Carl’s story this season has struggled with its excesses. The show wanted to play the “White Boy Carl” card, and so the writers exaggerated his adoption of black culture and milked it for comedy—that’s what the show does, but it also made it more difficult to transition into the darker, emotional sides of this story. It required us to retroactively see that Carl was just overcompensating, and reveled in the gear-shifting that Shameless sees as its storytelling signature.

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This week’s episode is not the emotional high point of Carl’s storyline—I still think that’s when he shows up at Sean’s door after discovering what Nick did—but the resolution nonetheless resonates. The show finally gets around to establishing that Carl’s employers are neither imaginary nor benevolent, a fact that stands in the way of an easy exit. The show still hasn’t established just how Carl managed to pocket enough money to buy the house while working as a glorified errand boy, but the episode’s convenient realization Carl would be working for bad people lets the show move things along. Frank takes over Carl’s role (to keep the money train flowing), Carl and Sean give up their clothes (and car?) to earn his exit, and Fiona finally sits down to take out the cornrows and bring “Regular Carl” back into the Gallagher fold.

Carl’s has been the season’s most substantial story, and it’s more or less worked—while procedurally wonky, Carl’s increased self-awareness has tracked with how a teenager might handle this situation, and the scene where he opens up to Fiona brings out the best of both Ethan Cutkosky and Emmy Rossum. There may have been some painful moments in Carl’s story, but it showed that Shameless still knows how to put a character in one position and get us to root for them to get out of it. Carl’s successful escape from the life of crime we didn’t want for him might be the season’s most satisfying moment, insofar as a thing I was rooting for has come true.

Elsewhere, meanwhile, I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be rooting for. You can see the writers making an attempt with Ian, who is now studying to become an EMT—that’s an admirable goal, and it shows the character putting his life back together post-diagnosis, but something about his story just doesn’t sit right. This week’s story works on paper: Ian works up the courage to tell Caleb about his bipolar disorder, and Caleb simultaneously reveals he’s HIV positive. It continues the story’s function as a way of introducing Ian to the realities of “normal” gay relationships (like condoms and regular testing), while simultaneously creating a connection between two young men with baggage.

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The problem is that I don’t know if I really buy any of it. Ian keeps saying he’s happier now than he’s ever been, but the dialogue doth protest too much—Cameron Monaghan isn’t being given, or isn’t creating, the type of moments that show us Ian’s state of mind, and Caleb still feels like an engineered love interest as opposed to a real human being. This is not just a question of the show being highly selective with Ian’s backstory and eliding Mickey—I would be perfectly fine with this if it felt like something Ian was doing consciously because of a particular interest or desire to explore a different type of relationship. But so far, as much as I may want Ian to get his life together, nothing about this story is sparking my interest, which is unfortunate.

Similarly, I should be cheering that Lip is finally over Helene, but the way it plays out here bugs me. On the one hand, there’s something really fun about the scene that gives “Be A Good Boy. Come for Grandma” its title, as Queenie uses pressure points to rid Lip of his toxic relationship—I’m not always onboard with the show’s attempts to live up to its name, but this walked a fine line effectively. The episode’s title and Queenie’s talk of Lip being the spitting image of a young Frank made me worried the show was heading in the direction of Lip sleeping with her, but the actual result was much weirder: the scene was erotic and disturbing in equal measure, a bizarre yet effective cleansing that was more than necessary. It was time to move on from Helene.

But there’s something enormously empty about Lip “moving on” with a bunch of anonymous sorority girls who only exist to have sex with him. None of them have names, none of them have motivations outside of sleeping with him, and they cheapen what should be a moment of meaningful self-reflection as opposed to a story mostly about his struggle to get it up. By the time we hit the orgy embedded in the credits, Lip is “back to normal,” but that’s only reinforcing how stagnating the Helene storyline was—instead of leaving it with a sense of how to move forward, Lip leaves it purely defined by his libido, and that’s unfortunate. We know Lip takes after his father in terms of his looks, but does the character have to appear as equally one-dimensional when there’s not a specific story to tell? Lip deserves more than that.

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There is a serious thread to this hour, given that it reaches an important turning point in Fiona’s relationship with Sean: Will finding one of Carl’s guns is a convenient way of escalating the existing concern about Sean’s custody arrangement being threatened by the Gallagher family’s world, and it leads to what looks like a major schism. But I didn’t really react to it in any way, given that I’ve never perceived Sean and Fiona’s relationship as something I should be connecting with—it has always been a means to an end, a way for Fiona to gain short term support before moving onto something that would be more sustainable. Even in an episode where Sean steps up to help Carl in a big way, I’ve never seen him as someone who could integrate into this world successfully, and that unfortunately continues here.

While not a bad episode of the show, this one never entirely reconciles the breezy feel of some stories—Lip, Frank, Debbie—with the darker edge to Carl’s situation or that image of Will brandishing a gun. That, again, is a big part of how Shameless understands its identity, but it makes for an episode that neither pulls the season together or pushes it in a new direction—it just kind of kicks the can down the street until next week.

Stray observations

  • Debbie’s story here—about a pregnancy fetishist, played by Awkward.’s Brett Davern—felt like it just got dropped in off the white board of “Debbie’s Pregnancy” stories in the writer’s room. I suppose there’s a line to be drawn with Ian in terms of entering into relationships with baggage, but it never becomes anything substantive.
  • It also confirms that I’m never gonna see Brett Davern as anyone other than Jake, which is the peril of starring in a high school show.
  • I always get excited when we get a literal Chekhov’s gun, so there’s no way that the gun in the fridge was the one that Will found—I expect we’ll find out someone else (Queenie, maybe?) is packing heat in the weeks ahead.
  • Are we supposed to be worried about Frank being chased to his likely death after the baby laxative was discovered? Were we supposed to laugh? Will they ever acknowledge what happened to him? Was it just a throwaway? Do we really care?
  • Whenever I hear the name Queenie, I think about the character who gained prominence in the Berenstain Bears chapter books I was really into in elementary school, so watching Sherilyn Fenn work Lip to orgasm by using pressure points in his foot had an extra layer of weirdness added to it.
  • Caleb having had his own sugar daddy phase continues the show’s desire to remind us of every one of Ian’s past relationships. This is the “Ian Gallagher, This is Your Life” storyline, apparently.
  • If you’re hoping to see more of Mickey in the future, you have a pilot to be rooting against now that Noel Fisher has booked a new gig. (I mean, you could also wish him the best, but where’s the fun in that?)

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