Shameless: “Survival Of The Fittest”
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Shameless: “Survival Of The Fittest”

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Shameless

“Survival Of The Fittest”

Season 3, Episode 12

Something told me, when I wrote up last week’s episode and talked about how superfluous Shameless finales tend to feel, that I’d watch this week’s episode and wind up with egg on my face. Sure enough, “Survival Of The Fittest” made me feel this small, delivering another impressive episode right on the heels of “Order Room Service,” one of the season’s best. It is, at least, the finest finale Shameless has ever delivered, closing some loops while leaving others open in interesting ways and providing well-earned character moments. I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of those season finales that could, if absolutely necessary, serve as a series finale.

Of course, if that were to happen, it would leave one of the biggest loose ends untied: Jimmy’s fate. To be clear, I don’t think Nando killed Jimmy or that Jimmy is dead. As for what happened to Jimmy, there’s no point in speculating, as it will no doubt be addressed in season four. But as a general rule, you would have to be a jabroni to fall for the ol’ off-screen death ruse. Plus, given how much of Shameless’s success lies in its excess, and the great pains to which the writers go to deliver the most shocking moments possible, it’s hard to believe they’d have the restraint to resist wringing something indelible out of Jimmy’s death, if that’s the route they were going.

But even though the audience doesn’t know what ultimately became of Jimmy, we know plenty more than Fiona does. That bit of dramatic irony made it tough to watch her go through the emotional phases one would associate with a partner dropping out of sight after an especially nasty argument. She can’t concentrate on work because she’s too busy staring at the phone. She’s calling Jimmy to leave messages—first a fuck-off-and-die message, then a “Bigmouth Strikes Again” follow-up message to mitigate the first one. She’s feeling her heart sink as Kev offers her an illuminating theory for Jimmy’s behavior: maybe Jimmy actually decided to listen when she told him not to come home.

We’ve seen a lot of growth from Fiona this season emotionally, and the lesson that’s hitting her the hardest is that she’s been right all these years to think she doesn’t need anyone. Given her history—keeping the family glued together after Frank and Monica checked out—of course she would think she doesn’t need anyone. But sometimes, you really want someone, and the biggest issue in Fiona and Jimmy’s relationship has been the degree to which she never fully understood that she didn’t have to need Jimmy to want him around. That’s a consequence of Fiona taking on the role she has in the family; she has conditioned herself to self-sacrifice and to instinctively devalue choices that only serve her, or could threaten her ability to serve her family.

This revelation, assuming it’s the one Fiona was having as she stood in the snow in that lovely final shot, mirrored the one she had about Frank as she dealt with his health condition. Fiona has absolutely no use for Frank, and his presence has never been more of a net negative than when he called child services on his own family, but she wants him around—alive, at least—because he’s her father. It’s hard to make a case to someone like Frank that he should consider how other people feel about his actions, but Fiona does her best job, and in doing so manages to see a glimpse of the value in the father who has done little to act like one.

A few of the Gallaghers got to share these moments with Frank in an episode that was especially high on emotional payoffs. Lip spent the day celebrating his delayed graduation with Frank, following a raucous scene in the Alibi Room where Frank wins the pot in a push-ups contest. Lip can’t contain his pride, and the two share the moment of victory. A moment like that has to be poignant for Lip, someone who never got that childhood experience of watching his father change a flat tire or climb up to fetch a Frisbee off the roof and suspecting he might secretly be a superhero. (Frank would be, what, The Wino Warrior?) Frank tosses up a good amount of blood as the two are ice skating, and as he lays in the hospital, Carl sneaks out to give him the most heartwarming mullet ever, shaving his head to “let the sunlight in,” a breathtaking callback to the cancer camp story. Eventually, Frank tires of his room with a view and goes off wandering into the snow, wearing only his shoes and hospital gown. At least one Shameless finale trope held up: We part with Frank having no idea where he’ll end up, much like the character himself more often than not.

Most characters wound up at a significant crossroads where the episode left off. Lip was accepted to MIT, which apparently went for his “Can I just build robots all day?” sales pitch, and thanked Mandy for her help. Will he go? Too soon to say. Jody and Karen are off to Sedona with Hymie, leaving Sheila completely alone in the house that used to be her entire universe. After Debbie encourages her to make some friends of her own, she starts having sex-toy parties at the house. “Take what you love and turn it into a career,” said someone who probably wasn’t thinking about enormous black dildos at the time. Fiona has accepted a full-time gig at Worldwide Cup. Jimmy, of course, is a giant interrobang. And Ian is off to basic training after using a fake ID to join up before he’s of age.

But Ian didn’t leave Chicago before getting the satisfaction he so rightly deserves, of seeing Mickey’s façade crack just a little after finding out that he was about to lose Ian. The writers didn’t go so far as to have Mickey completely give in and admit his feelings—a choice I admire—but I’m sure it was mother’s milk to Ian-Mickey ‘shippers all the same. Even better was Mandy’s reaction to Mickey, taunting him for letting Ian leave without saying or doing more to express how he felt. It was a smart way to recast Mickey’s “not everyone gets to talk about their feelings” bit from last week. Maybe everyone isn’t encouraged to be emotional, but everyone has the power to push through their comfort zone, and Mickey’s refusal to do so is what makes him cowardly.

While it didn’t contain any histrionic cliffhangers, “Survival Of The Fittest” did escort all of its characters to destinations that honor their journeys through the season, and leave intriguing questions about where the Gallagher Clan will be when next we see them. You can’t ask for much more from a season finale, and it’s especially an achievement for Shameless, a show that has never figured out how to thread that needle before.

Stray observations:

  • This episode’s Line That Made Me Laugh Most Ashamedly goes to Frank’s conversation with his new cellmate about the crimes they committed. The cellie beat his wife to death with a phone. “Cordless or a landline?” “Sidekick.”
  • I hate to complain when this episode delivered so many wonderful scenes, but given Debbie’s dynamic with Frank this season, I’d have loved to see her get a moment with Frank.
  • As much as I admire the choice of leaving Jimmy's fate hanging for a while, I hope there's a really solid plan for bringing him back. 
  • Debbie did get a great scene, though, when she rightfully pointed out that Fiona is fine with her behaving like an adult, but only when it suits Fiona.
  • Kev, V, and Mama managed to reconcile their differences, even when it was revealed that Carol had gotten pregnant during the first fumbling attempt and had been lying since. The explanation felt a bit flimsy, considering the late-night texts and such, so I wouldn’t be shocked if that dynamic continues to play out through the pregnancy. (“The doctors say sex can induce labor!” Carol will say, in a last ditch effort to have more sex with her son-in-law.)
  • I think the season MVP goes to Joan Cusack, who absolutely slaughtered that goodbye scene with Jody and Karen, and has consistently delivered throughout. I was conflicted about the way Cusack chose to play Sheila initially, but she’s managed to make a potentially cartoonish character real and relatable.
  • Kudos to Emmy Rossum as well, who is so consistently good that sometimes I fear I don’t mention it enough.
  • So like, is Mickey’s new wife living at the Milkovich house? Or does she have her own bachelorette pad with some other wacky Russian prostitutes? And can that be a show?
  • Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I hope to join you next year. 

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