Photo: Showtime/Chuck Hodes

It struck me watching “Where’s My Meth?” that there is no longer any conflict within the extended Gallagher family itself. After seasons where Fiona was estranged from Debbie and Veronica, and where it felt like the various siblings were drifting away from the family center, this season has been defined by the closeness of the family unit. With Corporal Carl cooking breakfast (in lieu of a storyline of his own), the family has time each morning to come together under one roof, with even Frank hanging around without much in the way of disagreement.

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This means that the show is having to look outside of the family for narrative engines to drive this story forward. As I noted last week, things are looking up for the Gallaghers for the first time in a while, but there are forces that will limit their mobility. Some of these are internal, as we see with Lip, who falls back into bad habits setting up Charlie with an unwanted drug delivery to force him to relapse. Lip is being given good advice to move past Sierra, but he’s never been one to let something go, but he wakes up when he hears Charlie talk about his temptation at a meeting, and he loses a chunk out of his leg doing the right thing and getting rid of the drugs. It’s sort of Lip vs. Charlie, but it’s really Lip vs. Lip, and it’s a battle he’ll keep fighting.

Internal conflict is a productive engine for the show. It makes sense that Ian would be the Gallagher most affected by Monica’s death: although the episode doesn’t really explore the reasons, his shared illness gave him insight into her actions that his siblings lacked, and so the weight of Monica’s money sits differently with him for clear reasons. I don’t know if the stories around it really worked: Trevor’s “hook up with some heavy dudes” bonding moment never clicked, and I have zero idea how there was such a significant miscommunication that Ian would end up with the tattoo he does. But the moment of Ian breaking down in a large man’s arms was a nice bit of catharsis, and avoids brushing Monica’s death away.

Photo: Showtime/Paul Sarkis

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It’s also possible because Frank isn’t going down the same route. The idea of Frank trying to reclaim his lost life is a shockingly palatable storyline for a character so often trapped in unpleasant territory: William H. Macy has always done great work as Frank, but there’s something particularly appealing about seeing him actively trying to make the opposite decisions compared to what he normally would, and discovering the perks of being a “legitimate” employee. The whole connection with the boss who gave up his religion for a woman was maybe a bit too cute, but it justified him getting a chance to work, and I’m finding the Frank scenes much more watchable than they usually are at this point in the season (even if it’s clear the other shoe has to drop eventually).

Thus far, though, Frank’s journey into the working class has been fairly smooth, but there’s tension elsewhere. It’s important tension: Liam’s place in private school has always been tenuous, but it feels no more tenuous than when his new friend invites himself over for a sleepover, and his nanny and mother both respond with panic and disgust at the state of the South Side. This exploration of class could’ve been more subtle—the mother literally stripping her son and throwing his clothes away while Ian and Carl crack jokes about shooting felt like no one was really reading the precarity of the situation, more a punchline than a consideration of how this sleepover will affect Liam’s future at the school. But it’s at least a way of using Liam as a window into another world, and thinking about how the Gallaghers (for all of the mobility they might have) remain ensconced in a world with its share of problems.

Photo: Showtime/Cliff Lipson

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For Liam, though, this is still all low stakes: it’s just a sleepover, and while it was weird that the kid’s parents allowed it to happen in the first place, the long-term consequences are probably pretty low. But for Debbie, this episode is a significant low, even if it’s not really treated that way. There’s something so cavalier about the way Debbie is pushing Franny onto Neil, and then to Franny’s grandmother, all in the name of being able to live the independent life she left behind when she chose to have Franny in the first place. While Debbie is doing well to move her career forward, the way she ignores Neil and then willingly turns to the woman who basically kidnapped her daughter and created drama with social services demonstrates a significant blind spot for the consequences of her decisions. There are always consequences to moving forward with your life, but Debbie’s consequences are significant, and she’s basically ignoring them at this point.

Fiona isn’t ignoring the consequences of her move from someone trying to make ends meet to someone punishing those who are struggling to pull together their rent: she tries to make nice with the delinquent tenants, but after being called a “cock-guzzling sellout bitch landlord,” she gives up being nice and starts evicting people. It’s not a terrible story, but the stakes could feel a little stronger: it’s interesting to see Fiona realizing her newfound privilege, and seeing the struggle of the South Side from the position of the one with money and power, but what’s the plan here? Where’s the conflict? What are the stakes if Fiona doesn’t collect the rent from these people? “Fiona Interacts With Her Tenants” just isn’t riveting television, and I’m waiting to see what the show really wants to say by putting Fiona in this new story engine.

Photo: Showtime/Erica Parise

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It’s still early in the season, of course. And given that Ian and Carl stumble upon Monica’s boyfriend angry at the kids who stole “his” meth, there’s a new conflict on the horizon. But while the stakes of any given story may vary, I appreciate that the lack of conflict between Gallaghers is letting them be a part of each other’s stories. Ian’s story is better for the great scene of Fiona joining him in the hot tub, much as Fiona’s story is better for her conversation with Lip about grace periods or Debbie using her new welding tools to help her make a statement. While Kev’s breast cancer scare storyline doesn’t really go anywhere—it’s benign—it begins with the entire extended family gathering together with a cake, the type of scene that was impossible when the group was more fractured. That still has the show on solid ground, even if nothing is necessarily blowing me away at this early stage.

Stray observations

  • You may or may not know about my obsession with empty coffee cups on television shows (see: #EmptyCupAwards), but I sort of feel like the Shameless producers must, because Jessica Szohr does some absolutely terrible coffee cup work in the opening scene, and I felt like I was being personally attacked.
  • Chet Hanks—formerly Chet Haze—got to do his first legitimate acting as Sierra’s boyfriend Charlie this week, and it was…fine? It was fine.
  • I appreciate that the show is protecting Debbie’s innocence a bit, giving her a shampoo orgasm and some hickeys instead of anything more salacious.
  • There’s got to be some kind of ramification from Liam’s friend’s mother getting that dose of Gallagher, right? Surely Fiona will be held accountable, as Liam’s guardian? I just don’t see how that doesn’t turn into a thing after the way Ian and Carl handled the situation so cavalierly.
  • I don’t know if a single-episode cancer scare did much for Kev and Veronica, but the Boyz II Men sing-along was fun.
  • “Later today, non-specific back pain”—talkative Liam is definitely an improvement, although I remain confused at how the show is handling the suddenness of this change after sort of implicitly suggesting the overdose was the cause of his slower development. But, it’s a soap opera, so I suppose it’s unrealistic to go without a significant change in character thanks to a recast.
  • Lip won’t be doing much more running with that injury, but dude: stop running in jeans.

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