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A Shameless twist struggles to find its truth

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Debbie Gallagher planned her pregnancy. As tough as it was to watch, we saw her rationalize that a baby would somehow make her relationship with Derek better, and then proceed to inform him she was on the pill when she wasn’t. That this would result in pregnancy followed a set of clearly visible logics: they were frustrating, and I still don’t entirely accept that Debbie would buy into them so wholeheartedly, but they were present.

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Fiona Gallagher did not plan her pregnancy. Hers, revealed by a mandatory drug test tied to her new management position at the diner, is the show using the surprise pregnancy as a plot twist, in this case complicating Fiona’s efforts to convince Debbie to have an abortion. You can see why the writers would be attracted to this development. She just got out of a rushed marriage and is now dating a recovering addict who recently relapsed, and she’s working through her feelings about her sister she took responsibility for potentially having a responsibility of her own. It’s the “perfect” time to force a new set of questions on Fiona, about whether or not she wants to become a “real” parent, and whether she is able to imagine her future independent of the responsibility she feels for her siblings.

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And yet as much as it makes writerly sense, it’s a development that bothers me. I should know not to expect a television show to offer a sound set of logics for why an unplanned pregnancy takes place: it happens all the time. But given how conscious Fiona has been about her responsibility to her family, and given the way she resents her parents for leaving her to raise her siblings, and given she has expressed no specific interest in having children, I struggle to reconcile the idea that Fiona would get pregnant, even by accident. Everything we’ve seen of Fiona Gallagher has suggested someone who is on contraception and careful, lest she find herself falling into the same traps as those she has tried to desperately to keep her siblings from falling into.

I expect we’ll hear explanations in the episodes to come. Perhaps it’s a sign that she was finally starting to feel like she was in a stable adult relationship with Sean (although the timeline here would imply to me that it’s feasible the baby belongs to the absent husband). Perhaps the recent chaos has simply led to a lack of attention. But regardless of what explanation the show presents, I have to be honest and say I’m going to have a hard time buying it. I know that this technically happens, and that accidental pregnancies take place all the time, but the idea that they would happen to Fiona Gallagher does not ring true for me.

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There’s not a lot of truth to be found in “#AbortionRules.” As Helene tells Lip that he should murder her husband and make it look like an accident, I kept waiting for them to reveal it was a dream sequence, but no—that was something that was actually happening. Once Lip is freed from that madhouse—where the son jokes that he was having sex with his father, not his mother—he becomes a character I care about, having some straight talk with Debbie and eventually breaking up his sisters as they fight at episode’s end. But when he’s trapped in this bizarro triangle with these screwed up 40-somethings, there’s nothing to really latch onto. While I appreciate that we have a clearer sense of where that story is going, the glimpse rang false, and further heightened my desire for them to move past this nonsense as soon as possible.

This was, unfortunately, a trend throughout the episode. While Carl’s stark maturity in embracing the criminal element proved a productive contrast with Debbie in the premiere, here he’s muscling Asian Dry Cleaners and selling guns at school as though that’s capable of functioning as a meaningful story. There’s nothing to see here: whatever journey Carl is on (and I do believe the show has an endpoint intended for this particular development), this was not a good argument that what takes place in the interim is going have the humor or pathos necessary to sustain itself.

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There’s more substance to Debbie’s “Flour Baby,” but it never feels entirely real to me. I may simply be speaking from a position of ignorance, but in what universe would Debbie be bringing a baby into a high school classroom? A cursory Google confirms that Chicago-area high schools had daycare programs even in the mid-1980s, and so the idea that she would be “practicing” by changing her flour baby in the middle of a class made the whole situation feel highly contrived. This extended to Fiona’s “Pregnancy Facts” texts, and the after school special vibe of Debbie’s conversation with the two fellow students/mothers who happened to be hanging out after school in order to dispense their own experiences at a convenient point in the narrative. I kept waiting for the moral of the story to be Debbie’s fundamental misunderstanding of the realities of being a high school student and a mother, but the lessons ended up being more about clothes not fitting and not being to go out on the weekends because your mother won’t babysit. Rather than the episode pointing out her flour baby plan was completely inadequate at judging her capacity to take on this challenge, it has her lose it on the L as though this was actually a reasonable test. It was not.

On the whole, returning to last week’s discussion for a second, “#AbortionRules” reinforces why I am so resistant to Shameless being designated as a comedy, because when it does episodes where the stakes fade away in favor of short-term laughs I struggle to care about what’s happening. Frank trawling the Oncology ward for a new Bianca has nowhere to go and nothing to say—whereas there was a certain existential struggle in Frank’s antics last week, this week just repeats the same pattern, finding a bit of meaning in his connection to Bianca’s friend but then nothing but hijinks elsewhere. If Frank is going to be off in another show—outside of Fiona running him out of the house, he never interacts with the rest of the family—then that show can’t just feel like a distraction. While Frank’s Bianca arc was actually a highlight from last year, Frank having a terminal patient suffer cardiac arrest when they take a hit from a crack pipe is just a thing that happened.

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There’s more happening in the ongoing gentrification storyline, which felt like the kind of light-hearted comedy that nonetheless still has something to say. I still don’t care for Will Sasso’s character—and legitimately hope that Kevin cutting his brakes takes him off the table entirely—but the Alibi becoming a Hipster hot spot escalated in some really fun ways. I loved how every time we came back to the Alibi Svetlana had found some new way to fleece them: hookahs, espressos, karaoke, straight razor shaves, bike racks, etc. It’s all a little bit exaggerated, but it feels drawn from truth, and grounds the comedy in something that has thematic ramifications for all of the characters.

Once I accept that television will always value the plot dynamics of a surprise pregnancy over the truth of the character involved, there’s thematic weight to this development to Fiona. The pregnancy forces her—the only true adult, who has passed all the hurdles (or equivalents) that she placed in front of Debbie in order to have a baby—to confront her path forward, and that’s a positive step for the character and the show. But the way the story unfolded, and the episode around it, just never managed to find itself, which means there’s work to do before the show gets to where it clearly wants to be.

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Stray observations

  • Okay, help me out here with the title of the episode. First of all, why was Fiona using hashtags? Is there any evidence she uses social media to the level that she would use hashtags in texts, where hashtags serve no functional purpose? Secondly, was she texting #AbortionRules like she was rooting for her favorite athlete—“Woo, Abortion rules, yo!”—or was she instead suggesting that there are strict rules surrounding abortions? Either way, I’m puzzled by the whole thing.
  • There was some productive discussion in the comments last week about Debbie, arguing against my belief that Debbie wouldn’t realistically make these decisions. I personally still don’t know if the show has “shown its work” on this topic: I agree that “teenagers gonna teenager” makes this a plausible development, but something about Debbie’s transition to a teenager just didn’t register for me, and the show needs to do more to convince me she’d take actions this extreme. But I’m curious to see how the rest of the season builds on the development.
  • Ian doesn’t really have a storyline in the episode, serving more a floater who commiserates with Debbie about Fiona’s bossiness before then getting himself fired at work. However, his fellow busboy was the one who he had a fling with in the bathroom back in last year’s premiere, which the episode never acknowledges, and so I have to presume we’re cycling back to it at some point?
  • Related: I don’t know if I entirely pieced together we had seen that character before without the help of IMDB, but I still recognized the actor (Erick Lopez) from his stint as Lauren’s ex on Faking It. Are you watching Faking It? It’s really grown past its premise effectively.
  • I know Debbie’s deeply delusional and a teenager and all, but “pack a suitcase with no specific transportation plans to travel to find someone who by all reports ran away from you because he panicked and didn’t want to have a baby without knowing where he actually is in the state of Florida” still felt like a stretch, you know?
  • Was the episode suggesting that the girl Carl was hitting on at the start of class was mute? I wasn’t sure what they were going with for a lot of Carl’s story—why would that teacher allow Nick to be there?—but that’s the question that remains the most open for me.
  • University Verisimilitude Corner: Internships would probably be handled in competitive situations and through some form of counseling office (rather than through an individual professor), but a small fudge in the grand scheme of things. Per discussion in the comments last week, there’s no doubt undergraduate interns are definitely a thing, but the kind of relationship Lip has with this apparently brilliant research professor is definitely something that would be reserved for grad students.
  • Some interesting non-linear editing in the two sex scenes that bookend the episode—I don’t know if Fiona and Sean’s relationship is something I’m actually all that invested in (I honestly didn’t truly learn Sean’s name before I started writing about the show), but the scenes stood out stylistically.
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