Photo: Showtime

Despite my stance on the rise of the “Skip Intro” button on Netflix, I don’t blame anyone who skips the opening credits of Shameless: after eight seasons with no variation, it’s hard to argue with anyone who wants to shave a minute off their viewing experience.

But as the seasons wear on, the sequence takes on a different meaning than was originally intended. When Shameless premiered, it reflected the show’s premise: the daily chaos of the Gallagher family, their hectic lives taking them in and out of the bathroom. It was a show about family, and about the chaos that comes with that.

But after seven and a half seasons, the show isn’t about family anymore. Family still matters, and is reinforced by both the opening credits and those moments where the family comes together to—for example—exhume their mother’s corpse. And characters will still evoke that value of family as something that should bind them together, as Fiona does when she confronts Ian to try to clear the air after their battle over the church. But to claim that family is the guiding force of this show is difficult in light of episodes like this one, where the increasingly siloed story structure denies the show such a clear focus.

There are still connections between these stories: Carl’s “Ubber” ends up moving across storylines, and there remains a central theme of class struggle underpinning every thread. But there was something about “Icarus Fell And Rusty Ate Him” that stuck out to me. Maybe it was the dead-end “Kev tries to be gay out of jealousy” storyline that even Steve Howey couldn’t save. Maybe it was Debbie, isolated on her own in Joplin, Missouri, anchoring a story about access to the morning after pill that couldn’t overcome my lack of sympathy for a situation she created for herself. Or maybe it was Fiona, who spent much of the episode in an empty apartment with a flesh-eating dog, contemplating life in ways that were quiet and introspective but made me wish they were happening in a story that could better serve them.

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It’s hard to pin down the function of Fiona’s story. It begins with comedy—the corpse, the dog eating said corpse—but quickly becomes about Fiona discovering this woman whose life was lived in isolation, rescuing a photo from the dumpster rented by the woman’s niece to hang up in the building’s lobby. So what did Fiona learn? For a second, it sounds like she’s worried about becoming a spinster, but then when she goes to visit Ian it seems like it’s a lesson of not becoming estranged from your family. But why did Fiona need an old woman’s apartment to teach her this? Why wouldn’t she confront Ian directly to begin with? If a storyline is going to isolate the show’s central character, it needs to say more than this story said, or that isolation needs to be more purposeful and not just something that happens because it’s more efficient.

Photo: Showtime

Purchasing the apartment building is interesting as a story development for Fiona, but it has not proven a compelling engine for stories of its own. Vanessa exists so Fiona has someone who isn’t a family member to complain to, but has no other motivations beyond making sex jokes about screwdrivers. We’re spending time there because the show long ago abandoned the engine of family, but this just isn’t doing enough to connect to the show’s strengths to be worth the time. Emmy Rossum continues to do strong work, and I remain invested in Fiona’s journey, but my main point of investment at the moment is wishing that Fiona’s storyline would move on to something else as soon as possible.

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I think part of the issue is that Ian is right about one thing: the stakes of Fiona’s storyline aren’t the same as they used to be. Ian is otherwise wrong: he literally suggests murdering Fiona, which is an absurd reaction to her looking out for her investment and preferring a gentrified form of community outreach to Ian and Trevor’s shelter (a situation that weirdly isn’t resolved at all in this episode). There’s an interesting tension in their confrontation, as Ian is defining family based on their existing class status—anything that betrays the South Side’s less fortunate is going against the family. Fiona, meanwhile, is arguing that principles of family should transcend class, which is an interesting conversation that becomes less interesting when Ian is being so obstinate and when Fiona is a bit naïve to suggest she is still as helpless as the kids who need that shelter. This episode would be far better if it locked Ian and Fiona in that apartment together and let them argue this out: not addressing the church directly for so long felt inorganic, and kept the show from exploring the tensions that I thought worked so well in last week’s episode.

Photo: Showtime

Lip’s story has its own issues—I didn’t care for the Michael Jordan arm stuff, which felt like the show forcing comedy into a story that didn’t really need it—but the stakes are helping the Brad situation work. The way Lip ties his sobriety to Brad’s is entirely unhealthy, but it’s also all he can really do, and seems like the healthier path than Youens’ lack of faith (which is, of course, driven by his own lack of faith in himself). There’s also no easy solution: even if Brad had been taken back by his girlfriend, it wouldn’t have resolved his struggle, or Lip’s, in any meaningful way. Jeremy Allen White, like Rossum, is doing some strong work in isolation, but in this case I think the isolation helps the story more than it hurts it.

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This is not the case with Kev’s latest attempt to change himself, which feels like we’ve gone back in time to throuple storylines they didn’t get around to in previous seasons, for which I have minimal patience. And it definitely doesn’t help Debbie, whose storyline is marred by the poor sound design choice of the ticking clock and the difficulty I have reconciling Debbie’s “I’m a responsible adult I can’t have another baby at 16” with “I got high, forgot I had sex with a guy while my baby was in the bathtub, and my response to a woman scamming me is to have a catfight in the parking lot and get arrested.” This is an episode of too many storylines, and not enough of them feel substantial or meaningful to these characters.

Photo: Showtime

So it’s a bit weird that my favorite part of the episode is the character whose isolation throughout the series has been a constant issue for me. The level of isolation in Frank’s stories in earlier seasons made a compelling argument for dropping him from the show entirely, but I’ve enjoyed watching the character fast-forward through the failed promises of the American dream. The first time through, Frank made the wrong decisions and ended up in a dark place, but this time around he did everything right. Someone gave him a chance and he took full advantage, reshaping his life to be a positive contributor to society. But the system still spits him out: right after he buys into the promise of upward mobility, the death of retail destroys his job, and he’s left with the realization that even if he had done everything right the first time, it’s possible he would have ended up the same deadbeat alcoholic. William H. Macy has never not been good in this role, but this is easily the most I’ve been invested in a Frank storyline.

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And perhaps the reason is because I feel like I can draw a line between this story and the show Shameless was before—it’s fine for the show to evolve, and I will acknowledge it was necessary for the show to sustain itself, but there’s a point where disparate storylines push the show away from its strengths, and much of this episode fell into that category.

Stray observations

  • “Gender-liquid like you”—Steve Howey does what he can, but I just can’t with the Kev and Vee storylines this season. There’s some fine jokes, but I just don’t care.
  • Given how frustrating I can find Debbie, I wish they had just put up a title card that said “We would like you to know that there is a rule in Missouri that you need to be 17 to buy the morning after pill, isn’t that messed up? Now back to the characters who aren’t willfully endangering their child.”
  • Related: Shameless has always played fast and loose with characters’ ages, so it was interesting to see them so clearly underline Debbie’s age. We’ll see if Carl’s age comes up given he’s been driving around Chicago in an unlicensed taxi at all hours of the day without a valid driver’s license of any kind?
  • We’re also not going to circle back to Carl chaining people in his basement and just leaving them there all day? Okay, then.
  • Loved the shot from the top of the stairs of Brad, curled up in the hallway with Lip entering from the street—some striking work under the guidance of director Zetna Fuentes.
  • Okay, is the show planting some kind of Sierra storyline, or is Ruby Modine just chilling with no character motivations for no reason? Lip gave a HUGE speech about the value of family with her just standing at the counter, which I feel was intentional. The show keeps hitting the “Lip is a natural father” note, and that seems like the logical conclusion of this whole self-improvement journey, but we shall see.
  • The show had some fun with playing with our expectation Frank would eventually revert to his old ways: the “pick up some Hos” bit was silly, but the image of him walking out with snack cakes and Liam’s knowing nod made me smile.

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