One of the central concepts of Shameless is a lack of boundaries. From a young age, the Gallagher siblings were basically living on top of each other, and so they got used to a daily life that others might find invasive or absurd. Frank was a central part of this, a transient figure who inserts himself into their lives when he feels like it, and brings with him a random assortment of nonsense that the Gallagher family more or less just treats as everyday realities of living in that house.

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This is fine, most of the time, except in cases where characters want boundaries where none exist. We see this with Debbie, who returns home from the hospital with a baby she isn’t realistically in a position to care for herself. She tries to go to school, which promptly forces her to switch to distance education; she spends long nights trying to get Franny to sleep, but she’s keeping the rest of her family up all night anyway. But Debbie has decided to raise this baby herself, and so she initially doesn’t let anyone help—she is enforcing the boundary Fiona created when she promised she would offer no assistance to the baby if Debbie chose to keep it.

That boundary breaks down as the episode goes on, as she slowly realizes the consequences of her choice: first, it’s as simple as letting Lip hold Franny while she goes to the bathroom, a practical reason to let down her guard. But then she’s letting Frank and everyone else hold the baby, because she’s reminded of the fact the Gallaghers are not solitary beings—the whole family is back under one roof for a brief moment, and they rally around Franny to welcome her to the clan. But she still ices out Fiona, right up until she falls asleep at the kitchen counter and drops Franny—in the aftermath, she accepts Fiona’s help, albeit with efforts to keep her independence intact. Their relationship has not necessarily been repaired, but all parties have acknowledged the boundary won’t work: Fiona won’t let her sister or her niece suffer, and Debbie is not going to be so stubborn as to let Franny suffer thanks to her ignorance to breastfeeding maintenance struggles.

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It’s no surprise that “Sleep No More” resolves Debbie and Fiona’s boundary issues, because within the Gallagher family—or at least among the siblings—these things have a way of working themselves out. But Lip, by comparison, is struggling with the boundaries in his relationship with Professor Youens, which turned into a way for Lip to work through his daddy issues so quickly that it doesn’t entirely track. The idea of focusing on Lip’s similarities to Frank is not without reason, but the speed of his alcoholism was too jarring, and the underlining of the comparisons between Youens and Frank feels rushed as well. It tracks logically: Youens and Frank are both drunks who Lip counted on, who Lip supported, and who eventually wanted to distance themselves from Lip in moments where he felt like he needed them. The difference is that Lip is now an adult himself, and Youens is the only reason he has access to a college education, and so blowing up the relationship in a drunken rage has real consequences that go beyond a shift in the family dynamic.

Jeremy Allen White does a great job of playing Lip flailing around against the boundaries Youens is trying to create, boundaries that undoubtedly remind him of his father. But I still find myself struggling with the inconsistency of Lip’s actions—he’s sitting at the Alibi explaining that he’s serious about his education one day, and then throwing a fit over Youens establishing some pretty basic and understandable professional boundaries the next, to the point that he gets himself arrested? The narrative value of Frank’s long-term effect on his children—and in particular the child who has always been the most similar to him—is clear, and it’s helping to solidify the final act of the season, but it’s also frustrating in ways that sell out the character. It’s been introduced too quickly, even if we ignore the fact the only justification offered is built on his dumb relationship with Helene, and whatever larger story value it offers is offset by how much it makes me angry.

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That having been said, “Sleep No More” reinforces that the show is crafting one of its more interesting Frank stories this season, even if that story ends with yet another vengeful betrayal from the Gallagher patriarch. The family has always had trouble building boundaries with Frank: even after he called Child Services, and after various periods where he’s been banned from the house, he always comes crawling back, and eventually his children relent. It happens because, as noted, the Gallaghers aren’t one for boundaries: even if there are consistently bricks being thrown through the window, they’re just going to roll with the punches.

You could argue this is just easier than trying to make him go away, but at the heart of it these children want a father figure. And here we see that Frank sort of wants to be one: lamenting missing out on Franny’s birth, Frank demands to walk Fiona down the aisle, and offers to pay for the wedding for the privilege—it’s a request that everyone treats as a joke, but Frank is dead serious, noting to Fiona that he’s “tired of missing stuff.” And so he panhandles with Liam, and eventually graduates to the big time by extorting Debbie’s baby daddy’s parents, all because he wants to be a father…or, at the very least, wants the sense of self-importance that comes from fulfilling his fatherly duties, but they arguably have the same result as far as his children are concerned.

Because, at the end of the day, his children want a father. Fiona claims that he isn’t letting Frank get to her, and I would agree with her argument that she wasn’t likely to have her heart “broken” by her father if he failed to come through with her dream wedding. But it doesn’t change the fact that Fiona—like Lip—would have loved a proper father figure, and it fits with her current state of mind. She is downright giddy at how normal her life is, and how normal her wedding is going to be, dancing around in the church at the very thought of doing what so many other couples take for granted. The idea of Frank paying for the wedding supports Fiona’s fiction, the dream she’s convinced can come true even though the Gallaghers have never been a family capable of normalcy.

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She would see this coming if she was paying more attention to Sean’s actions. Sean is a man of boundaries, and he’s struggling with the Gallagher approach. Shameless has had its share of characters looking at the Gallaghers from the outside-in and wondering how they function, but Sean has stuck around for a long while, and is one of the first to actively attempt to assimilate in ways that work against that rhythm (as opposed to someone like Jimmy/Steve who was a lying criminal from day one). And so he sees Frank drinking out of milk jugs and getting bricks thrown in the window and stealing his underwear and using his toothbrush and wonders how anyone could be letting this happen—how is this man still in their life? It’s a clear sign that Sean doesn’t actually understand what he’s getting into, and how much becoming a Gallagher—and make no bones about it, he’s going to be the one to have to assimilate—is going to mean compromising with their lifestyle.

The fight between Sean and Frank was inevitable, and its resolution is as messy as you’d expect—Frank is the one who makes the first move, headbutting Sean, and he’s also the one who has burned this family twelve too many times. They want a father figure, but they will never trust Frank, and he discovers this when everyone unilaterally blames him for—in his eyes—simply wanting what he believes to be his (in part because of his efforts to secure money, effectively trying to buy his way back into the position of patriarch). Debbie hates him for cutting off the chance of Derek’s family ever being involved in Franny’s life, Fiona hates him for threatening her relationship, and there’s no real love anywhere else. The episode constructs a low enough moment for Frank—so earnest in the earlygoing—that I buy he would instinctively put out a hit on Sean. This is a man with nothing to lose, who is betraying his family for a new reason: because he wants to be the one there for them, albeit in some undoubtedly screwed up ways.

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As expendable as Frank can often seem, the refocus on Frank—through his relationship with Fiona, his impact on Lip’s relationship with adult men in his life, and his rekindled paternal instincts—works even if component parts have been a bit rushed. The “stakes” of Fiona’s wedding have been artificially expanded by the threat of an assassination, sure, but the emotional dynamics Frank invokes are still potent after six seasons, something that can’t necessarily be said for the newer storylines introduced in the past few seasons. The effort to rush everything to the Frank-centric finale hasn’t always been elegant, but it’s generated momentum, and resulted in resonance the show has lacked on the whole this year.

Stray observations

  • The theme of boundaries echoes through Ian’s struggles against the stigma of mental illness in the health professions, although I have having trouble buying Ian’s argument. His illness might make him better at connecting with people with similar conditions, but what about all the other situations he’d have to deal with, and the difficult of balancing medication for treating bipolar disorder? Ian’s argument would track if he was volunteering for a mental health hotline or doing work in a counseling capacity, but being an EMT is very different.
  • Boundaries are also central to Ian’s story in that he continues to draw them around Caleb, refusing to let him meet his family—that’ll be the wedding, I imagine. Caleb still mostly just exists as a cypher through which Ian can explore what a “normal” relationship looks like, and so there’s only so much they’ll be able to wring out of this (especially given that Caleb is an idiot for telling Ian to lie and should know better).
  • Not to try to make the theme too cute, but Kev and Veronica are also having drawing new boundaries thanks to their immigration problem, and Svetlana’s firm belief that marriage should involve sex. I frankly don’t care about this story on any level, but I will say that Kev’s whiteboard gag working through the logistics of their polyandrous marriage made me laugh a lot. The rest? Shrug.
  • Did Debbie really think she could take the baby to class? And while I’m not shocked that the teacher was such a jerk given how the show depicted teachers in Carl’s gun selling—remember that?—I still thought she was sort of unduly rude. Debbie needed a wakeup call, but you can treat her like a human being too.
  • It would appear that some sort of “juvenile police academy” is how they’re going to rush Carl into a police storyline long before the show can reasonably depict him as a police officer. Although, if Ian is becoming an EMT at 17 without a high school education or equivalent, maybe Carl will be on patrols by the time his sweet sixteen rolls around?
  • My favorite little bit in the script is the little runner about Debbie’s English class and the baby as her call to adventure—I might quibble with writer Sheila Callaghan about whether that’s a pure call to adventure, but as someone who wrote an undergrad thesis about generic tropes of medieval romance I appreciate the discussion.
  • Anthony Hemingway has done some great work on American Crime Story this season, and I particularly liked his work on the montage of Fiona trying to sleep at the beginning of the episode. There’s a great shot of her screaming that features no audio, and it was really arresting.
  • Fair warning: Showtime is no longer making screeners available, and I’m traveling next Sunday evening, so next week’s finale review will either be filed a little later than usual or covered by someone else. I intend to stream it on my phone at the airport and write on the plane, but this is very technology-dependent.

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