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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Isolated moments of family connection keep Shameless from going entirely off the rails

Illustration for article titled Isolated moments of family connection keep Shameless from going entirely off the rails
Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

Ever since the writers decided to give Carl and Debbie—and then Liam—their own storylines, Shameless has suffered from an overly fragmented narrative. At any given time, the show could be running upwards of 8 different stories: even if we take Fiona out of the mix, you still have Lip, Ian, Frank, Carl, Debbie, Liam, and the Alibi potentially operating in their own worlds in any given episode. It’s the part of the show that most resembles a soap opera, as opposed to a typical drama series that will typically try to combine characters in any given episode to keep from stretching things too thin.


Despite correcting none of my larger issues with the direction of the season’s various storylines, this is the best episode of Shameless’ tenth season simply on the grounds that it was consistently invested in the intersection between the Gallagher siblings. There’s still six different storylines running in the episode—seven if we count Mickey, more on that in a bit—but there’s more time devoted to how the characters confront those situations alongside their family members. It doesn’t solve any of the problems plaguing the show as a whole, but it creates enough moments rooted in the show’s long-term characterization to rise above the rest of the season.

This is most clear in Ian’s story, which pulls in three of his siblings at one point or another. Suffering from an injured leg after his fall down the stairs (which is due to Monaghan’s real-life injury), Ian is hobbling his way through the aftermath of effectively leaving Mickey at the altar, and he spends the episode wrestling with why he did it. And at different intervals, “O Captain! My Captain!” has him leaning on his family members for advice on how to confront the situation. As he is looking up divorce stats to support his case, Debbie stops by from her own story to offer some perspective, pushing him toward marriage. Liam—who doesn’t have a storyline of his own this week, dropping the number to six—joins Ian on his trip to the neighborhood ring guy as he looks to concrete evidence of his commitment. And finally, as Ian is about to commit fully, he stops by to visit Lip, basically asking him to convince him not to go through with it.

The third scene is the best of the lot, the kind of brotherly dialogue that the show was missing when Ian was sequestered off in his own (bad) stories in recent seasons. It’s not a complicated scene, by any measure, but it’s a fundamentally meaningful scene that carries the weight of their past relationship. Lip’s actual story in the episode is another Tami relationship story that’s something they should have discussed in the six months between seasons, but the thematic idea of what it means to be a Gallagher helps give Lip and Ian’s conversation a bit of extra context. How much of Ian’s hesitation is something contextual to his relationship with Mickey, and how much of it is just baggage from growing up a Gallagher, and in particular a Gallagher who is bipolar like Monica was? The show might have forgotten that Lip used to be a genius who wanted more for himself than this South Side life, but I understand their desire to reframe him as the Gallagher who most purely understands the philosophy of being poor, and fighting to survive. He is the right foil for Ian in this moment, and the crutches add a nice layer of comedy to one of the better scenes in recent seasons.

This is not to say that the Gallavich storyline here is entirely working. I noted above that Mickey is sort of given his own storyline here, but not really. The story is predicated on his lack of emotional intelligence, lashing out at Ian after the aborted marriage by seeking out a casual hookup and then treating it like a serious relationship. The episode briefly shows us Mickey on his own at Byron’s apartment, but for the most part the show lets us see his actions through Ian’s eyes. The show isn’t really presenting Byron as an alternative to Ian: Mickey steamrolls him the second he “moves in,” and when Ian shows up to offer the “promise rings” Byron is clearly desperate to be rid of him. But I wish we had gotten a scene somewhere in there where Mickey was more open about his feelings in the way Ian was more open to Lip, to acknowledge that Mickey is a significant part of the fabric of this show and deserving of more than just Ian’s somewhat dismissive framing of his reaction to the situation.

Illustration for article titled Isolated moments of family connection keep Shameless from going entirely off the rails
Photo: Chuck Hodes (Showtime)

Someone who read my review of last week’s episode tracked me down on Instagram and sent me a message request, basically asking me to reassure them that Ian and Mickey would be okay after last week’s conflict. To respond to that here, I would argue that nothing Shameless is doing with Gallavich suggests it is any less endgame than it was before. Yes, Mickey is sleeping around (and is Vers now, maybe), but he has no emotional investment in Byron, and there’s no suggestion he’s doing anything but trying to hurt Ian the way he hurt him. And yes, Mickey might reject Ian’s idea of promise rings, and still refuses to take him back even after Ian admits his hesitation is because he doesn’t know if he can be truly loved due to his bipolar disorder, but that still feels like a minor hurdle. The show’s argument is that despite having given the characters a “happy ending” last season, actually giving them a happy ending requires working through some things, including finally remembering that Ian is bipolar.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this, but I have long argued that the show has fundamentally mishandled Ian’s disorder by refusing to acknowledge how it would impact his day-to-day life. When I asked showrunner Nancy Pimental about this back in 2016, the answer was basically that they didn’t think people wanted to see Ian “popping medications all the time,” but I’d argue that it makes any stories they do want to tell about his bipolar disorder weaker. If they just put in a small amount of legwork discussing his disorder—a mention of a doctor’s appointment, a scene of him picking up a prescription—it would make it less like the show is just circling back to his disorder when it’s convenient for the story. The idea that Ian had to search so deeply to realize that it was his bipolar disorder that was creating his reluctance to marry Mickey (or anyone) implies that even he doesn’t have it at the front of his mind, and while perhaps that’s a defense mechanism the show has set the issue aside too long for that to be articulated. I’m happy the show is finally bringing it back to the surface, and Ian and Mickey’s eventual reconciliation will be better for it, but it doesn’t change the mistakes made along the way.


As with much of this season, the episode’s other storylines aren’t really contributing to any kind of meaningful plot or character development. Theoretically, expanding the number of characters getting their own storylines should have enriched Shameless, but I can’t think of a single character whose storylines have deepened in the intervening years. Debbie’s sexuality still feels like an arbitrary decision, Carl’s scattered focus has robbed him of any clear seriality, the Alibi is a complete waste of time, and Frank’s stories have been as bad as they’ve always been. While the show’s decline can be attributed to a variety of factors, the truth is that the choice to divide the show’s focus is what pulled us away from the parts of the show that worked best, and their reappearance in a section of this episode is unlikely to be a sign of a larger trend.

Stray observations

  • I decided I would rant for too long if I wrote a whole paragraph about the Alibi story, but there’s a “Previously on” about Vee’s storyline about her blackness that completely ignores that, and exists only to remind us she has a doctor friend? Said doctor friend risks her medical license on what is CLEARLY a scam (the old ladies didn’t even go to different pharmacies? Kev and Vee are just standing in the back plotting?), even if she can claim her medical pad was stolen? We’re redoing the same basic “There’s no access to abortion in Missouri” storyline they did with Debbie that one time? An entire carload of young girls were close enough that they showed up in the time it took Kev and Vee to figure out a strategy? It’s just too much absurdity belaboring a good point the show already made before.
  • Meanwhile, Carl’s storyline is brought down to earth suddenly, as his militia is disbanded after only a single day of training. I liked how that training worked its way through the show’s various locations, but it’s weird to see Carl going full martial law Republican after his “awokening” in regards to immigration. The character just doesn’t have enough of an identity to carry these stories.
  • Along similar lines, Debbie isn’t really a fully-realized person, but I will say that her tete-a-tete—and tongue-to-tongue—with Claudia’s daughter is much more interesting than her dead-end relationship with Claudia.
  • As soon as they said Byron was getting a Ph.D. in English I was worried about his job prospects, but then they established he has a maid and a fancy apartment and I realized he’s rich, which is close to the only circumstance in which someone should pursue a Ph.D. in English at the current moment.
  • Per last week’s comments, I definitely think that Mickey’s punch wasn’t originally intended to actually injure Ian before Monaghan broke his leg and changed the course of things. I think it’s an unfortunate escalation of Mickey’s intention—to inflict the same pain Ian inflicted on him—to something actually debilitating, but to be honest the crutches comedy here was kind of nice, so lemons and lemonade and all that.
  • Whoops, I forgot to talk about Frank’s storyline! It’s still a thing that’s happening, and they’re walking a fine line with regards to Faye’s state of mind that kept me interested at least, but until we figure out how her staging of Frank with a bunch of opioids plays out the ultimate purpose of this story is still “well, we’ve got to give Frank something to do?”
  • I hope Aunt Oopie stays wherever she went, because I’ve reached my limit of uninspired Trump supporter jokes—if that’s really her only function, they’ve exhausted its value (and I say that as someone the show thinks is the target audience for those jokes).
  • Given how allergic Shameless has been to continuity, it’s fitting that “Sexually Suggestive Truck Art” is what gets them to acknowledge that Svetlana exists, despite no one showing any interest in what happened to her.
  • Okay, I’m not done on the Alibi storyline: they didn’t tell the women they helped that this wasn’t something they could replicate? Entire vans of people just randomly show up at their home address (how did they even get it?) mid-credits? I just don’t understand, y’all.
  • Remember when Lip gave Xan $10,000 like it wasn’t life-changing money? Ah, memories.

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.