Shameless is tackling some of life's most terrifying questions this season. What happens when you finally get the things you always thought you wanted, and they aren't quite what you expected them to be? What happens when fulfilling your dreams requires more of you than you realized, more than perhaps you're capable of doing? How do you upshift when you feel like you’re already going as fast as you can?
The theme of "growing pains" is a fascinating one to explore with the Gallaghers, who spent so many years treading water and can now at least see a chunk of dry land. It's to the show's credit that it grew out of the "desperate Gallaghers" model that dominated the first two seasons. As much as I enjoyed many of the the caper episodes like "Casey Casden" and "Aunt Ginger" (elder-abuse issues aside on the latter), I always wanted the Gallaghers to arc towards a place of greater stability. They've finally arrived there, but must now struggle to keep pace with the dedication, discipline and self-sacrifice that stability requires.
It isn’t new for the Gallaghers to grapple with difficult choices, but this breed of difficult choice is one they’ve never seen in the wild. Not “rich people problems,” of course, but “not as poor as we used to be” problems. I’d love for the Gallagher clan to step up and deliver in every situation, and while that’s unrealistic and probably wouldn’t satisfy me as much as I think it would, Shameless is now challenging to the viewer in a new way. It’s no longer a show about people making desperate choices to hang on to the lowest rung of the ladder. The Gallaghers are pulling themselves up to the next rung, and it’s taxing to watch as a viewer—we have as many fears of failure for the characters as they have for themselves.
From the start of the season, which opened with that nifty montage of Fiona and Debbie getting dolled up, Shameless has been drawing parallels between Fiona and her family, as they all adjust to dramatic shifts. In "Strangers On A Train," Fiona and Lip are practically mirror-images of each other as they vacillate between rising to their new challenges and trying to sabotage themselves so they can slink back to the comfortable status quo. Kev and Veronica functioned as Lip and Fiona’s psychotherapists, needling them to get to the bottom of what's driving their choices and saying to them what most of the audience wants to say to them: "It's okay to give something your all, even if doing so will often leave you disappointed."
Fiona is kicking ass at the new job, but she’s still feeding her addiction to the drama, tension, and electricity of dabbling with Robbie on the side. She claims to want him to leave her alone, but insists on telling him in-person, so she has an excuse to have another furious quickie with him. I thought by the end of this episode I'd have developed a bit more patience for the Fiona/Robbie storyline, but something about it still feels a bit facile. The psychology of it makes sense on its face, but maybe that’s the problem; "Fiona has an appetite for destruction" feels a bit too on-the-nose. And part of that is because Fiona's feet aren't quite being held to the fire yet in a way that allows us to see how she’ll handle a situation like this when it starts to threaten what she holds most dear.
There's a ton on the line here: Fiona's job and the relatively tony lifestyle it affords the Gallaghers, as well as her simmering relationship with Mike, a guy whose only flaw seems to be how sweet and uncomplicated he is. (And sweet in a genuine way, not in a cloying, sort of manipulative way like Robbie.) But I can't blame Fiona for making stupid choices in the face of abstract consequences, especially as the consequences feel abstract to me from the outside looking in. I don't necessarily want Shameless to go full-blown Three's Company—Fiona cowering under a counter as Mike hovers nearby came close enough—but I'll find the Robbie stuff more interesting as the writers continue tightening the sheets on the bed Fiona’s made.
There's certainly plenty of pressure on Lip, who goes over the edge when a series of mishaps results in his showing up six minutes late to a midterm. From reading the comments, I know a lot of you are having trouble with the "Lip struggles at college" storyline, and I understand that frustration to an extent. But Lip got comfortable being challenged in specific ways, by his family’s poverty and a heredity sexual attraction to the worst possible people, and I’m enjoying watching how he operates under this type of pressure. The final scene where the stodgy professor agrees to cut Lip a break was quite rewarding, and that’s the kind of thing Shameless needs—otherwise it gets too bleak. The hard-won successes leaven Shameless, and a moment like that is wonderful to watch now that the Gallaghers’ successes are harder-won than ever before.
I was relieved by the way Lip’s story rolled out, because I was hoping the endgame wasn't to show a series of academic setbacks that would ultimately lead to Lip quitting school. It's a too-easy solution to the problem—if you can call it that—of Lip being separated from the rest of the story. He trashes cars and runs from the campus police, hooks up with Mandy and floats the idea of having a baby, then swills at the Alibi Room while on a startlingly Frank-like tirade about the scam that is higher education. I thought Lip’s collegiate career was done.
Thank goodness for Kev, who steps in and gives Lip the pep talk he needs. Wisely, instead of just saying "You don't belong here," though there is a good bit of that, Kev plays on Lip's pride in being the perennial trickster. If you're so good at working systems, Kev says, why not figure out how to work this one? If I have to watch Fiona throw up roadblocks in her own path, I can't watch Lip do it too.
Debbie's story in "Strangers On A Train" made me nibble my fingernails and wince like anything Debbie-related has since this season began. I’m finally onboard with Matt, as he rebuffed Debbie’s advances once again, and admits to deleting a phony nudie she texted him. I have to say, I was surprised at how many commenters concluded last week that Matt was gay because he was unreceptive to Debbie’s advances, but given this show’s often puerile sense of humor, I suppose it wasn’t a terrible guess.
As it turns out, Matt’s into Debbie, but doesn’t think she’s ready to have sex yet. It seems like my initial read on Matt was correct—he’s behind the curve socially, enough that attention from a girl Debbie’s age affirms him in a nonthreatening way. He’s not a lech, though, and he doesn’t want Debbie to do anything she’s going to regret. But Debbie is determined to swim out to Holly’s depths, so she impulsively tries for a bathroom quickie at the bowling alley with a kid as inexperienced as she is, leading to the kind of awkwardly sweet scene Shameless excels at. “I wish I could skip the part where I don’t know what to do, and get to the part where I do,” Debbie says later as Fiona comforts her. Mouths of babes, am I right?
I continue to be fascinated by how much better Shameless seems to work when it focuses intently on some of its characters rather than trying to service so many at once. I love Sheila, and I adore Ian, but aside from Fiona, and possibly Debbie, I’m not sure there’s any character I’d miss if they were gone for a week. It’ll be interesting to see how later episodes this season will feel once more of the characters are pulled in.
- It’s wonderful to see that Mickey and Svetlana’s marriage is working out, y’know, with him being so supportive of her career and all. Upside for Kev is a new income stream, now that he’s gotten all the asbestos cleared out of Stan’s old place.
- Is it safe to assume this isn’t the last we’ve heard of Lip’s pipe-bender rampage? I can’t imagine something like that falls by the wayside indefinitely if Lip is staying in school.
- I thought we’d see more of Veronica’s discovery that Carl broke into her meds cabinet. Next week, I guess?
- I must admit, the opening scene with Robbie and Fiona’s El train indiscretion was pretty sexy.
- Carl has gone full serial killer at this point. On breaking Frank’s leg: “Can I put it on YouTube?” Frank: “Shh... no.”
- Nice work from music supervisor Ann Kline this week. There was more music than usual this episode, and none of it was excessive or distracting, which happens occasionally on this show.
- Emma Greenwell and Jeremy Allen White pulled off Lip and Mandy’s reunion scene impressively. It’s always tricky when you don’t want two characters together, but you want the actors that play the characters together. (See: Homeland.)
- Also, Emily Bergl was fantastic here. That guttural scream when she kicks Frank out of the trailer is epic. Oh yeah, Frank... he admits he’s Sammi’s father, and luckily she found out without giving him a portion of her liver, or the entirety of her mouth.
- File “Dry humping is not incest” under: “Lines you’d only hear on Shameless.”
- Alex Borstein was back for a split-second as Frank’s shady lawyer.
- Lip: “GFY.” Kev: “Yeah, TGIF.”