I’m not yet prepared to declare without qualification that Shameless has hit its stride, just because there have been so many moments where I’ve been poised to make that declaration, only to have some not-quite-set episode come along and give me cold feet. So I'm going to give it another episode before I put Shameless in the esteemed company of shows that took a big chunk of their first seasons figuring out how to combine all their elements in the right proportions. But "Nana Gallagher Had An Affair" is yet another step in the right direction.

This episode didn't pack the same emotional wallop as "But At Last Came a Knock," but Monica's return is still at the forefront, along with the extremes she brings out in all the other characters. Fiona is a prime example; after seeing her, for all season, put the needs of her siblings ahead of anything and everything else going on in her life, here we find her shacked up with Steve in Old Man Harris' house while Monica fumbles around trying to do her best Mommy impression. Fiona can't quite let go—she's still keeping track of Debbie and Carl via baby monitor—but rather than step in and keep the wheels moving, she would prefer to let Monica crash and burn. Maybe this was strictly out of spite, or perhaps she was hoping that if Monica could figure out on her own that she wasn't cut out for this, she would decide against ripping Liam away from the only family he's ever known.

The only problem with that was Roberta, who was weirdly obsessed with making sure Liam was on the truck when they pulled out. Roberta alone cost this episode a higher grade. I liked just about every other element. But while last week, the character was shrill and cartoonish, Roberta was also fiercely protective of a woman she loved, a woman with whom she has a relationship that is clearly based on Roberta's vow to keep Monica out of harm's way after her unhealthy relationship with Frank. She also made valid points. Monica is Liam's bio-mom, after all, and could benefit from having a black parent (though the latter point would pack more punch if said black parent wasn't going to be Roberta). But whatever shreds of humanity she had last week had vanished by this week. She was brusque, conniving, and pugilistic for no good reason. When she stepped up to Lip like she was legitimately going to square off against him, I felt as turned off as I did when Frank headbutted Ian. I understand the desire to have Monica pulled in different directions, but there's so much about Monica that's fascinating and nuanced, I'd prefer to have her bouncing off someone equally realized rather than a stock lesbian bully.

While we're talking about Liam, obviously I need to acknowledge the silliness of having him turn out to be, somehow, Frank's biological son. This is not the kind of thing that can be adequately tied up with a single line of dialogue about Nana Gallagher's dalliance with a musician. Nearly two decades since it went off the air, I'm still tickled by The Cosby Show and how we were supposed to buy that Sandra and Denise were supposed to have had the same parentage as the rest of the Huxtable kids. Sorry folks, that's a black kid. I'm not buying any other explanation.

Ian apparently isn't Frank's child, though, which he finds after Lip suggests they make a play for emancipation. The dinner table scene in which Ian's results were revealed was so awesome and bizarre. Just when it was tip-toeing up to the fine line between credible and not quite so, the script would pull back just a touch. Writer Cindy Caponera is to be credited for creating a centerpiece of a scene not unlike you might find on a more "normal" family show like Brothers & Sisters or Parenthood, but one that never lost its Gallagher. This episode and the last have convinced me that this is more of the Shameless I'd want to watch from week to week, even as fleetingly fun as a caper episode like "Casey Casden" can be.

I even liked Sheila's small but effective arc. She's been largely sidelined since Monica breezed back into town, and the writers have done a terrific job of showing how quietly panicked she's becoming as her latest project—taking care of Frank—is slowly slipping away from her. The efficacy of the Sheila character ebbs and flows on a weekly basis for me, but when the show focuses on her sadness and how desperate she is to make a difference in someone's life, even as she's confined to her home, Sheila comes to life. I was curious as to what the writers have been up to with Eddie and Karen's preparation for the purity ball, but it was ultimately worth it. This was not only because Karen's monologue about her storied sexual past was hilarious, but because after flirting with the idea of Sheila conquering her agoraphobia and what would finally give her the gas to conquer it, the writers waited until just the right moment to have her find her inner strength. And it was a total payoff, even for me, a Sheila agnostic from day one.

The episode ends with Monica deciding to return Liam to Fiona and Co. (with an uncharacteristic lack of illogical screaming from Roberta), and while I was glad the Liam custody dispute wasn't dragged on any longer, it was a little abrupt for me. I'd love to read in the comments people's ideas about why Monica ultimately decided to leave without Liam. She could have taken him anyway, since the lawyer definitely made it sound like they wouldn't have a leg to stand on. My interpretation is that after breaking all of their hearts by leaving, she can't bring herself to do something that will make her kids hate her even more than they already do. She knows she can't repair the relationships, but she can at least avoid doing more damage to them. Frank could learn a thing or two from her.

Stray observations:

  • I could have guessed that there would be a full-blown battle for Fiona between Tony and Steve at some point, but I hope in some way that Fiona can find out about Steve on her own, rather than being informed with someone who's not without his own motives.
  • Ian's scenes were great this week, both his visitation with Mickey and the scene where he's explaining his situation to Lip, who reacts without judgment or heteronormative awkwardness.
  • "Kash had better move his family back to Baghdad before Mickey gets out." "He's from Evanston."
  • I could have done without the Carl plot entirely. Seeing kids hit by cars is not pleasant, particularly when they already have broken bones.
  • "You did PCP without me? We promised we'd do that together!"
  • "She left Carl at Oktoberfest until November."