What is an abandoned church in a “transitioning” neighborhood?

To Fiona, it’s a hazard: the junkies who squat there break the windows on her apartment building, and threaten the peace of the neighborhood’s growth into the kind of place where she can continue to raise rents on new tenants as she evicts the old ones. When she discovers that Patsy’s owner Margo is the one who owns the church, she starts doing what she can to clean up the place so that it can become part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

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To Ian and Trevor, it’s an opportunity: the shelter needs more space to house the South Side’s at-risk youth population, and they can’t afford the kind of neighborhoods where they know the kids would have a chance to succeed. A transitioning neighborhood would be the kind of space that would both improve their lives and be economically feasible, and so they make plans to lease and then eventually buy the space for that purpose.

This season of Shameless has been without a central conflict, and I’ve kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: it’s made me hesitant to embrace some of the season’s better moments, in truth, as there was something just not right about the Gallaghers all getting along and lacking the kind of struggle that has defined their entire lives. This is not to say that the season has lacked personal conflict, as the Gallaghers continue to grapple with their respective identities, but with Debbie returning to the house and Frank becoming a productive member of society, it is the first time the entire family is living under a single roof without some type of ongoing squabble…maybe ever?

But that changes at the end of “The (Mis)Education of Liam Fergus Beirchheart Gallagher,” when Ian and Fiona finally realize that they’re on the opposite sides of the church deal. It’s a conflict that I’m really appreciating, as it’s born out of subtle differences in perspective. Technically, Fiona and Ian are doing this for the same reason: to improve the community. But with Fiona now a property owner, and Ian having developed an actual investment in the shelter as a byproduct of awkwardly hanging out there to stay close to Trevor, they understand the trajectory of that community very differently. But whereas the writers could have made this a oversimplified stand-in for the class war that Frank introduces to Liam earlier in the episode by having Fiona’s potential buyer be some kind of evil corporate interest, the truth is far more complex: it’s two artists who want to give back to the community, just in ways that skip the process of outright saving at-risk youth that is still very real in Trevor’s world. Ian and Fiona both think they’re helping the South Side: they just see the problems facing the community differently.

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Photo: Showtime

There’s something refreshingly grounded about this conflict. The episode has its flights of whimsy—Frank’s dalliance with the mother from Liam’s school, Lip’s aggressive sex with Eddie, even Ian’s willingness to whore himself out to the shelter’s benefactors—but there’s something more deeply philosophical about the characters and their conflicts this season. Yes, Ian’s sudden interest in the shelter has been rushed, but it’s a good story to tell, and I don’t blame the show for not wanting to pit Fiona against Lip again after playing out that story the past few seasons. And there’s an impulsive quality to Ian that makes him the sibling most likely to double down on protecting his roots, and pushing back against how Fiona’s upward mobility has warped her perspective.

When Shameless first started confronting the issue of gentrification, it was a clear nemesis to these characters, but now that more of them feel closer to the “bougie” way of life they’re starting to see the appeal. Fiona sees it in the money she’s making, and the security of owning a car, and being able to pay your brother to help out with projects when he’s looking for extra cash. And here Lip sees it in how he feels around Brad’s young baby, wondering if his being hung up on Sierra is not just a byproduct of his co-dependency (although it’s definitely mostly that), but also about wanting a family and never really letting himself think about such things. Frank isn’t wrong that the Gallaghers are subject to the class warfare operating in the United States, but what’s yet to be determined is which side of that fight each Gallagher will stand on in the future. The show has by-and-large been critical of gentrification, but here we’re seeing the show grapple with the fact that there’s an assimilation factor that’s difficult to ignore, and the way that’s creating conflict within the Gallagher household is the kick start the season needed.

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As this is still Shameless, where chaos often reigns, there’s a lot of other stories kicking around in the episode—Debbie’s sense of forward momentum runs straight into Derek’s surprise return, Trevor (inexplicably) succumbs to Ian’s persistent courtship, Carl kidnaps a junkie in the basement and stumbles into a detox business (as one does), Svetlana uses sex to convince Vee to give her half the bar’s profits, and Liam struggles at school when the references on tests use cultural references that are inscrutable to someone from his background. My opinion on these stories varies, but what’s generally working about the season is how no story feels untethered from the basic reality of the characters and their relationships to one another. Sure, Kev’s attempts to embrace his southern roots are silly, and I don’t know if I really needed the Svetlana story to continue, but there’s something so dramatically effective about the past just refusing to go away. It’s why I’m willing to tolerate Trevor giving into Ian’s persistence, and why I so appreciated Debbie’s shocked reaction when she realizes Derek is home. There’s no escape in Shameless, not really, which is why the show is at its best when it explores the consequences of those who try to move forward.

Photo: Showtime

And that’s why Lip remains this season’s MVP, as he’s the character whose “escape” carries the added stakes of his sobriety (something that any storyline with Ian would have if the writers didn’t choose to “resolve” his bipolar diagnosis for the sake of efficiency, but I digress). Brad’s relapse is pretty easy to see coming: the baby tests his ability to grapple with his demons, and alcohol is an easy way to get away from the anxiety that comes with a newborn. But the way it affects Lip carries important weight. Here is an addict like him who broke down the second he became a father: does that mean this will never happen for someone like Lip? That his alcoholism is something that will keep him from being a father, or being with someone like Sierra, or following in the footsteps of Fiona and taking on the risk of trying to make something of himself? Lip has always been the character whose fate has mattered to most to me, but this season he’s gained perspective on his own life, and instead of punishing him directly the show is having the lives of those who have supported him fall apart, leaving him to pick up the pieces while wondering how long it will be until he’s the one being put back together again.

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I doubt that the conflict between Fiona and Ian will have the same devastating effects as what happened to those who have helped Lip on his journey to sobriety, but it’s the conflict the season was waiting for, and sets things up for a philosophically dynamic story thread for the rest of the season.

Stray observations

  • Just to clarify: yes, it’s meaningful that Ian and Trevor gives us a romantic storyline played out with a trans actor playing a trans character in which the fact he is trans is acknowledged and confronted but not allowed to define the storyline, but Ian’s stalking was predatory and I just don’t think the show showed their work enough to justify the indie music chainlink fence sex scene, so I’m just not on board.
  • Were we supposed to know what Lip was writing when he was in Brad’s office and he thought about calling Sierra? Or where he went when he made the pickup at the paint shop?
  • It strikes me as odd that Liam’s education gap from the other private school students hasn’t come up before now: yes, we saw that he wasn’t actually getting to learn anything because they kept pulling him out for photo ops, but had there been no other testing? Or homework? I don’t doubt the school’s testing failed to acknowledge someone with Liam’s background, but he also wrote dick jokes and scratched out answers, which suggests a level of educational struggle that goes beyond that and should have been picked up sooner?
  • There remains no particular function to Vanessa and Mel’s existence beyond giving Fiona someone to talk to when she’s in her “new world” at the rental property. Mel and Fiona’s relationship warms up a bit here, but still not sure what the endgame is.
  • Yeah, if baby Miles (I’ve chosen to operate under the presumption it is spelled this way, but correct me if I’m wrong) was a premie and he was born roughly 1-2 weeks ago, that’s a failure of baby casting right there.
  • Tonight’s episode taught me a lot about how gross it is to clean out grease traps and the right way to fix brakes on a motorcycle. So educational.
  • I still struggle with Debbie—it was suggested on Twitter she is this show’s Brandon from The Fosters, which yes—but I did sort of love seeing here with Molly kicking in, dancing to nothing in particular as Franny sits in the car in the background. Bringing Derek back makes it easier to get on Debbie’s side, I’d say: yeah, she tricked you into having a baby, but you also abandoned that child, so, Team Debbie.
  • Speaking of Derek, yes: they recast.
  • Steve Howey made a meal out of the Southern-Western phase of Kev’s identity crisis, but then again I think a banjo to punctuate conversation would improve ANY scene, so maybe I’m not the best judge.
  • So my question to you is this: Team Fiona or Team Ian?

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