Photo: Chuck Hodes / Showtime

Gathering at a bar with her classmates after her welding class, Debbie is surrounded by people who, like her, are seeking a fresh start. But none of them had a choice: whether newspaper men or taxi drivers, her classmates are all people who were forced out of their former careers by changes in their industries, turning to the trades to regain stable employment. It’s a reminder that transformation often stems from a dramatic change in circumstances, pushing you in a direction you couldn’t have imagined.

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I was struck by how these men and women contrasted with Debbie, and with the rest of the Gallagher family as Shameless enters its eighth season. Transformation is a crucial theme in this season, as each Gallagher tries—as they always do—to turn over a new leaf and move forward in their life. But what struck me is how the show resists forcing any of the characters into these positions, and instead places them in full control of their path forward. Rather than set up arbitrary obstacles or intense setbacks, Shameless is giving the Gallaghers more freedom (and more financial security), and testing how they grapple with developing stability within that support system.

It’s almost alarming how comfortable Fiona’s situation is, for example. At the end of last season, discussion here in the comments was fixated on the idea that Fiona’s purchase of the laundromat and then the apartment building would turn into a boondoggle, but the opposite turned out to be true: she has stumbled her way into the path of gentrification, here turning her rundown apartment into a bidding war between young urbanites. Even after having buried her portion of Monica’s meth (Chekhov’s meth, let’s call it), Fiona is not worried about trying to make ends meet for the first time in her life, and it creates a moment of liberation.

Photo: Chuck Hodes / Showtime

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The conflict, though, comes from seeing how Fiona chooses to transform herself with this newfound freedom. It begins small here: she rejects Tinder, and finds a light friendship with Jessica, the lesbian upstairs, that you can sense the show might want to explore romantically. But the telling moment for me is when Jessica asks if Fiona might move into the apartment herself, and Fiona pauses: I don’t know if the show even intended it this way, but I was struck by the idea that Fiona was briefly struck by the possibility of independence from her family. She ultimately rents the apartment, but the idea that her path could lead her away from her siblings has to be on her mind as her life comes together.

And that’s the thing: while some shows would collapse if the characters suddenly collectively (if relatively) got their shit together, the Gallaghers have so little experience dealing with this kind of togetherness that the show feels enlivened by the choice. At the end of last season, I was alarmed by the montage that gave each character an easy landing pad: Lip got a sponsor and a job, Debbie randomly ended up in a welding class, Ian kept his job despite some serious violations of policy, and it felt like the show was painting a pretty picture in case it had been canceled. But in practice, the seams of the fantasy start to show, and point to how difficult it will be for each Gallagher to keep this up.

This obviously plays out most strongly with Lip: alcoholism is no joke, but this is also the first time the character has had a fully functioning support system. He has a job, and a sponsor, and none of those structures feel like they’re on the verge of imploding. For Lip, the test is whether he can settle into that future instead of reliving the past, here taking the form of Sierra, who is still working at Patsy’s. Brad, Lip’s sponsor, is adamant that it’s a bad idea to pine after the woman who left him due to his alcoholism, but Lip can’t resist stepping in to babysit her son Lucas, and the news she’s dating her ex only gives him hope (since it means she gives second chances). While trying to replace alcohol in his life, Lip takes up running, and tries out a fidget spinner, but trying to reconnect with Sierra is the option that feels the most whole, and the option that leaves him emptier than ever when her ex returns home with her.

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Lip’s decision to shift gears—paying back his professor for rehab instead of paying off Sierra’s bills—is a good start, but Lip’s is a long road. The Gallaghers are nothing if not stubborn, so Lip’s decision to move on from Sierra (at least in the immediate future) is meaningful. There’s lower stakes with Ian’s refusal to move on from Trevor, staking out the Youth Center while on duty, but it continues the season’s interest in refusing to give each character a truly fresh start. They could have easily written out both Sierra and Trevor—neither were made a series regular—and start an entirely new story, but they didn’t. That does sort of make the season feel like it’s dealing with the leftovers from last year, but for now there’s something refreshing about the show not running away from its leftover story threads.

This is particularly true for Debbie, whose story is still a ticking time bomb. Debbie doesn’t think so: she’s learning a trade, planning for her future, and in complete control of her part-time work as a parking attendant who wields a tazer. She has friends, and she even catches the eye of a beauty school student (and continues to flirt with her teacher). It’s a great life, until you remember that she has a daughter, who she is foisting on Neil without realizing that her wheelchair-bound partner is in dramatically over his head. If Franny didn’t exist, Debbie would be on track to be the most well-adjusted Gallagher, but her choice to become a mother has created roadblocks that she will have to reckon with sooner rather than later.

Photo: Paul Harkis / Showtime

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“We Become What We…Frank!” is more solid than spectacular. Frank’s meth-fueled journey of amends is flimsy but watchable, Carl’s military precision and “patriot” rhetoric is not really a storyline yet, and there’s probably a bit too much happening with Kevin’s breast cancer scare and Veronica getting Svetlana arrested by ICE for that side of the storyline to piece together cleanly. But as the show continues to mature, I think the subtle transformation of economic stability has—at the very least—created a new set of stakes. The weight facing each Gallagher isn’t as immediate as it once was, with characters grappling less with the razor’s edge of poverty and more with the psychological toil of having ridden that edge for so many years. But that leaves room for the show to dig deeper into who these characters are, and who they intend to be, questions that will be important to the show avoiding the pitfalls of some of Showtime’s other shows that ran longer than they should have.

Stray observations

  • Welcome, again, to our reviews of Shameless. It’s a difficult show to review at times, having run so long, but I’m pretty committed to seeing where Fiona and Lip (and I guess everyone else) end up, so join me as we follow what could theoretically be the final season, but which could also just be the start of another act for the show.
  • Speaking of which: I talked a bit about the show’s Emmy designation (as a comedy, which remains insane to me) with my class recently, and I was struck by how many of them have watched the show on Netflix. This show isn’t going to suddenly turn into a huge mainstream hit based on streaming like Breaking Bad, but it strikes me as a show that stabilized due to its availability on Netflix.
  • Let’s Talk About New Liam: Well, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem like a huge amount of time has passed, Liam sure has become talkative all of a sudden. We’ll see if we get much of a storyline outside of the private school foregoing his education to parade him out for diversity’s sake, but I thought the new actor (Christian Isaiah) did a fine job, even if it was super weird for him to be so active in conversation.
  • There’s nothing much happening in Frank’s storyline (beyond a tie between him and Ian both grieving most strongly over Monica), but I enjoyed the way his meth-addled hyper-activity was evoked by the jump cuts in his big rant to Carl. I also hope that his journey of amends brings Joan Cusack’s Sheila back into the picture.
  • I appreciate that Vanessa (played by Jessica Szohr, who I know best from Gossip Girl) is an accountant for United Airlines—a nice local element to remind us the show is set in Chicago (where United is based).
  • “America First, Mother Fuckers”—It’s logical the show would go topical with ICE raids and Carl’s right turn in his politics, but I hope we don’t hit those buttons too hard, for the sake of my sanity.
  • So, I know they claimed that the Alibi—sorry, Putin’s Paradise—was busy after Svetlana’s transformation, but I have so many questions about how that business model would function in conjunction with the gentrification of the neighborhood. In addition, Isadora Goreshter is still a series regular despite being carted off to a detention center, so I have questions there too (some of which are answered by a press photo of a guilty Veronica holding Svetlana’s son, which didn’t make the cut of the episode).
  • I know we’re sort of past the point where everything is about money on this show, but I would have liked a conversation about how Kevin was affording his oncologist visit after his referral from the guy who paid $200 to smell his crotch and feel up his chest.

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