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A diagnosis and a decision finally signal Shameless knows it’s in its final season

Shameless
Shameless
Photo: Showtime
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For most of its final season, Shameless hasn’t really been acting like it’s in its final season. This isn’t necessarily surprising: the show has had a fast-and-loose relationship with seriality in recent years, often resetting its focus between seasons and making it harder to create the momentum one might normally associate with a pending series finale. But it has nonetheless been frustrating to see the show killing time when it could have instead come right out of the gate by establishing real stakes that could elevate the show ahead of the end of its run.

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It’s possible that COVID complicated those plans, but my feeling is that the writers have struggled to abandon the now-regular patterns of a Shameless season. It was easier to spend the first five episodes of the season dropping hints about Frank’s debilitating health—which we learn here is Early Stage Alcoholic Dementia—and sketching out the rising gentrification through Lip’s story instead of just opening with Frank’s diagnosis or Lip deciding that the only way to move forward is to embrace the gentrifiers and flip the Gallagher house.

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good...Eh, Screw It” is the most compelling episode of Shameless so far this season because these developments have real stakes. These stakes don’t magically solve the show’s long-term problems, of course. Suddenly making Frank sick might successfully tap into the show’s early seasons and the kids’ complicated relationship with their father, but that doesn’t make up for the last 4-5 seasons of dead-end Frank storylines that were complete wastes of time. And while selling the house creates a clear turning point for each of the Gallagher kids, it doesn’t make Debbie and Sandy being in love or Carl pivoting from a “Not All Cops” riff to becoming a male victim of sexual assault vital pieces of storytelling. But the very existence of something—anything—that feels grounded in reality and the past ten years we’ve spent with these characters is so welcome that I’m willing to look past all that to…eh, screw it, let’s talk about Debbie and Carl for a second.

Do you think the writers of Shameless realize how ironic it is that Debbie is informing Carl about the nuances of sexual assault given that she raped Matty and lied to Derek about not being on the pill in order to get pregnant? We can talk about whether Carl is the right character to be processing the issue of consent—he’s not—but the way Debbie drops into the conversation to clarify that what he experienced was sexual assault was my breaking point in terms of the show’s approach to her character. The writers seem unable to acknowledge that in transitioning her character to adulthood, her actions crossed a line from “teenage mistakes” to “pathologically bad person.” Like all of the Gallaghers, Debbie is at least in part a victim of circumstance, but her stories have never been grounded in that concept, an ongoing mistake the show only exaggerates by having her suddenly pop up as an expert on sexual assault without any sort of acknowledgment that she herself is a rapist.

For as much as the show has struggled with every character’s story in recent seasons, the older Gallaghers are more rooted in their circumstances, such that even when the show rushes their stories there is a safety net to fall back on. It is ludicrous how casually Lip fell off the wagon in last week’s episode, and absurd that he would so willfully drag Brad down with him, and I’m still angry about it. But because Lip’s character is better connected with the core themes of the show, his turn to crime and his realization that gentrification is both the problem and the solution more or less works. Does it justify how the show just completely ignored Lip falling off the wagon at Ian’s wedding in the opening of the season? Again, no, but seeing him brushing off Mickey’s concerns and lying to Tami taps into a more dramatic side of the show that I’ve been asking for more of all season. It was a cheap way to get there, and I still think there’s a deeper well of Lip’s desire for upward mobility that goes beyond his alcoholism which the show is leaving untapped, but there’s a baseline level of interest in Lip that Debbie and Carl can never match that’s working in the story’s favor.

The same is true for Ian and Mickey, the latter of whom gets to explore his daddy issues when a paralyzed Terry Milkovich is dropped off after his brief hospital stay following Liam accidentally shooting him. The idea that Mickey was tolerating his father’s presence after he literally tried to kill him and Ian for getting married has been simmering in the background of the season, and so I appreciated that the show allowed him some space to process that, even if it felt like the ultimate purpose of the story was to play through some hypotheticals for when Ian and the rest of the Gallaghers find out about Frank’s condition. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with the show’s conclusion that even racist, homophobic abusers deserve not to be left on the side of the street with no mobility, but honestly again: just getting some kind of dramatic story for Mickey was welcome, even if it had to live alongside the “Yuk yuk incest” approach to the Milkovich clan that keeps it from really resonating like it could.

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As the show moves toward its conclusion, I do think we’ll get more stories like Mickey coming to terms with his relationship with his father in an effort to bring things full circle. We see a very similar scene when Frank stumbles onto Terry, his dementia-addled brain still able to recognize his nemesis and reflect back on their good times together warring over territory. But as the scene was playing out, I was struck by how the scene’s claims to the “war” between Gallavich and Milkovich being a huge part of this show didn’t add up. Yes, that was a part of the early parts of Shameless when drawing on the U.K. series, but the show largely wrote off the Milkovich family as a part of the series’ fabric for a long while, and its return this season has felt more arbitrary than full circle. And this is perhaps why Shameless has been so reluctant to call on its past to lend weight to this season’s events: in its current state, the show has lost track of what it was really about, and is scrambling to find something to hang onto in order for anything that happens in its final six episodes to resonate beyond short-term developments.

Selling the house works because of how universal it is, creating problems for every character. Carl is the most stably employed, but also the most immature, even with a uniform. Ian and Mickey are ex-cons on probation just trying to get their feet back under them. Debbie may have her ankle bracelet off, but she’s still raising a child and an independent contractor with no job security. And Liam is—I cannot stress this enough—still in middle school, just shot a man accidentally, and is for some reason calling the Vatican. Lip isn’t wrong that a fresh start would solve some of his problems, but it creates others for everyone else, and the reverberations of that decision serve as the catalyst for the “final season” of Shameless to finally begin in earnest.

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I struggle to feel the same way about Frank’s dementia. It is undoubtedly a logical end to Frank’s story: the idea that the consequences of all of his life’s decisions are coming to bear at this crucial time, and that they will now be the responsibility of his children to handle as he loses his ability to fully take care of himself, resonates with where Frank’s story began. However, logical as it may be, it isn’t meaningful when it’s coming five seasons too late. I don’t feel bad for Frank, much as I don’t feel bad for Terry, and while I’m interested in how Frank’s illness plays out as part of Ian and Lip’s stories, Frank’s actual fate is irrelevant to me, which is the show’s fault for failing to understand the character’s lack of utility for so long. Shameless’ final season got measurably better with this episode, but there are deeper problems that the show is revealing with each decision that will keep rising to the surface as the last six episodes unfold.

Stray observations

  • I really do want to understand why someone thought Carl is the right character to explore male victims of sexual assault. I was wondering as the story played out why the meet cute and subsequent date were so neutral—nothing was happening, no major revelations—and so I figured something had to be up, but I just don’t really know what the character gets out of the writers cribbing from I May Destroy You (and real life, of course, but the “no condom” specifics feel awfully similar).
  • I don’t want them to bring unnecessary extras onto the lot—the school scenes were Too Many People already—but having Terry just casually left on the front yard and Ian and Mickey casually doing work on their stolen ambulance really highlighted that they’re not on an actual city street. I realize that’s not something the show could realistically solve, but it stood out to me here.
  • Speaking of the school scenes, I’m really curious how they decide to end Kevin and Veronica’s story given that none of the “final season” energy here affected them in any way. As it is, having them cycle through various random story points—in this case active shooter drills—remains as ephemeral as ever.
  • The idea that Mickey and Sandy had sex, beyond the casual Milkovich incest that we get multiple mentions of this week, raises a very large number of timeline questions for me that will not be answered, but were also not helped by Veronica firmly placing the season in 2021 this week.
  • Speaking of timelines, the idea of Carl moving into an uninsulated basement in Chicago is insane until you remember that in the Shameless universe, winter doesn’t exist anymore.
  • Liam sure was incredibly street smart for a while there, but now that he’s shot someone he’s calling the Vatican—instead of, like, visiting an actual Catholic church—and “getting rid of a gun” by hiding it in a random box in the basement? I don’t think they’ve got a handle on how to tell that story, although let’s put a pin in the Chekhov’s gun.
  • More than before, the idea of selling the house really reminds us how damaged this season will be if circumstances prohibit Emmy Rossum from returning. Here’s hoping it works out, because it’s going to be a real bummer otherwise.
  • I know I often complain about Shameless being treated like a sitcom, but its best scenes are often when they just put the whole family into the kitchen or the living room and have them riff off of each other, and there were a couple of those here that had great energy. I’m sort of hoping the show calms down on “plot” moving into the back half of the season and just focuses on group scenes and smaller interactions like Mickey suggesting he’d use a paralyzed Ian as a sex doll. Smaller moments are better for the show right now, but I don’t know if the writers can return to that wavelength after straying from it for so long.
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Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.