseanne felt like a show about real people, even when the Conners made choices that they probably wouldn’t have made had they been a few rungs higher on the social ladder. With Shameless, it seems like the writers are under the impression that by writing the most outrageous, depraved, taboo-breaking things they can come up with, they are tapping into a heightened version of what life is like for a family like the Gallaghers. But it’s precisely these moments that often make this show feel so artificial. To present an unsanitized vision of American poverty makes sense; to present a hyperbolically scuzzy vision of American poverty doesn’t, at least if the object is to create a show that the audience can invest in, rather than merely a vehicle for gut-punch laughs.
“Just Like The Pilgrims Intended” was a problematic episode of Shameless because there was an imbalance between the reality and the fantasy of the Gallagher world, and the bald eagle symbolized that perfectly. I buy that Carl would play target practice with an Uzi tossed out of a fleeing criminal’s car, and I can buy that he would proudly drag home a bald eagle and present it to the family. What I don’t buy is that there would be absolutely no resistance to cooking and eating it for dinner, except from Steve, who comes to the rescue by buying a turkey. (This still doesn’t prevent Kev from putting the skinned eagle in the freezer and Veronica from proposing they save it for Christmas dinner.) Perhaps more than anything else Shameless has presented, this was an invitation to the audience to sneer at the Gallaghers, to look down at them for their complete absence of moral boundaries, which is precisely what I thought we weren’t supposed to be doing. That isn’t cool. Especially when, again, I don’t think this is something the Gallaghers would do. Steal a turkey, absolutely. Eat a bald eagle? Not so much.
Maybe I’m dwelling too much on this plot point, but for an episode focused on a Thanksgiving celebration, there wasn’t a whole lot of meat on its bones. Monica is still in the trough of her latest bipolar cycle, unable to eat or get out of bed, until Frank bathes her, cokes her up, and drags her to his brother Clayton’s house to scheme a share of Nana Gallagher’s estate. Debbie worries that she might be stricken with depression, until she receives a pep talk from a naked homeless man who climbs out of their pool and seems totally unperturbed that he’s free-balling in front of a pre-teen girl. (Yet another example in the Shameless universe of a character whose poverty prescribes that he have no basic concept of social conventions.) Ian meets a new sugar daddy at the gay bar he went to with Monica, while Sheila and Jody have started carrying on in earnest after Karen gives her blessing. Karen continues to be selfish and awful, as she prepares to auction off her unborn child to the highest bidder, with no interest in making sure it goes to a suitable home.
There was major movement on the Steve front—though I suppose I can officially start referring to him as Jimmy from now on—as the dumbest subplot of the season was wiped clean in a matter of seconds. After finally rescuing Marco from his shipping container and reuniting him with Estefania, Jimmy agrees to give Marco his Steve identity if it means he can completely disengage with the mess he made in Costa Rica. Marco agrees, Jimmy and Lip hightail it out of the Ritz, and it’s as if Estefania never existed at all. I’ve had my issues with Estefania from the beginning, since she was never able to exist beyond being a tan-lined obstacle between Jimmy and Fiona. But it would have been nice to see something, anything come out of the character’s time on the show. Even Fiona, who has used Estefania as her rationale for not letting Jimmy back into her life, fails to even mention her existence when he shows up at Gallagher Manor looking for a place to crash. She kisses him passionately, a thank you for kicking Lip out, and reminds him that he’s still on probation, and it’s as if it was all a dream.
None of this typical Gallagher drama prepared me for the emotionally draining final stretch of the episode, which was certainly bracing, but not quite enough to make up for what came before it. Karen’s water breaks, and Sheila and Jody rush her to the hospital, while Lip becomes the unwitting wheel man in an armed robbery attempt by the Milkovich brothers. Meanwhile, Monica, who spent the episode in a fetal position under the stairs, is dragged out for Thanksgiving dinner but decides to stagger into the kitchen and slit her wrists. The suicide attempt was a gut-wrenching scene, made all the more poignant by Frank’s true-to-form decision to bolt from deep, difficult responsibility. Frank and Monica’s interactions were terrific and emotionally incisive throughout the episode, and really, looking back on the season, it’s pretty amazing how much the writers have managed to humanize Frank, who was quite the fly in the broth at the season’s start.
Now the most detestable character crown goes to Karen, who spits venom at everyone after giving birth to a half-Asian baby with Down’s syndrome. It’s not a huge surprise that Lip isn’t the father of Karen’s baby, and hopefully, this means Lip can finally stop struggling with the concept of fatherhood and pull himself out of the nosedive he’s been in all season. But now that the baby has been born, Karen’s utility as a character is about to become a whole lot more baffling. Unless something new is introduced in the season finale, Shameless is going to run into the same issue in season three that it had at the beginning of season two: so many characters, so little time.
- What ever happened to Jasmine? I didn’t expect to ever say this, but I kind of miss her, and wish there had been more of a plan for what could have been an interesting character. It seems like she’s a casualty of the choice to make Shameless an ensemble show, rather than a character study of Fiona. There’s just not enough room for a character like Jasmine to really blossom.
- Back to the inanity of the Marco-Estefania resolution: Having Marco menace Steve/Jimmy with a corkscrew sticking out of his butt cheek is an example of the problem with this show’s constant outrageousness one-upsmanship. I’ll see your naked Jody, and raise you a naked Marco with a bleeding butt wound.
- I think I’d watch a show about Jody, Sheila, and the baby.
- It’s surprising that the show has never used “Blitzkrieg Bop” in a scene before, but better late than never.