If “Drugs Actually” isn’t an Grade A episode of Shameless, then it’s hard to say what such a thing would look like. “Drugs Actually” has everything that makes Shameless so addictive when it‘s firing on all cylinders: dysfunctional love; emotional turmoil; weird, gross sex; pitch-black humor; and brave, breathtaking performances. It’s about people living complicated lives the only way they know how: by doing the things that feel most natural and sensible to them, whether or not it comports with the rules of polite society. It’s right and wrong all at once, and it’s kind of amazing.
“Drugs Actually” works so well for the same reason the best Shameless episodes typically do. It drastically pares down the cast and focuses on a relatively narrow subset of characters rather than trying to juggle them all at once. I’ve compared Shameless to Game Of Thrones in the past because of how expansive its universe is, and like that show, it has to swap characters in and out in order to effectively parcel and pace each episode. The southside Chicago of Shameless never feels small because of the constant rotation of guests, and it’s seldom boring, which allows the show to absorb character departures well. Here’s the name of a character that appeared in nine of out 12 of the season one episodes of Shameless: Eddie Jackson. Not ringing a bell? That’s Karen’s dad. You remember Karen: the blonde sex kitten whose sole life aspiration was to incinerate Lip’s soul? She married Jody? Lost quite a bit of her brain function? She was Sheila’s daughter. You remember Sheila. Frank was living in her house for a while until it exploded and she drove away. That’s right. The entire Jackson family is gone now. So is Mandy. So is Jimmy-Jack-Steve. Carl’s in a youth correctional facility. Life goes on.
Actually, there’s a caveat there: Life goes on unless you’re Sammi. In the episode’s most dramatic example of cast pruning, Sammi meets her untimely (depending on whom you ask) demise after pulling her military police stunt and having Ian taken into custody. The saying goes that “snitches end up in ditches.” While that saying is usually interpreted literally, it’s safe to say that’s what happened to Sammi even though she ended up not in a ditch, but in an advanced moving and storage solution that combines convenience, security, and cost-effectiveness. In all seriousness, this shocked me a bit. I can’t say that it saddens me, except for the degree to which I’ll miss Emily Bergl’s performance. Shameless would buckle under the weight of another Frank-like war machine, so killing Sammi off seems like the prudent thing to do, but it hit harder than I’d anticipated.
In the past few weeks, I frequently wondered why Sammi continued to live at Gallagher Manor, but it finally made sense at the end of “South Side Rules” when Sammi casually mentions to Fiona she dropped the dime on Ian and strolls back into the house. An act as brutally vindictive as what Sammi did to the Ian and the Gallaghers is one that, to the extent a reasonable person would do such a think, it would be done carefully, from afar, over a long enough period of time to conceal involvement. Sammi’s flippancy communicates something very specific about her that made it difficult for me to interpret her actions as purely evil, even as destructive as they were. The show has only provided a narrow window into Sammi’s background, but it’s clear she’s someone who didn’t get the attention she needed when she was a child. As a result, the only way she understands how to engage with people is by acting out in hurtful, destructive ways. She had Chuckie take a crap on Sheila’s coffee table. She shot Frank. She won’t even put the milk in the refrigerator or the cap back on the soda. The response that results is an incredibly negative one, but when it comes in human engagement, something is better than nothing. It’s an instinct similar to drugged Ian’s urge to saute the palms of his hands and punch out his boyfriend.
This is not a defense of Sammi as much it is a compliment to the Shameless writers and performers. The idea behind Sammi’s character is one the writers have honed and refined over nearly 60 episodes now, and they understand exactly how to build out such a character, especially when the material is in the hands of an actress like Bergl. As is often the case with Frank, it was difficult for me to see Sammi as purely villainous. She was angry, heartbroken, and expressed those emotions in an ineffective way, but she didn’t invent doing that. Sammi’s death felt appropriate and necessary, but also conflicting, because Jesus is it ever sad. I have a Gallagher bias as much as the next Shameless viewer, but think about it from beginning to end. Sammi and Chuckie are irritating leeches. Carl straps heroin to Chuckie to smuggle them and gets caught as a result of Frank’s anonymous tip. Carl won’t take the fall for Chuckie and both are sent to a lock-up. Sammi enacts revenge on the family, is poisoned and left to rot in a moving crate. In the near future, her developmentally delayed son will be released, presumably into state care, as his mother is dead. So much yikes.
But part of what made that sequence so effective is that it had a character to represent the audience regardless of how it feels about Sammi’s death. Mickey’s jaded response is typical of him, and represents the viewers filled with unceasing bloodlust after Sammi’s betrayal. Debbie represented me, the viewer who thought he wanted to see hell rain down on Sammi only to find myself unable to stomach the reality of that. Emma Kenney has had a hell of a season, and she slayed that reaction to Sammi’s death. Bonus points for the morbid touch of having little Liam poke the corpse.
It wasn’t just a good week for Kenney. Shameless usually has one episode per season that nearly every cast member could submit for Emmy consideration, and in season five, that episode is “Drugs Actually.” Emmy Rossum, William H. Macy, Jeremy Allen White, and Cameron Monaghan all do magnificent work. Each actor has a moment that is as good as we’ve ever seen them. Fiona’s manic meltdown at Patsy’s Pies. Frank’s nervous, stilted giggle when Bianca suggests they smoke crack. Lip’s restrained rage at a house party for the well-heeled just down the block from where he grew up. Ian’s bonding moment with Monica in prison. The episode represents Shameless at its best.
There’s an elegant synergy to how the four characters are paired off in thematically similar stories. Fiona and Lip are struggling to become their best selves, while Frank and Ian are struggling to figure out what their best selves would look like. Fiona continues growing closer to Sean, so much so that she’s shutting down on Gus as he prepares to come back to Chicago and focus on their relationship. This is a show not unlike Girls, in which a lot of the experience entails watching the characters progress at a glacial pace. Though a lot of this season has made Fiona look like a backslider, she’s at least now better capable of noticing her patterns and consciously making better decisions. Lip is doing the same thing. Helene is a character we’ve seen come into Lip’s life on multiple occasions, and it’s a type to whom he usually reacts negatively. Lip doesn’t want to be fixed, rehabbed, gussied up, or polished, which is why Mandy had to maneuver behind his back to apply to colleges for him and why Amanda had to appease him with blow jobs to keep him on a daily schedule. He’s reacting to Helene and Theo more favorably, and the appearance of the delightfully named Norbert helps too. Lip is beginning to understand that he can change his station without changing his stripes.
Meanwhile, Frank is in the unsettling position of the predator who becomes the prey. He was as happy as a clam when he was in control of his hedonistic journey with Bianca, but when Bianca’s behavior becomes more erratic, he finds himself out of his depth. It’s fascinating to see Frank’s limits tested given how indifferent to life he can seem at times. He’s tempted to draw the line at smoking crack because he cares about his new liver and he wants to preserve it. It makes me wonder how much Frank’s relationship with Bianca resembles his relationship with Monica, with them pushing each other to increasingly dangerous extremes.
The question is hard to ignore after Monica reappears, called to prison by Ian who just wants to talk to someone who understands him. Shameless has had to contrive some real nonsense over the years to weave Monica back into the story, but this is by far the most elegant reintroduction of Monica since season one’s “But At Last Came A Knock.” When the Gallaghers come to Ian’s first formal hearing to advocate on his behalf, they have to explain how he’s a danger to himself, how crazy and terrifying he is when he’s manic, how he definitely needs to be medicated, how he put them through hell, despite Fiona’s attempts to qualify it. It’s all true, and it has to be said to get Ian released, but it’s nothing anyone ever wants to hear their family members say about them. Ian naturally turns to Monica, the family member most likely to pop up in casual conversation about Ian, and really, it’s about the only time Monica’s name comes up at all these days. She tells him never to change who he is to make things easier on the people around him, and he flees with her after his release. Monaghan and Webb are both devastating in the prison scene. One of the best moments Shameless has had in ages, among many in one of the season’s best episodes.
- Correction: Holy crap, I didn’t see the tag. Call me crazy, but I’m kind of relieved.
- I didn’t mean to slight Noel Fisher, who has been fantastic this season, but this wouldn’t be a good Emmy submission for him.
- I was a little irked by the choice to have Helene having sex with Lip in his dorm room. It just didn’t make any sense. Theo is cool with it, so it’s not as if they can get “caught” at Helene’s place, so doing it in Lip’s room seems like an unnecessarily risky move. If the idea is that Helene is a bit of a thrill seeker and likes the danger, that waters down her moral authority.
- That said, I think Theo and Helene are proving to be a good influence on Lip, though the party host’s acknowledgment of Lip, as if Lip’s reputation preceded him, doesn’t bode well for that relationship.
- Kevin and Veronica are back together after an episode that nearly made all the plodding nonsense they went through this season worth it. Kev: “I went online, and I found the porn that we made and I jerked off to it. Three times.” V: “That’s so sweet.”
- So many really funny lines in the Frank and Bianca plot. Frank: “I’m not homeless. I have a home. I’m just not welcome there.” Bianca: “I’m dying, and you’re an aging alcoholic with no purpose.”
- So Bianca and Diego Mustafa are going to Costa Rica then?