Monica Gallagher is a blunt instrument. While Chloe Webb does a good job of bringing shades to the character, there is no universe where Monica’s return to Shameless is going to play out as a subtle investigation of anything in particular. She is a force of nature, and has thusly been deployed sparingly—she has, all told, appeared in only ten episodes through seven seasons of the show, and only two since the end of season two.
“Ouroboros” may not grind the season to a halt in light of Monica’s return, but it interrupts every storyline. We find Debbie’s fight with Derek’s family in progress, the police doing nothing and Fiona facilitating as best she can, but then Monica shows up, takes a baseball bat to the house, and helps bring Franny back to the family. Ian and Trevor are still working through their relationship, but Monica swoops in to exacerbate an already messy situation. Lip and Fiona’s bet about whether or not Fiona will crack at some point thanks to Monica is a losing proposition: if it hadn’t been the girl who gave her a bad Yelp review, it would have been one of her waitresses, or Etta, or really anyone. No one was going to escape Monica, least of all Frank, whose addiction to her may actually be the root of his undoing.
Knowing that Monica would be returning, my concern rested in what impact it would have on the season as a whole. While some stories have struggled at points, the “core” of this season is much improved over last year, and in general the show is on solid standing. There really isn’t anything that needed to be “fixed,” once you accept Debbie is just that frustrating right now, and that tends to be how I imagine a blunt instrument like Monica—you go to Monica when you have no other options, a last resort way to push the story along into the final act of the season. In the abstract, there’s a chance that it reads as cheap, an instantaneous injection of drama that peddles on the show’s past without linking it to the current storylines.
But in context, “Ouroboros” does a nice job using Monica’s return to reinforce—rather than exaggerate—the dramatic stakes of the season thus far. While she has moments of mania, for the most part her presence is used as a fresh set of eyes. She hasn’t seen most of her children in years, and she spends most of the episode running into them and marveling at how much they’ve changed. Her emotional manipulation comes in the form of unwavering pride, and belief in their ability to make something of their lives, and that plays out as you would expect with Debbie, who is desperate to be taken seriously as an adult in ways that Monica immediately recognizes. Meanwhile, it’s not shocking that Lip reacts poorly to Monica’s advice, given how the life she imagines for her son is the same life that was ripped away from him an episode earlier. Rather than forcing their stories in new directions, Monica is activating existing insecurities, largely ending up on her own island with Frank as her kids reevaluate once Hurricane Monica has moved off the coast.
With Fiona, though, this visit from Monica carries a particular weight. Whether she wants to admit it or not, Fiona is desperate for the kind of affirmation Monica is offering at this moment. She knows it’s coming, and she has her guard up, but as she sits in the laundromat with Monica in her ear she is not yet at the point where she’s above needing that sort of support, especially in light of the personal risks she’s taking. This is the first time Monica has been “back” when so many of her children have been adults, and as they sit around the kitchen table commiserating it’s a reminder that Lip, Ian, and Fiona are all well past the point where they see Monica as a maternal figure, and could end up trapped in her grasp (at least provided Ian stays on his meds). But, while Monica’s presence reinforces their adulthood, it also renders them children again, as we see when Fiona finds herself briefly sucked into the eye of the storm by Monica’s praise for her efforts with the kids. In that moment, she’s briefly a teenager again, transported back to when she was taking care of her siblings, never getting the kind of credit she deserved. The Yelp reviews are a little on-the-nose as it relates to Fiona’s desire for recognition, but it’s a logical emotional state for the character as she gambles her future on herself, and Monica is a productive accelerant for that.
Monica also serves to build sympathy for Frank, although whether that’s actually possible will be a question for the final episodes of the season. We saw clear efforts to reintegrate Frank into the family last week, and it continues here: Fiona is concerned about how Frank might be taking advantage of Etta, but she’s letting it happen, and Frank seems to be more than willing to prepare her meals, and rub her knees, if that means having a warm place to sleep. But once Monica returns, Frank is forced to make a decision: either keep hustling an old woman with touch-and-go dementia, or fall back with the woman who broke him and made him into the kind of man who hustles old women with touch-and-go dementia. But once Monica tells Frank she has a brain tumor and has been given a short time to live, Frank has already made up his mind: he cries in her arms faced with the thought of losing the love of his life, and a part of himself that—however toxic—has defined his life for nearly three decades.
In “throuples counseling,” Kev expresses his concern that Vee might love Svetlana more than she loves him, and she reacts incredulously—whatever might be going on between them, that thought had never occurred to her, and it speaks to the power of those bonds. Kev and Vee feel the same way about one another, which is something that you can’t necessarily say for Monica and Frank—while there is no doubt that Frank is forever hung up on Monica, Monica is mostly hung up on using Frank because of what he can do for her. It’s what Sierra refuses when she senses Lip grasping onto her for dear life as his prospects start to dwindle, a solution to his problems—loneliness, alcoholism, self-pity—instead of an actual human being. It’s a powerful speech that speaks to the function of romantic relationships, a topic that has been foregrounded by Svetlana’s corruption of the Throuple, and echoes here in a variety of ways.
Most prominently, of course, it will echo in the week to come as Showtime turns “Mickey’s Escape” into a social media event. How does Mickey and Ian’s relationship fit into this question? When we last left that relationship, it was with a disconnected Ian barely able to look Mickey in the eye, and a devoted Mickey tattooing his partner’s name on his chest in an act of devotion. The context of Mickey’s return—a prison escape—means that this isn’t heading toward a “happily ever after,” and so the purpose of Mickey’s return remains open-ended. Is this a way for them to resolve what was left unsaid, and allow Ian to move on without the specter of Mickey hanging over his relationships? Or is it a way to keep the endgame of Ian and Mickey alive, the latter waiting in hiding for the time the show finally ends and Ian can channel Jordana Spiro and patch up Mickey and his goons on the run for a living?
The answer to this question is what many fans of the show have been waiting for, but what matters most to me is that it feels like a natural outgrowth of the season as a whole. Monica’s return passes this test, spread throughout the episode but never commandeering its storylines, settling into Frank’s narrative and allowing the rest to move on without her. Mickey represents a different kind of storm front, and so it will be interesting to see how this stealth marketing for the Prison Break reboot shakes up the story moving forward.
- Svetlana casually making herself the owner of the Alibi—and thinking that this is just totally going to be fine—confuses me. On the one hand, it’s confirmation that she’s taking advantage of Kev and Vee, here taking over their primary asset. However, it also shows she doesn’t seem to think that will bother them, and that seems weirdly naïve to me, and I’m not sure I understand her psychology.
- Steve Howey continues to do some really fine work on Kev, fleshing out his emotional depth while also delivering that “oral” punchline like a champ.
- Carl Update: He’s texting photos of his uniform to Debbie and Fiona doesn’t want to bother him about Monica during “Hell Week.”
- Okay, so I get why they wanted to give Trevor a chance to express anxiety over his past life through his driver’s license, but how much of an idiot is Ian that he has no idea why Trevor might not want someone to see his ID? It’s a case where Ian has to be dumb enough to be seen as insensitive to activate the insecurity, but that doesn’t track with Ian’s general interest in learning more and being supportive, and it’s a bizarre thing to tease someone about to begin with. That just didn’t track for me, at least when it went on that long. Dude should have clued in eventually.
- Good use of characters not recognizing Monica, either to signify their youth (Liam) or to remind us that they are insurgents to the show’s world (Svetlana).
- Anyone else find it weird that we never got any insight into why Jessie didn’t care for the laundromat? She was just, apparently, an asshole who decided to write a bad review? Didn’t appreciate how she got strawmanned to support Fiona’s indignation.
- Showtime has people using #MickeysEscape, because they need to build a bridge to the Gallavich folks they pissed off by ignoring them for two seasons. Good luck with that, Showtime.
- My favorite detail in the episode is that Monica has the bylaws pertaining to the state taking custody of your children committed to memory. Which totally makes sense.
- Lip is, in general, being an idiot about this whole situation, but I refuse to see sleeping through a job interview held before 6am a personal failure. That’s on whoever set that time. Period.