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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The arrival of real villains on Shameless highlights the messy heroism of the Gallaghers

Illustration for article titled The arrival of real villains on Shameless highlights the messy heroism of the Gallaghers
Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

One of the central tenets of Shameless is the fact that our “heroes,” as it were, often act in ways that would historically disqualify them from hero status: they lie, they cheat, they steal, etc. We’re conditioned to see these actions as either justifiable transgressions of an unfair system or, in cases where lines are crossed, vulnerabilities that speak to their troubled lives, and which force introspection on a path to eventually striving to be a better version of themselves.

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More or less all of Carl’s storylines have been some variation on this: Carl gets himself involved in a situation based on his lack of impulse control and lust for authority/women/power/etc., reaches a moment where he sees that a line has been crossed, and then shows himself to be actually a decent person. And this season, Carl’s hard-on for policing is our latest variation on the theme: he’s thirsty to bash some heads, but when his partner starts planting evidence and violently expressing her transphobia, Carl gets a clearer picture of what he’s signed up for. Suddenly, he’s acknowledging the danger of busting low-level dealers with strong community ties and leaving room for the Cartel to take over the market, and seeing first hand how making personal connections to the community you’re policing can work. By the time an off-duty Carl is returning Lulu’s wig and dress, the show has reminded us that while Carl—like all Gallaghers—is capable of doing some shameless things, he’s not going to be that kind of cop because he’s still a hero in this story.

Obviously, there’s a much more complex conversation to be had about the role of policing in America that Shameless isn’t having here: giving Carl a black partner strips the conversation of its racial dimensions, which feels particularly toothless in an episode that more explicitly raises those issues in Debbie’s brainless bulldozing into the Miss Southside pageant. But turning her into a corrupt, harassing cop provides an example of an actual villain, which makes Carl by comparison seem like the “good cop” in the situation. Do good cops actually exist? That question is bigger than what Shameless is trying to accomplish here, which is simply to draft off of contemporary events to reminds us that while the Gallaghers may act shamelessly, they are ultimately decent people when push comes to shove (as it often does).

Illustration for article titled The arrival of real villains on Shameless highlights the messy heroism of the Gallaghers
Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

Other than Debbie, of course. Debbie is just plain a terrible person, who continues to subject her daughter to her own princess complex—Sandy is still useless, but at least she says what needed to be said—while being absolutely blind to her white privilege in trying to use Franny to represent the South Side. The show works to turn this into a war between Debbie and Veronica, where each “stoop to new lows” as they fight over this newly introduced honor they suddenly care a lot about, but it’s a fundamental miscalculation because who in the world is going to support Debbie in this contest? While Debbie is in the contest for selfish and ultimately indulgent reasons, and actively sends Franny to sabotage Gemma with a sharpie, Vee has an actual inspirational goal tied to her investment in the community, and attacks Debbie by holding her to the rules of the competition and reminding everyone that Debbie is a registered sex offender. In this scenario, Vee’s actions are purely heroic, because the show has so completely given into Debbie’s worst tendencies that she is an outright villain. That definitely isn’t what the show intended to say with this story, but it’s the lesson I take, and a reminder how the show’s struggle with her character has thrown the moral balance of Shameless into disarray.

That moral balance is further outlined by the central conflict of “Nimby,” as the Milkoviches are the invaders that inspire the “Not In My Backyard” ethos from our “heroes.” From the beginning of the series, the Milkoviches have functioned as a mirror universe version of the Gallaghers, lacking the self-reflection to actually strive to be better. And even as the show has explored how Mickey, Mandy, and now to a lesser degree Sandy fit outside of this framework, the idea is that they’ve had to fight their family in order to achieve this, or at least avoid their family’s attempt to literally murder them as in the case of Mickey and Ian’s wedding day. Terry Milkovich’s return here sees him moving into the old lady’s house two doors down after their previous house was apparently condemned, but he also clearly moves into the role of the villain of this story. His presence serves to make everyone—even Frank, whose actions like Debbie’s make it difficult to actually root for him—seem better by comparison, as the brood of racist homophobes runs roughshod over the neighborhood it creates a problem that the family will need to band together to solve in the coming weeks. It won’t make Debbie or Frank good people, by any measure, but it will definitely reinforce that they could be worse, and that achieves the same basic goal of ensuring Shameless can indulge in the characters’ worst impulses but still maintain a lighter tone.

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In bringing Terry back into the picture, though, it reinforces how well the show articulated Mickey’s character within this spectrum of heroes and villains in the early seasons. I didn’t end up watching most of the Ian and Mickey clip show that aired over the holidays, since those of you who did told me not to bother, but it was a reminder of how much the show resisted “rehabilitating” Mickey at stages where other shows might have. There is certainly a moment—when Ian was particularly unwell and Mickey shifted into a caregiver role—where the show unraveled the bravado more completely to explore his vulnerabilities, and I do think they’ve roughened up his edges again more recently to fit the more comic tone of the show’s later seasons in ways that represent a devolution of the character. But I do ultimately appreciate that Mickey hasn’t just become like the Gallaghers, and that he has his own identity that has to be negotiated by Ian as they try to find a way to make ends meet. There’s not a lot of plot to their stumbling into a job as a security firm moving weed and weed money through Chicago, but the fact Mickey remained a Milkovich is a good source of natural tension to their relationship that reinforces how the artifice of the gender roles storyline from the last new episode was both reductive and unnecessary.

Illustration for article titled The arrival of real villains on Shameless highlights the messy heroism of the Gallaghers
Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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It also reinforces, though, how poorly the show did when integrating Tami into the Gallagher family by comparison. This is theoretically a big episode for Tami, as it’s one of the first times where a story has been explicitly about her. After being introduced as a combustible force in Lip’s life, her pregnancy brought her into the main cast of characters by circumstance, and the show never really stopped to unpack that, not unlike Sandy’s unexplained presence this season (albeit more understandable given the baby). Since then, Tami has just sort of been around, and difficult to imagine in stories of her own or even as a person outside of her relationship with Lip.

And so the arrival of her high school band teacher in “Nimby” feels like a conscious effort for the show to spend some of its precious remaining time to flesh out her back story, which makes the fact that it’s a “student-teacher relationship story that reveals Daddy Issues” situation even more frustrating. Initially, this story makes her look bad, as she hides her romantic relationship with him from Lip. And while it’s easier to empathize with Tami once her blindness is tied to trauma over her mother’s death and she starts to show the self-awareness she lacked before, are we supposed to feel too strongly about yet another TV character with daddy issues?

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In their subsequent conversation, Lip tells her that she isn’t stupid: she was immature, and vulnerable, and her teacher took advantage of her, and all of that is 100% true. However, I sort of don’t feel like we actually know enough about Tami to make a determination on whether or not she’s stupid. I don’t hate Tami—she’s no Debbie, on that front—but the show has never really done enough to build her character or her relationship with Lip for me to feel like I should be defending her. The show never spent the resources necessary to get me to invest in their relationship, and have so lost the plot on Lip’s character arc that I don’t even necessarily know why he is so quick to defend her intelligence. I don’t hold Tami responsible for what a pedophile did to her when she was a teenager, but I need more than my empathy for that event to get me to invest in her character, and here’s the truth: we’re not going to get it with eight episodes left in the series. If Tami remains part of the endgame of this show, then she will do so remaining a character that lacks the complexity necessary to activate meaningful character development in the way that the show aims with the Gallaghers themselves.

There will always be a discrepancy between main and secondary characters (which applies to Debbie and Carl as much as to someone like Mickey), and those who have been with a long-running show from the beginning and those who were added later. But something about the general tone and pacing of Shameless’ later seasons have made this disparity particularly clear. I don’t know if the writers are fully aware how much Tami’s character is floating in the ether, or how completely lost they are with Debbie, and the way they’re telling stories reflects some confusion over what they’re able to achieve with those characters. “Nimby” isn’t offensive by any means, but it’s not cohering into something that feels befitting of a final season, and it’s increasingly obvious that expecting Shameless to achieve this is a burden the writers do not share.

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Stray observations

  • I mentioned this in the previous episode, but we’re now officially getting bread crumbs signaling Frank’s ailing health, as he complete forgets they already spoke to the Nation of Islam as they’re planning their next attack on the Milkoviches. It seems increasingly likely that Wells intends to end the show with Frank’s death, which should be an interesting exercise if they go through with it.
  • The “punchline” that the Little Miss Southside pageant was rigged toward the most Millennial-friendly winner to encourage gentrification isn’t bad, although the idea that Vee and Debbie bond over it and declare a truce is dumb given how much worse Debbie was being under the circumstances.
  • After bizarrely including no political affiliations in the Mo White storyline—the show loves its pedophiles—Vee is explicitly recruited to potentially be involved with the Democratic party. I’ll put this one up on the board of “possible spin-off bait” that will likely keep growing over the coming weeks.
  • I liked how the show had Mickey react to the arrival of the Milkoviches: he later tells Ian privately that he knows his family are worse than the Gallaghers, but he feels the need to defend him in front of the rest of the family, and I particularly loved his straight-faced description of “I Spy, You Shoot.”
  • I wonder whose password Ian was using to watch Harley Quinn on HBO Max. (Which reminded me I need to go back and watch season two of Harley Quinn on HBO Max, which is a better use of your time than watching this show or reading this review, to be honest).
  • They don’t stop to unpack it here, but there’s a moment where Sandy seems confused that Debbie thinks she isn’t just living with the Gallaghers, so there’s the next thread to unravel in that relationship of convenience.
  • Mask Watch: As always, complete chaos in mask politics. Two members of the Nation of Islam wearing masks but the others not? Confusing. Lip and Tami wearing them under their chins at the restaurant while Marcus just doesn’t have one at all? A bit of chaos, but the pedophile being an anti-masker tracks. Vee yelling at Frank about his lack of mask when he comes in the house? Logical. It’s all intentional, but I don’t get the feeling there’s a flow chart of mask politics they’re using, and so the result ends up seeming more chaotic than I think they’re intending.
  • The biggest test yet for the exterior street they built on the Warner Bros. lot to match the real locations in Chicago, and they handled it really well: I look forward to reading more about how they did this in the future, as I don’t think an average viewer would even notice (although the location work elsewhere is looking even more Californian than usual, for understandable reasons).
  • My one note on the Ian and Mickey “Hall of Shame” episode is that in flipping through it I saw they included that episode where he decided to pick up a random woman, and that should have stayed buried, Shameless.
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Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.