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Debbie’s delivery has Shameless at “Peak Gallagher”

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The central conflict of Shameless rests on the inability for the Gallaghers to “go straight.” They have never been a family to do things “normally,” their experiences shaped by their South Side environment and by years of scraping together an existence out of whatever scraps fall their way. And any time they try to do things that are “normal”—Fiona getting a typical job, Lip going to college—the show has made the argument that they can’t help themselves. Everything will go back to being the way it’s always been, and either those environments will bend to their way of life or they’ll move onto the next attempt to straighten out their lives.

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The Gallaghers have never been as “straight” on average as they are in season six. Carl has excised himself from the criminal element, and has even gone so far as to decide he wants to be a cop after a ride-along with Dominique’s father. Ian is continuing his “normal” relationship with Caleb, and aced his EMT exam. And Fiona sees Sean’s proposal as a chance to do wedded life “right” this time, insisting on a traditional ceremony and working overly hard to create a “normal” wedding. They can see a new life for themselves, and they’re embracing that.

But “Paradise Lost” is a sober reminder, albeit a complicated one. Speaking of sobriety, Lip is in an environment where what he treats as everyday life—binge drinking, blackout trips to the emergency room—is a violation of the school’s alcohol policy, and a signal that he has become an alcoholic. The disconnect Lip experiences in his meeting with the school—which requires him to enter into counseling or be expelled—speaks to the struggle he has adapting to environments that expect him to follow by different rules. Lip’s interview for his internship promises a glimpse of a future where he is judged by his ideas, but he has to get through the very bureaucracy that made him so reluctant to go to college in the first place. While the idea that Helene would cause sudden-onset alcoholism remains a sticking point for me, Lip’s struggles against the systems of college nonetheless foreground the fact that simply getting “into” another world doesn’t mean that world is going to play by your rules.

If Lip is haunted by the way he wants to live his life on a daily basis, Ian is haunted by his past. His relationship with Caleb isn’t so much a relationship—I still don’t feel any sense of chemistry or future—as a vessel through which Ian is forced to face how the events in recent years will complicate his path forward. The show is using a romantic relationship to have somebody to “react” to Ian’s past, which is why they have Caleb in the room to hear Ian hesitate at how many sexual partners he’s had—it’s ridiculous he’s there (and the nurse excuses him immediately after), but it makes the point of how Ian’s sexual history will carry into any future relationship. Ian is fortunate that his tests come back negative, but it foreshadows the complication of his mental health record when finalizing his EMT application. The show is oversimplifying—his record would be a potential red flag, but a cursory Google suggests it is not an automatic point of disqualification—but it creates a scenario where Caleb’s advice is to ignore it and lie on the application. But is that really healthy? Is ignoring his disorder a productive step forward? Though still not resonating on an emotional level, that thematic question at least gives the storyline a clear—if concerning—path forward.

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The emotional dynamics of the episode come primarily through Debbie, who spends the hour struggling with the reality of an alternative birth on Queenie’s commune. I don’t know if the show laid enough groundwork for Debbie to be giving birth—I suppose it’s plausible that enough time has passed for her to go into labor, but the ups and downs of her arc this season never garnered much momentum, and so this feels less like a climax to a story and more like a “plot event” for late in the season. The one resonance comes, surprisingly enough, in the form of Frank: Although he actively pimped out his daughter earlier, he also supported her when no one else did, and sacrificed a position of sexual authority over the commune to risk his life—he’s abducted by Carl’s former employers immediately afterwards—and take Debbie back home to give birth. It’s maybe Frank’s most selfless act, and it creates a nice moment when Debbie names her daughter Francis and we simultaneously understand Lip and Fiona’s discomfort and see why Debbie—who, if you think back to the pilot, has always had the most romanticized view of her father—has genuine reason to appreciate Frank in this scenario.

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Debbie giving birth on the kitchen table is peak Gallagher. The family ties to that house have been important to the season, and their history is increasingly relevant—Fiona digs out Monica’s wedding dress (from her first wedding to Frank, before she locked him in a trunk), and Frank tells Debbie that all their kids were born in the house (and alludes to the fact some of them might not have survived, which wasn’t something I remember learning about in the past). “Paradise Lost” uses these moments as echoes of the Gallagher history, reminders that no matter how much chaos operates around them, there will always be memories like those that take on a different feeling. There’s nothing normal about Debbie giving birth on the kitchen table, but that’s exactly what makes it a true Gallagher memory, something that fits comfortably with the rest of the family lore.

“Paradise Lost” is not the moment where Fiona’s attempt at normalcy falls apart. She has her bachelorette party, which goes off without a hitch, and Sean moves into the house with no serious conflicts to speak of. But Fiona has a wakeup call when Debbie still refuses to let her ride in the ambulance with her, a piece of wishful thinking that fits Fiona’s current worldview. She believes that if she acts like everything is normal—with her and Sean, with her and Debbie—it will be normal, an approach that is more than a little naïve. But it’s an important moment for rescuing Debbie’s storyline from its somewhat erratic development, asserting her independence both as a young woman with a difficult decision to make about her baby’s future and as a character on the show able to sustain her own stories. I don’t know if the latter has materialized as of yet, but the push for the former has the chance to pull the story together.

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Like many serialized shows, Shameless is naturally growing more compelling as it gets later in its season—there are still stories that feel tangential and frankly a bit silly (the Alibi strippers, the mudwrestling challenges at the commune), but the convergence of key storylines creates clear momentum. It makes it easier to look past the procedure of how the characters got to this point to focus on where they are, and the interesting places this story could take them. While the show has not completely removed my reservations about the storytelling early in the season, the balls in the air at this late stage are in line with the show’s basic storytelling goals and create the potential for a redemptive conclusion in the final two episodes.

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Stray observations

  • “My marriage was to a low-IQ homosexual”—Svetlana’s divorce with Mickey happens completely off-screen (as you’d expect), but she’s still the mother of his son (even if we haven’t seen the little bugger in a while as Svetlana’s story with Kev and V has grown more substantive), so we’ll see how he resonates as they move forward.
  • Given that Frank has consciously performed sexual favors for men in exchange for money in the past, I’m not sure even his slight hesitation at the commune leader joining him in bed tracked, but his choice to continue is in line with past sexual fluidity.
  • Carl’s desire to be a cop might explain why they brought back Tony just to out him earlier this season, but I don’t know how that story can reasonably move forward in the show’s timespan—I don’t need a repeat of Weeds pretending they could age up Alexander Gould with a moustache in the series finale.
  • In my field of media studies research, there is a recurring interest in what has been termed “Peen Studies,” as researchers consider the relative absence of male genitalia in television programming despite there being no specific rules disallowing its appearance. And so I thought of that research when we briefly glimpse Kermit’s pierced member, which was a fun punchline to a fun—if weightless—bachelorette party.
  • It would appear that the Mountain Lion has at least partially obscured Chuckie’s tattoo, as speculated in the comments last week, but we’ll have to see how it heals (which, depending on how things go down after the shootout at the compound, may never happen onscreen if we’re done with the compound story).
  • I enjoyed how Lip is totally comfortable trying to talk himself out of getting fired for his actions at the sorority party right up until the point he peed on a person. His resignation thereafter offered some lightness to balance a very dark moment for the character, which Jeremy Allen White is playing well even as I resent the fact Helene was the cause of this.
  • Given my documented issues with empty coffee cups on TV, I appreciate how the lighting in Professor Youens’ office forced them to put liquid in the slightly translucent coffee cups Lip delivers. The verisimilitude was much appreciated. Which, speaking of…
  • University Verisimilitude Corner: I had to bring this back to note that Lip’s apparently brilliant research ideas being stolen by his professor is a perfect example of the show treating him like a graduate student. It’s true that this is something that happens, particularly in the sciences, but the idea that he would be contributing meaningful research as an undergraduate is a stretch. Moreover, if this professor already has tenure—and he has to if he’s getting away with that level of alcoholism and dereliction of duty—and seems to legitimately believe in Lip, I’m not sure why he wouldn’t allow Lip to be listed as a co-author except to force a complete collapse of Lip’s college support structure at this crucial moment.
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