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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Shameless: “Emily”

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One of the markers of a great television show is that its world is so skillfully rendered that it can shift focus between characters without feeling like it’s grasping or becoming unmoored. Shameless didn’t have that quality in its early going. It was so intently focused on Fiona and her push-and-pull dynamic with Steve that there was a strict narrative hierarchy. The show has evolved since then, but never at a more dramatic pace than in season four, and “Emily” offers compelling proof that the metamorphosis is complete.

Shameless has had such a knockout season because of the writers’ willingness to be ambitious and bold, and make something spectacular with a few characters rather than flit about the whole ensemble, resulting in something more equitable but less satisfying. Even given that context—the show’s newfound ability to breeze through an hour without an appearance from, say,  Ian or Sheila—I would have been skeptical about an essentially Fiona-free episode. But I’ll go ahead and shut up now. Shameless’s Southside is a stable ecosystem. Big changes cause ripples in it, but it doesn’t collapse.

That stability highlights the tragedy of Fiona’s story, or really the story of anyone who gets sent to prison. The old cliched story of the felon who goes to prison and is horrified when family members and friends don’t write letters or pay frequent visits…it’s a cliche for a reason. That’s how it happens. You get locked in a cell, and one of the few things you have to keep you sane is the notion that there are people on the outside who need you. Then you find out, at the worst possible time, that everyone is just fine without you, if not better off. That’s a heartbreaking reality for anyone, but it’s especially acute for someone who needs to be needed as much as Fiona.

As much as I hate to twist the knife, it turns out I don’t need Fiona as much as I thought I did either. There are glimpses of her in “Emily,” as she acclimates to her new home at the Decatur Correctional Facility and becomes desensitized to the inhumanity of her new surroundings. But to the writers’ credit, there is no “Fiona makes a new ally in prison” plot, because this show is not about Fiona Gallagher. It’s about the Gallagher family, and thanks to a series of increasingly stupid decisions, Fiona is benched for the next 90 days. But “Emily” has plenty to chew on and cheer on, despite Fiona’s absence, and after weeks of Fiona’s worsening despair, sidelining her provided some welcome respite.

Obviously, the front page headline is Ian and Mickey OMG OMG OMGGGGG! I’m referring of course to the cover of MickIan Shippers Digest, the quarterly magazine with the most in-depth analysis and hard-hitting news about the relationship that isn’t the most dysfunctional on the show only because the show is Shameless.

Mickey and Svetlana’s standoff has remained just shy of its boiling point for a couple weeks now, and Terry’s return from prison signaled a swift rise in temperature. It was a foregone conclusion that Terry’s return would create some friction for the lovebirds—now officially a couple, says Mickey—but I didn’t expect it to culminate in Mickey coming out publicly in the Alibi Room in front of Terry. I enjoyed the way Mickey’s coming out was executed, but I can also see how someone could dislike it. It did feel a touch too abrupt, but after nearly four seasons of Mickey’s hetero charade, it’s also hard to argue that the moment came too soon. Either way, OMG Ian and Mickey. I’ll be interested to see how the writers manage to inject some new strife into the relationship, given that what was once Ian and Mickey’s biggest challenge is now in the rear-view.


On the less satisfying end of the story spectrum is Debbie, who gets ensnared in a long con by the treacherous Henry McNally, middle school heartthrob and con artist in training. Something should have told me Henry was too good to be true, but I thought after the Matty debacle, Debbie was in line for a blessing. Turns out she was in line for a social media slut shaming. I didn’t love the steps the story took, but I eventually came around on Matt, so his offer to take Debbie to the dance fell on the right side of the line between cute and creepy.

The most surprising and most satisfying scene in “Emily” belonged to Frank, of all people, who lay in bed suffering from post-surgery delirium talking to the titular character, a terminal child Frank is rooming with at the hospital. Frank’s apology to “Fiona” was one of the most touching things Shameless has ever done, which is a sentence I’m beginning to get tired of typing. It leaned toward the maudlin side, for sure, but Frank has had a rough season with few redeeming moments, and the moment felt earned.


But after last year’s spectacular “Order Room Service,” it seems Shameless has returned to its usual rhythm, with a penultimate episode heavy on resolutions followed by a vestigial season finale. Given how great this season has been though, it’ll be difficult not to stick the landing.

Stray observations:

  • Fiona is in jail for three months? I mean… that sounds right and all, but will she end the season in jail? That seems like a bummer.
  • Underneath all that sociopathic malice, Carl is a total sweetheart.
  • “What does Debbie have that I don’t have?” “Her hymen.”
  • Lip got a B-average and got a cool 10 grand from Amanda’s parents. It pays to be yourself!
  • So, that whole “Mickey wants to kill Kev” thing petered out in a hurry, eh?
  • I want the old Sheila back immediately.
  • Is it me or did Ian not seem terribly manic at the Alibi Room? Is the worst of it over?