Television characters are puppets, controlled by their makers: while successful series are able to generally trick us into believing they are human, characters are ultimately connected to television writers with string, and forced into situations to serve the goals of the story.

As a critic, I do not hold television to the expectation that I will agree with every decision a character—and by extension, the writer’s room—makes. Rather, I want to be presented with a compelling argument that the puppet show is motivated by something other than the strings. I want to be presented a clear case that rationalizes the behavior onscreen, and that is supported by evidence within the show as a whole. And if this sounds like I’m crossing the streams between papers I grade as a professor and the television I watch as a critic, well, you’re not wrong. Every character arc rests on a central thesis on Shameless, and I expect those theses to stand up as the season progresses.

Fiona’s arc has been muddled throughout the season, but I appreciate the clarity with which it is “resolved”—in a way—here. It’s a frustrating conclusion on a narrative level—not only is Fiona not punished for taking a significant risk on behalf of her family without consulting them, but she is actually rewarded, making over $70,000 on her investment in the laundromat after Margo steps in to redevelop the block. The show glossed over a number of details—like if she ever put that money back she took from Patsy’s—in telling the story, and I hope we circle back to some of those despite the laundromat no longer being a part of the story being forward.

That having been said, though, I appreciated the way “Ride Or Die” played out Fiona’s crisis of conscience here. We have to sideline some of the personal dimensions of the story to buy into the idea that this is Fiona selling out her South Side roots, and we also have to accept Etta as a symbol of the neighborhood’s history despite the fact we had no idea she existed ten weeks ago, but I like what that has to say about the show and the impact of upward mobility. The scene of Fiona and Etta dancing in the laundromat is beautiful, but also particularly powerful because it lets Emmy Rossum sell us on Fiona’s decision without dialogue. It’s a great performance moment that leads into a productive reconciliation with Vee, where Fiona underlines the move’s effectiveness: Fiona sold out her neighborhood, put her sister out of a job (albeit one she had for a hot second), and now finds herself with more money than she’s likely ever imagined having. It’s an interesting place for the character, and makes a good argument for the storyline despite some rough patches.

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The same goes for Vee—the show rushed into splitting her from Fiona, but their reunion gives them both a chance to reflect, and talk about the bad choices they made. I’m still not convinced the throuple needed as much time as it did—the father/husband storyline seems unnecessary in hindsight—but as the comments have pointed out throughout the season Svetlana’s plan has been obvious, and the aftermath plays out as you’d expect: Vee is heartbroken, Kev is pissed, and Svetlana quite importantly believes that she was doing them a favor, rescuing them from themselves. It’s an interesting conflict, as the show isn’t blowing up the storyline so much as it’s changing the way it’s structured (provided the lawsuit fails), asking the characters to adapt and playing out that conflict. There’s very little humor here, which is a nice change of pace and nicely handled by Hampton and Howey.

I buy these storylines—the characters act in ways that make sense, and their actions resonate with the show’s past and current storylines. The show is making arguments about characters—Fiona’s willingness to be selfish, Kev and Vee’s ignorance to the business side of the Alibi—that follow a basic logic.

And then there’s Lip and Ian.

Lip is an alcoholic. He has been an alcoholic for a long time, realistically. He has always been his father’s son, bright and capable and self-sabotaging and damaged. The idea that he would struggle with his sobriety in the wake of his most recent setbacks—being denied his appeal to get back into college, Sierra’s rejection—is hard to watch but also a logical path for the character to take. But from the second I saw the “Previously On” sequence narrow in on Helene, I knew the show was returning to an argument it made last season, and which I vehemently rejected at the time. And that’s how “Ride Or Die” decided to live or die on the idea that the root of Lip’s problem is his relationship with Helene.

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I continue to find this absurd. There is no doubt that his relationship with Helene is part of his current struggle, and that’s fine—it is forever entangled with his failure to move forward in his life, and that isn’t going to change overnight. But using breaking into Helene’s house during a bender—and not even realizing he’s done it—to signify rock bottom elevates her above much deeper issues, and returns us to a relationship the show failed to articulate well enough for it to be the catalyst it became last season. What is the show even arguing here? Is it arguing that a relationship they initially depicted as sexy and fun is actually the deeply unethical violation of power it was all along? Are they claiming that Helene was Lip’s true love, and that her rejection has somehow overshadowed his deeper illness and the self-imposed barriers he placed on himself from the time he struggled to stay motivated to finish high school? And, most specifically, why is Helene necessary as a signifier here? What does she bring to Lip’s struggle other than an unjustified causal link, unsupported by the storyline last season and certainly pointless in her brief appearance here?

Lip’s situation is complicated. It is too easy to use Helene to stand in for his entire struggle, and the show choosing to go this route doubles down on the problems I had with the storyline last season. The image of Lip taking a last chug of beer before going into an AA meeting itself is a fine direction for the character, but cycling back to the dumb way they chose to instigate this storyline does the show no favors. Nothing they do is going to convince me Helene was an evocative or productive component of Lip’s storytelling in this series, and it’s therefore a frustrating justification for string-pulling at this juncture.

And then we come to Ian. Mickey’s return is obviously a key turning point for Ian, and creates a crisis of conscience not dissimilar to Fiona’s—indeed, the two gather on the couch late at night to talk through them, with Ian noting that Fiona would have faced a similar situation with JimmySteve in the past. Mickey comes to Ian with an offer to run away to Mexico, which creates a clear conflict: does Ian want to stay in his comfortable life with a steady job and a steady boyfriend, or does he want to follow his passion and run off with an escaped convict? This was fairly evident once Mickey’s escape was introduced, and for most of “Ride Or Die” it plays out as you’d expect: Ian talks big game about being uninterested in Mickey’s return, but then he sees him and starts having doubts, and eventually wakes up in a van next to his former flame, before calling his current one. From a plot perspective, this is all fairly typical, and about what you’d expect from the storyline.

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What’s confounding to me, though, is the show’s attempt to argue that Mickey is Ian’s JimmySteve, and that his decision to leave with him is a symptom of this conflict reactivating Ian’s bipolar disorder. “Ride Or Die” isn’t content to argue Trevor and Mickey are different visions of Ian’s future; they aren’t even content with the fact that living with Mickey would mean living on the run, likely losing all contact with your family. Instead, the episode goes out of its way—particularly in the conversation with Fiona—to reposition Mickey as emblematic of Ian’s past struggles, as though in some way Mickey was the one who kept Ian out of balance. And while no one can reasonably claim that Mickey was a perfect boyfriend to Ian, it seems wildly disingenuous to claim that he was the root of Ian’s problems given how supportive he was when Ian starting struggling in season five. He may have been a criminal, and you could make an argument that Ian would be better off without him, but the notion that Mickey was the thing holding Ian back instead of the thing holding Ian together toward the end of their relationship is incredibly tough to swallow.

I don’t know if this is what the show is intending to argue: it makes sense that Ian’s crisis of conscience would activate his bipolar disorder, much as it’s logical that Lip’s breakup from Helene would activate his alcoholism. But “Ride Or Die” creates problems by working overly hard to identify clear causes for past behavior, and using these to rewrite the show’s history in ways that oversell the importance of one character and dramatically rewrites the other. And while these views are technically being presented by the characters in the show, they felt like the writers retconning the past to simplify their task in the future, and that kind of string-pulling is where Shameless is running into problems with season seven coming to a close.

Stray observations

  • Frank and Monica spend the episode stumbling their way through attempts to rob money to serve as an “inheritance,” which doesn’t provide a whole lot more insight into the veracity of her illness—it’s just mostly there as comic filler, so we’ll see how that plays out with Fiona’s storyline now a bit more resolved.
  • “Love is raw and destructive”—I realize this, stated from Frank, is the show’s justification for how it’s framing both Helene and Mickey here, but that’s a gross overgeneralization, and needs to be more nuanced than that.
  • “I’m on CPT—Colored People’s Time!”—Liam is still not an actual character, but I liked this little glimpse at how more time spent with Frank is shaping his worldview.
  • Not to play Continuity Police, but Ian takes a call from Mickey on his iPhone as he’s leaving the house at the end of the episode, despite previously only communicating through the burner. Perhaps that’s a way to indicate that he wants to get caught, but that requires the cops to be smart enough to bug his phone despite not being smart enough to have someone surveilling him 24/7. HIS NAME IS TATTOOED ON MICKEY’S CHEST. JUST FOLLOW IAN.
  • The episode’s runner was about Kevin being stupid, but I also thought it was funny that Margo kept thinking that Fiona had done her research in the value of the laundromat, when Fiona wasn’t even paying attention to any of that. Fiona is not as bright as this experience might convince her she is.
  • Related: what twenty-something would be caught dead dancing while doing their laundry in public?
  • A reminder that while I do have screeners for most episodes of Shameless, that means I don’t see the preview for next week, so if you read something and think “But, in the preview,” I didn’t have that information. I imagine it might have been able to elucidate some of where this is going, particularly regarding Ian and Mickey.

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