Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Fiona’s family meeting is a reckoning for Shameless

Illustration for article titled Fiona’s family meeting is a reckoning for Shameless

As viewers, considering the future of a television series is an abstraction. We have watched dozens if not hundreds of shows play out storylines, and that literacy is something we use in interpreting a show like Shameless. As new stories are introduced, we think ahead to where we expect them to go, acutely aware that we are watching a TV show, and that certain outcomes are likelier than others.

It’s part of why it can be challenging to “put yourself in the shoes” of a TV character, particularly if you don’t have context for what they’re going through, left with mostly TV logic to fall back on. As someone who grew up in a comfortably middle class household, I can’t watch a show like Shameless and fully comprehend the way Fiona Gallagher understands her future. Executive producer Nancy M. Pimental said in my interview with her over the summer that the writers are often fearful of projecting their own sense of mobility onto their characters, and I feel the same way in critiquing the series, and engaging with its storytelling. I can’t reasonably “judge” the realism of a character’s perspective in the same way I can judge the realism of the show’s depiction of basic realities of how situations would play out (see: the fact that Ian still have a job by the end of this episode).

That having been said, though, I do think what I feel comfortable holding the show accountable for is the way it chooses to try to give us insight into Fiona’s frame of mind, and that of her siblings—in other words, how it turns their lives into a television show. “Home Sweet Homeless Shelter” is a concerted effort to demonstrate to the audience how Fiona understands her own future, using a contrast with Lip’s internship as a way to explore what exactly she is working toward in her life. It’s a conversation that the show last approached when she was working for the cup company, a job that spiraled when she began dating her boss, having sex with his brother, and eventually resulting in Liam’s overdose and Fiona’s arrest. Since then, Fiona fell into a spontaneous marriage and an imagined future with a junkie, so this is the first breath she’s had to really think about where she’s heading.

The episode gets a little cute in how it gives Fiona a sense of purpose, revealing through exposition that Patsy’s owner Margo (Sharon Lawrence) was also a high school dropout, and is now a wealthy real estate developer worth over $300 million. It provides an instant role model, filling a gap that Fiona never had growing up: no one in their neighborhood seemed to “make it,” and certainly Monica—who comes up often here in Frank’s storyline—was no source of inspiration. Margo is an overly constructed figure, but it gives Fiona a clear guidepost, and a foil to work off of as she prepares for the future.

Clunky as Margo’s exposition is, though, Fiona’s turn toward the future is better articulated relative to Lip, who early in the episode notes he’s on the path to a real job, unlike Fiona and her “bullshit” career. It’s a byproduct of resentment toward his internship, and his inability—or unwillingness—to acknowledge how getting kicked out of school has altered his future. Again, the show goes out of its way to make Lip’s internship comically ignoble, here with an eSports competitor going for a world record for continuous gameplay with a piss bag that needs changing. Lip is not unreasonable for thinking this particular internship is beneath him, exactly, but he’s not in a position to throw stones either, which makes his attack on Fiona’s way of life so hurtful. Narratively, it gives the episode a feeling that characters are out to prove something, which creates instant momentum and a pretty badass moment where Fiona lays it out on the line for Lip: she’s got a plan, she’s going to make something of her life, and it’s about time Lip understands this, “you arrogant shit.”

Although there is a writerly quality to the pile-on that leads Fiona into this situation (Debbie’s shoplifting, Ian’s manic episode, Liam’s daycare racism), I do think the show has successfully articulated the kind of reckoning that Fiona needed in order to see a clear image of her future. Contrast this with Frank, who spends the entire episode recasting his family using residents from a homeless shelter, trying to recapture glory days that never actually existed where his family loves him and respects his ability to provide for them. Frank can’t imagine building something for the future: that has never been his way of life, and so it’s no surprise he would start—in the midst of his own crisis after his family nearly killed him instead of just nearly letting him die—thinking of Dollface as Monica, and insisting on calling that poor kid “New Debbie.” The “Daddy Frank” storyline doesn’t have a whole lot of momentum on its own, exactly, but it serves as a reminder of the environment Fiona grew up in, and how the Gallagher genes respond to crisis without some type of intervention.


The three eldest Gallagher siblings relate to their parents differently: Fiona is the byproduct of Frank and Monica as a destructive couple, forced to grow up too fast in caring for her siblings, while Lip and Ian are the embodiment of their father and mother respectively, which is made easier given that Frank isn’t Ian’s father. The season continues to lean on the comparisons between Lip and Frank, opening on Lip’s tryst with the new Patsy’s waitress and cutting to Frank and Dollface in the homeless shelter. Lip even acknowledges it when discussing his situation with Ian, at least aware that his alcoholism—or whatever he thinks his issues with drinking should be called—is something he inherited, and that he has to live with. Their conversation is another great example of the pleasure of having Lip back in the family fold: the scenes between the two brothers have been a strong point this season, and continue with Carl here as the two brothers explain to him that he wasn’t the one who gave Dominique an STD. Both in dramatic and comic contexts, the Gallagher family unit is operating well narratively, even if Fiona’s family meeting was necessary on a practical level.

That having been said, I have some serious reservations about what goes down with Ian this week. While not on the level of last week’s disastrous exploration of sexual fluidity—which gets dropped entirely here—the stories they want to tell are running into the untenable reality of the situation they’ve placed Ian in. I’m glad that we’re seeing more evidence of the challenges of balancing your medications when treating bipolar disorder, which is something we talked a lot about last season and which I talked to Pimental about this summer. However, it serves as a reminder that Ian working as an EMT while still early in his treatment is insane. Even if we can argue that the strict disclosure policies required for EMTs overcorrect for those who may have been institutionalized, context for Ian’s situation should have disqualified him: he is a young kid, who never—as far as we know—graduated from high school or got his GED, and so the idea that he would even get this job is crazy enough. The idea that he would manage to keep it after deciding to remove a schizophrenic patient’s restraints in a moving vehicle while in the midst of a manic episode, meanwhile, is a step too far.


Ian keeps his job because the show sometimes struggles with how to tell stories while acknowledging the logistical realities facing these characters. They should have had Ian working to get his GED while working to get his meds balanced, but they wanted a more structured story engine, and pushed him into a job that he is demonstrably not qualified for. They skipped over these steps because Shameless is a TV show, and there are times when they’ve sacrificed the realism of these situations in favor of telling what they thought would be a more compelling story. And while in some cases this creates small problems of verisimilitude for me to complain about in the stray observations, other times it creates inherent contradictions that derail entire character arcs. The show failed to build a story engine that gives meaningful insight into Ian’s perspective, as here they attempt to tell a story about his bipolar disorder that should absolutely explode his life and mostly ends up being read as a minor blip, without the type of stakes or consequences that it should have had. It’s true I can’t put myself in Ian’s shoes, but after Mickey’s departure the show seemed to forget that Ian even needed to wear shoes, damaging his arc in ways similar to how I’m destroying this metaphor.

Whether the same will happen with Fiona’s journey is unclear, but the family meeting at the kitchen table is a strong moment of reckoning for the season. While it may have been a bit writerly in how it got there, seeing Fiona setting a clear plan for her future, and moving herself down the emergency contact lists of her siblings, gives a clear picture of what she wants, and how it connects with the rest of the show. Perspective was gained in this hour of television, for both the characters and the audience, and that makes it a successful transition episode into the next act of the season.


Stray observations

  • Frank creating a makeshift homeless shelter in the neighborhood isn’t particularly compelling in its own right, as noted, but it does solve the issue of how you can have Frank around without him having to be in the house. It creates an engine for the two stories to intersect without having to be a constant source of antagonism, which will play well.
  • Are they going to clarify what kind of company Lip works for? I still have no idea.
  • First Caleb, now Dominique: Shameless sure is tossing some love interests under the bus with dumb affairs this season. I have many questions about how her father justified that police raid, and whether we’ll ever return to it in order to understand what their goals were and what happened in its aftermath.
  • Svetlana’s father showing up is mainly just for some dick jokes and an excuse to be able to get the throuple together outside of the bar, but that works fine. What doesn’t work is the idea that Kev would abandon an actual cleaning business in favor of parking the van places and getting people to pay him to leave. Is that actually a sustainable business model? There’s no guarantee people would complain! Or how much money they would offer! It’s very “take advantage of dumb rich people,” and that’s on-theme, but you can’t just abandon the stable part of the business in the process! THAT IS MADNESS. [/Rant]
  • While Ian’s actual mental illness helps explain why he was so much of an idiot in this episode, Debbie’s fake one does nothing. She’s just very dumb, and I’m frankly shocked the show hasn’t tried to use postpartum depression—which we totally saw signs of last season—as a way of understanding how she would make so many terrible, reckless decisions out of desperation. Not sure what they’re trying to accomplish here.
  • We haven’t seen the gentrification storyline as prominently as it was back in season five, but here we see the homeless shelter being closed to become a Container Store, and certainly Margo is a product of gentrification if she owns half the South Side. Will Fiona’s upwardly mobile future mean becoming a traitor to the Gallagher family and its neighborhood in even more ways?
  • I refuse to believe Fiona successfully spelled Margo’s last name on her first try. I mean, it would have been autocorrected, but still—let’s see that on the cell phone, post-production department.
  • I wanted to throw up every time I heard “Daddy Frank.”