Photo: Isabella Vosmikova (Showtime)

When a TV show runs into its ninth season, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the people who populate this universe don’t know everything about these characters that we do.

It’s a common thread throughout “Down Like The Titanic,” Shameless’ first ever midseason finale as Showtime spreads out the expanded order of fourteen episodes over six months. Carl’s new girlfriend Kelly bursts into the Gallagher house with an armful of textbooks to help Carl prepare for the academic rigor of West Point, unaware that his appreciation of literature never got beyond picture books. Frank’s new love interest Ingrid’s ex-husband Randy is convinced that Frank is in over his head with someone suffering from a mental illness, ignorant to the fact that Frank is maybe the only person who is equipped to handle someone in this state. And most of all, real estate douchebag Max Whitford shows up at Fiona’s building looking for his $25,000, and when she finally breaks down and admits that she doesn’t have it he has no conception of this. How does she not have that kind of money? How is there not some other investment that’s liquid? Isn’t there a Mother or an Uncle she can call?

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We know there’s no Uncle that Fiona can call to bail her out. This knowledge is what makes Fiona’s sudden loss of class mobility so difficult to watch, especially when you compare it to what happens to Carl and Frank in the same situations. Frank, who has nothing left to live for (and no reason to still be on this show), proves Randy wrong by staying by Ingrid’s side even when the going is tough, and successfully worms his way into her privileged world much as he did with Sheila in the series’ early seasons—what does he have to lose? Carl, conversely, has his entire life ahead of him, and so his tragic life circumstances are (allegedly) a boon to his application to West Point, as Kelly goes down the list and confirms all the facts—the dead mother, the abusive parenting, etc.—make him a prime candidate for an exception program designed for underprivileged kids like him.

But Fiona doesn’t have her whole life ahead of her, and no one is going to see her scrappy upbringing as a charity case. Max Whitford’s tinfoil parachute is as much charity as Fiona could have ever hoped for, and it involves losing all of the investment value her building gained through gentrification, moving back in with her siblings, and holding onto her $100,000 investment but only through a potentially predatory loan from Whitford. It may not quite be square one, but it feels like it, and Fiona spends the episode spiraling at an alarming rate. She was already a mess before Debbie reminded her she missed Ian leaving to go to jail, and nothing about what happens afterwards makes her feel any better about her situation. No matter how many party hats she buys, and no matter how many paintballs she fires at Ford’s bare ass in the stockade that Debbie constructed in the middle of a public street, nothing about returning home a failure is going to bring Fiona Gallagher any kind of solace. While the finale “ends” with the triumph of Fiona’s revenge on Ford, the mid-credits scene shows a deeply drunk and deeply sad Fiona commiserating with herself in the backyard, as Lip, Carl, and the viewer look on with concern.

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Photo: Chuck Hodes (Showtime)

It’s not much of a contest, but “Down Like The Titanic” is the best episode of the ninth season thus far, simply because it’s the first that has felt meaningful: I was just able to write three paragraphs about its themes and story developments, something that hasn’t felt justified with anything else the show has thrown together in a scattered and ultimately unsuccessful series of episodes. For the first time, the season had real stakes, something that somehow never materialized even when Ian was being sentenced to jail time thanks to the way the show struggled with articulating that story. Emmy Rossum is given a lot to play with, and I appreciated how much drunk Fiona walked that fine line between drama and comedy. It’s something that Rossum isn’t allowed to play as often as some of the rest of the cast, but I found myself chuckling at some of her line readings—in particular “You gotta get in there BEEF”—in the hours after I watched the episode, and appreciated the commitment to Fiona’s self-destruction being just plain messy. I may not like to see Fiona in this position, but I liked what it brought out in the show, as her siblings rallied to support her, and she got plastered to face down the idea of returning to the family fold.

That having been said, though, there’s two things that are bugging me about this storyline. The first is that if the writers wanted to take everything away from Fiona, the whole Ford side of this story was both entirely unnecessary and dramatically ridiculous. Even if we set aside the logistical infeasibility of Ford living a double life for so long without Fiona getting more suspicious than the “Patty” phone incident (and you know setting aside logistical infeasibility is hard for me), nothing about their relationship was ever made meaningful enough to add onto the financial ruin that Fiona finds herself in. The loss of her economic stability and her future is the single greatest burden you could place on Fiona, but tying it to the loss of a relationship is just cheap, and reduces the character in ways the show should be trying to avoid. Nothing about Ford as a character or Richard Flood as an actor justified his continued presence in this show, and this story would have been infinitely better if Fiona was going through this struggle without the baggage of yet another entry into the saga of men who’ve turned into assholes. The fact that the show made Flood a series regular for this storyline is, frankly, an insult to Fiona’s larger story arc.

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Photo: Isabella Vosmikova (Showtime)

The second is more complicated, and inherently contradictory, but after I felt the show piled on Fiona far too much last week, here I felt like they pulled too many punches. There’s the fact that the drunk driving accident is entirely swept under the rug: apparently no one saw Fiona stumble from the scene, and they sure seem pretty convinced that the stolen car insurance fraud plan won’t come back to Fiona despite the hospital records that will show she sustained injuries consistent with a car crash on the same day. And you might say that this is something the show can bring back to haunt Fiona in the future, but you might say the same thing about one of Carl’s cadets killing his girlfriend (never came up again), or the Gallaghers delivering Liam’s pregnant school bully unconscious to a family planning clinic (completely ignored here), or the $10,000 Lip gave Xan’s mother (seemingly lost to history). I understand the show’s desire to give Fiona hope for the future, hence Whitford’s parachute and Debbie’s felony connections, but what’s the lesson learned here? Is Fiona responsible for her own mistakes, or is she a victim of Ford’s betrayal, or is she a product of her upbringing, doomed to be forced back into her proper place in the world? I don’t think the show knows yet, but its efforts to hedge its bets creates a muddled set of circumstances that loses resonance the further you move away from just focusing on Rossum’s performance and our personal investment in the character.

I think that gets at why Shameless has felt so off-the-rails this season, and why a lot of long-running shows run into similar problems. The writers are focused on keeping the engine of the show running, generating plots that give them structure to theoretically extend the show into the future. It’s why this episode involves Lip’s terrible wedding hookup, creating a structural symmetry to the season that literally no one asked for but makes sense on paper from a storytelling perspective. Tammy had no resonance to Lip, just as Lip had no resonance in the season, jumping from an unexplained Xan storyline to a motorcycle death wish story that just got completely erased again here. Watching the show try to suggest Lip had anything approaching a story arc in this season was laughable, but it’s the kind of work that the writers have chosen to prioritize as the show grows older, because it keeps the engine running. Forget that the car in this metaphor is driving in circles: what’s important is that it keeps moving, sometimes slipping gears without warning when the writers get bored of one idea and want to just move onto something new.

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But that’s not how I watch the show. I’m focused on my investment in these characters, fostered through years of watching them grow and struggle. And this is something the show has steadfastly refused to do over the past few seasons, unless it serves their interests. I’d actually argue that Carl was in many ways one of the least directly impacted by his parents’ neglect and abuse, but his West Point story makes his past into a topic of discussion when it’s convenient for the writers to somehow continue his military career. But without that utility, the show had no interest in revisiting Ian’s past thanks to the mess made of his arc post-Mickey, and continues to just ignore Liam’s cocaine overdose as they reframe the character as a boy genius. Every time the show plays this selective history game, it reminds those of us who remember that the writers spend almost no time boiling down this show to its characters and their storylines. Their time is spent crafting situational plots that generate the comedy they see as the core of the show, and whatever meaning comes from that is at best tangential, and at times seemingly incidental.

Photo: Isabella Vosmikova (Showtime)

So why keep watching? That’s a fair question, but in some ways the mess of the first half of the season makes me anticipate the second half of the season even more. Intellectually speaking, the challenge at hand is gargantuan: although framed as a cliffhanger for Fiona’s future, this midseason finale finds every other Gallagher in either inert or mostly resolved storylines, with no structural foundation that makes you feel like the show can easily generate the momentum necessary to bring the show’s level back to where it was a couple of seasons ago. And yet whatever the show was trying to build it had to basically deconstruct when Emmy Rossum confirmed she would be leaving, a contingency they could have prepared for, but was not a guarantee when they wrote this story, or most of what comes after. This midseason finale was built without knowing that in only seven episodes, Fiona’s life story would start happening entirely off-screen.

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As someone invested in these characters, I’m disappointed that their fate is trapped in such a compromised set of circumstances, and lament that things have gotten to this point. As a critic, however, the back half of season nine in 2019 will represent a grand experiment in trying to extend the life of a series that all evidence suggests should not move forward, one that I’ll be investigating closely as the end of Fiona Gallagher’s journey beckons.


Stray observations

  • What’s Their Age Again?: Well, after an entire half-season of questioning how old the show thinks Liam is, we got our answer: Liam is nine years old, which would suggest that between 7 and 8 years have passed since the show started. It’s notable that Carl is established as 17 in the same episode: in the pilot, Carl is identified as “almost 10,” so the math basically works out in the abstract. These ages don’t track consistently across the individual seasons, especially for Liam, but the macro-level aging more or less makes sense even if it makes Liam getting raped in a janitor’s closet is even more ridiculous, and I have a lot of questions about the public school’s expectations on fourth graders based on the math they were giving him.
  • I liked the parallel between Ian’s alarm clock prank and Fiona’s impromptu pity party waking up the rest of the house—the show is rarely that elegant these days, and I found it a nice way to simultaneously remember Ian and set up the new dynamic in the house.
  • So, to be clear: Debbie and her friends kidnapped Ford? We’re just going to skip over the logistics on that one? And they put on their ski masks at Patsy’s, before then driving to Ford’s house, where they abducted him (with the taser), brought him back and forced him into the stockade, much of it in broad daylight? In Chicago? And the police were only going to drive up after Fiona—the manager of the establishment across the street—finished paintballing him? And there was no follow-up on any of this for the show to deal with? Just checking. Want to make sure we’re all on the same page here.
  • If the show was going to ignore the residents of Fiona’s building in every other logical situation where they could reemerge—like if she, I don’t know, was selling the building and holding an open house where she’d have to let potential buyers into all of their units on almost no notice—they shouldn’t have brought back the lesbians for Debbie’s story and reminded us they exist.
  • I’m trying not to string logistical issues together but it’s hard: was Fiona lying on her bathroom floor for over 24 hours? Because the alarm clock incident clearly happened the night after Ian went to prison, but Fiona’s accident happened the night before, so she just never changed clothes? And just realized that her wrist was broken? Again: I just want to make sure I’m not going crazy.
  • Katey Sagal and William H. Macy are fun together, but I’m not sure I find it that funny to see deeply unethical behavior from a mental health professional?
  • Is Rusty just going to roam the apartment building like a stray dog? They just really didn’t want to deal with the logistics of the dog they mostly ignored anyway, huh? (I’m frankly impressed they remembered he existed. Kudos.)
  • After serving as vessels for topical storylines for much of the season, Kevin and Veronica settle into a more personal story here, and...look, why are they still part of this show? Yes, it’s fun to watch Steve Howey melt over baby things, and I appreciate the continued runner of his reaction to non-Gallaghers being in the Gallagher home, but his sudden interest in having another kid is a dead end story, and the way the adoption suggestion is raised without returning to the fact they can’t even afford to put both kids they have into daycare is fundamentally insane to me. In a post-Fiona Shameless, they’re going to need Kevin and Veronica, but they’re going to need to find a more significant way to make them central to the show and not off on an island.
  • We’ll be back to finish out Shameless’ ninth season in January—in the interim, thank you for reading, and I’m as curious to see your collective response to whatever the show comes up with than I am to see the show itself.

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