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The final scene in “Going Once, Going Twice” showcases Shameless at its best.

It’s a scene that the entire episode is building to. Although most characters have their own story—more on those in a bit—the family has come together to attend the auction for their own house. They’ve gone through a lot to get to this point: Fiona discovered that no credit is better than bad credit, pawned off Gus’ Holocaust Cooch ring, and eventually took money from Sean to cobble together a down payment. This is the chance for the Gallaghers to own their own history, something they’ve never done, and something they don’t even have a concept of. They have $100,000 to spend when the auction begins, and if this were a different kind of show these scrappy underdogs would have won their house.

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But when the auction starts, it’s all wrong. There are too many other people bidding. Lip and Ian’s attempts to convince people that the house is infested or occupied by squatters are ignored. Carl and Nick’s attempts to intimidate other bidders can only go so far. They should have seen the signs: the gentrification of the neighborhood has been all around them, but they never believed it would extend to what was theirs. Why would those types of people want the place where this family has struggled to make ends meet? How could this house be the place where people see themselves raising a nuclear family?

I was struck by how nervous I was during the auction, given that I came into the episode convinced they’d win the house back. But as the episode progressed, the odds became stacked in the other direction: cousin Patrick’s use of the house of collateral made getting out from under the eviction notice impossible, and when the idea of a mortgage was raised it all felt too good to be true. By the time we reached the auction, the thing I thought the show wouldn’t risk doing—splitting up the family and thus further dividing their stories—seemed like the only option, and the weight was immediately apparent. By the time we leave the episode on Fiona, broken and homeless realizing what’s just happened, it’s a reminder how much the show still rests on our capacity to connect with the Gallaghers’ ups and downs.

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However, as much as the moment lands emotionally, I don’t know if I’m all that excited to see the aftermath play out. The show is already laying some of the groundwork: Debbie and Frank appear to have angled into a live-in nanny situation with one of his referrals from his trawling of cancer wards, which at least gives Frank some structure even if that structure still involves pimping out his pregnant 15-year-old daughter to soon-to-be widows. And Fiona and Sean’s relationship hits an important turning point, with Sean revealing more of his criminal past—he killed a guy while high—before they consider potentially living together. But while the family could scatter and land in various spots, I don’t know if the show can survive losing that central meeting place. Seeing nearly the whole family back around the breakfast table here reminds us how much that has been the heart of the show, and last season’s biggest issue was Fiona’s separation from the rest of the family during her relationship with Gus.

It’s true the show’s storylines are becoming more siloed than ever before, which is preparing them—and, by extension, us—for the inevitability that the Gallaghers won’t be together forever. The issue comes from the fact that I don’t think these siloed stories are really working: the season has done its best storytelling when characters converge, and so the idea of those characters being even more separated raises concerns. After Lip and Ian came together with great success last week, they’re divided again here, and it just doesn’t work the same way. As much as I appreciate Lip starting to come to terms with Helene’s refusal to see him as more than a fling (even if, while plastered following a professional humiliation, she says otherwise), it’s still a story that has coasted too long on “Hot For Teacher” without pushing the character forward. And while Ian using his life-saving experience on the bridge to search for a sense of purpose rings true, and I appreciated how his trip to the fire station rebuffed his most basic impulses (the fireman who saved him is gay, yes, but also married, and he seems most interested in the sense of purpose the gay firemen seem to have in their lives outside of the fire house), it’s hard to connect to such a relatively thin story when Ian’s story was so rich so recently. The two stories have the opposite problem: while the writers have resisted moving Lip past Helene to their own peril, Noel Fisher’s exit forced them to push Ian past Mickey, even when I don’t think the show or the character were really ready for it. Neither story is a lost cause, but they’re also struggling to find the right tempo moving forward.

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Writing about any serialized show has challenges when it comes to tempo: you’re always waiting to see how stories will turn out, reacting to incomplete developments because you really don’t have any other option. But this is particularly true for Shameless, which tends to have more confidence in its ability to balance absurdity with realism than is necessarily warranted. Carl’s story last week was a tonal mess, failing to find a voice of reason to make its gun control satire connect on any meaningful level, but here we see the story start to walk back a bit. Carl, believing himself to be an adult, buys Dominique a mink shrug and aspires to have Nick get his license so they can chauffeur her around town. But while Carl’s in a rush to become an adult, Nick—finally speaking—never really got to be a kid, and so he only aspires to own a bicycle. Carl seems to take the lesson to heart, downgrading his show of affection to a bike as though acknowledging he’s not quite divorced from his childhood. I still think the story has problems, but it’s leveling out a bit in productive ways, and could do so more in the future.

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And then there are other stories the show is mercifully in a rush to burn to the ground. Yanis was just a bad, bad storyline: Sasso was playing it too broad, but the real problem originated in the writing, which was too cruel to even be close to funny. It’s as if they started on the image of Kevin watching a man burned alive spinning in a wheelchair and tried to figure out how horrible someone would have to be for that to be even remotely funny instead of horrifying, but I didn’t find his death funny at all. It was simply a relief, knowing that story—hopefully, for the sake of the show—is finally coming to an end. Interestingly, the Alibi’s brief hipster revival seems to have also come to a close, leaving both Kev and V in search of a story as they move past this first act of the season.

It’s a good thing that the Gallaghers’ future is uncertain—it’s better for the show that the path forward is unpredictable, and so pulling the trigger on losing the house is a positive development for the season ahead. But it also creates storytelling issues that the writers have struggled with in recent seasons, adding a degree of difficulty that will require careful nagivation, and the coming weeks will be an important test of how the show intends to move forward in—at least—the next two seasons.

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Stray observations

  • Much as Ian’s few scenes at the firehouse never entirely get around to advancing his story considerably, Chucky shows up at the house on early release for reasons the episode doesn’t reveal. Beyond Fiona’s “no race wars…in the house” rule, it really didn’t accomplish much of anything.
  • The idea of Kevin and V killing the Alibi’s credibility with hipsters by celebrating their shittiness was a nice development—“resolves” the story in a way that also speaks to the way these characters are not really able to navigate the different cultures that are invading their space.
  • Given that Dominique didn’t speak in her first episode and Nick didn’t speak until this week, I have to presume there’s some budget crunching limiting the amount of speaking roles? It worked better on a story level for Nick, but Victor Onuigbo does nice work with the monologue about his bike.
  • Although they’re not identical scenes, the auction scene reminded me of the public housing lottery in Show Me A Hero (which, if you haven’t watched it, is really great), in that there’s such hope mixed with a sense of futility for the people we’re following.
  • In case you, like me, were wondering about the music that closes out the episode: Owl John’s “Cold Creeps” soundtrack’s Fiona’s devastation, while Street Joy’s “Same As Me” soundtracks the credits.
  • University Verisimilitude Corner: Okay, so this is going to take some time. Depicting an academic conference takes on a new burden for the show, but I understand the impulse: it pulls Helene away from home, and both Helene and Lip away from campus, such that Lip can imagine them as a couple outside of the confines of their affair (complete with “Lip uses a bidet,” a story I’m sure has been up on the writer’s room whiteboard for years). But the way the conference itself actually played out was absurd, on a level that I can’t abide as the obnoxious self-appointed arbiter of the series’ depiction of academic culture: the idea that someone would interrupt someone during a presentation in order to discredit their work is nonsense, albeit derived from a fundamental truth that there are assholes who would get off on doing that. This would have unfolded in a post-presentation Q&A, which would have actually made the scene even better: imagine if we’d seen Helene finishing this great presentation, receiving a warm response from the audience, and then immediately she learns her hypothesis has been disproven by this recently discovered correspondence. The devastation would have hit just as hard, and also would have better modulated the asshat level on the dude from Loyola. If he uses the Q&A to leverage the recent discovery—it was only three weeks ago, she would have submitted that paper to the conference months earlier—and disprove her thesis, he’s still being an asshole in a public venue, but he’s using the time set aside for such discussions. But when he interrupts her talk, and then continually interrupts it to make sure she understands what she had no realistic way of knowing in advance of writing her paper, he crosses a line into the kind of behavior that would be just as much career-killing for him as it is book-killing for Helene. Anyways, TL;DR: this would not happen like this and adding more realism to the sequence would have actually heightened the dramatic resonance. I’ll see myself out.

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