Shameless has always been a coming-of-age story, even though it’s never really been structured as one in the biblical sense.

The show started after Fiona had become a full-fledged adult, but thematically the show has always been about the fact she came of age too quickly, never getting to experience her teenage years independent of her responsibility to her siblings. And while both Lip and Ian were certainly still teenagers when the show began, their –in-progress stories—Lip’s relationship with Karen, Ian’s relationship with Kash—were such that we missed the “rite of passage” that sex functions as in such a narrative. The show’s desire to live up to its title meant that all of those who were at an age to be having sex were having it.

The show still explored what it meant for Lip to become an adult (embracing his aptitude and going to college) and certainly Ian’s coming-out and subsequent battle with bipolar disorder is about the specific challenges of transitioning to adulthood in his circumstance. And it has—to a troubling degree—resisted pushing Fiona forward in the interest of keeping her in stasis, jumping from relationship to relationship without the type of forward progress you’d expect over six seasons. Fiona comments on this as she’s arguing with Sean, who isn’t giving her the time of day after Will’s close call with Carl’s gun—she knows her pattern, even if she can’t exactly get out of it.

Patterns are central to Shameless, and we see that play out in “A Yurt Of One’s Own.” Thematically speaking, it’s one of the season’s strongest hours, finding a way to bring even stories that aren’t wholly working—like Lip’s—into something approaching perspective. Mandy Milkovich shows up in a classic bad situation: having begun working as an escort, her client is dead on the bathroom floor, and she calls Ian to help out. It has every sign of being a madcap scenario, right up until the moment that Ian stops and assesses the situation: they don’t have an easy way to get rid of the body, and the logical thing to do is the call 911. It’s something that neither of them would do instinctively, but it’s not that hard—she elides her job description, they explain the situation, and then they can move forward.

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The moving forward is Mandy’s function here. While she runs into Lip, and you sense the show could go back to that relationship, she’s mostly there to show us how someone got out of the South Side of Chicago. She has had to sacrifice to do it—she’s still working as an escort—but she notes that she has benefits, and paychecks, and regular clients who treat her well. While some might stand in judgment of her vocation, she came from an environment where she had sex out of fear, and with no guarantee it could help her sustain herself. For her, escape wasn’t the perfect job with the perfect parachute that would help her land on her feet in the “real world”: it was more complicated than that, and requires forms of sacrifice that occasionally result in a dead man in a hotel bathroom.

None of the Gallaghers are in situations comparable to Mandy’s, but they’re all trapped in the in-between, waiting for that moment when things either break down or move forward. Lip, in a position to make a life for himself, is instead living up to his father’s legacy, falling into a pit of alcoholism and resenting the hookup who calls an ambulance for not just letting him sleep it off in the cold covered with his own piss. I still don’t entirely buy that Helene would be a trigger for this level of alcoholism, and resent the idea that the character has zero ability to discern the true nature of that relationship, but it’s at least a thematically interesting consideration of how your past can catch up with you. The same goes for Ian: I still don’t think his relationship with Caleb is interesting, but the way he frames it makes sense in context—it’s a very normal, straightforward connection, which Ian is going to enjoy while it lasts given that Caleb has yet to see any of Ian’s own life first hand. Mandy’s return even forces the show to acknowledge Mickey, and we get our first real glimpse of Ian’s perspective: he misses Mickey, but he’s just moving forward. As much as the show’s transition to that point needed work, the idea makes practical sense, and captures the struggle of moving forward for characters on this show in general.

But this episode belongs to Carl and Debbie, who “come of age”—Carl with his first sexual experience, and Debbie with her first orgasm. These are still teenagers, and young ones at that, and the show clearly remembers when they were much smaller children given the chaste way they choose to depict their respective experiences. There’s no ambiguity here: Queenie’s frankness about sex means she offers a vibrator to Debbie with the express purpose of climaxing, and Dominique’s no-nonsense “My friends have all lost their virginity so we’re going to have sex now” catches even Carl off-guard. But we see only closed doors (or tent flaps), with Frank’s exhaustive time on the commune’s stationary bike the only visual representation of what happens behind those doors. While Debbie and Carl’s journeys through their own South Side Clichés (Teen pregnancy, drug running) have had their issues, the way those experiences have matured them has paid dividends for the show. The scene where Lip and Ian toast to Carl is simple and sweet, the kind of familial reflection that is too-often missing from the show in later seasons.

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Arguably, “A Yurt of One’s Own” is a similarly important moment for Fiona—after falling back into the Gus mess as he pushes to finalize their divorce, she’s about to raze him to the ground right when Sean shows up with the grandmother’s ring and a spontaneous proposal. Sean has always appeared more stable than her other relationships—he’s older, he’s responsible, and he’s got a sense of perspective on his own past that is a good model for Fiona herself. But while Sean offers Fiona an escape from an arduous and complicated divorce proceeding, I remain skeptical about where that relationship goes from here. Unless this is a way for the show to write out Fiona (which, heck, is entirely possible), I find it hard to believe that this relationship with Sean is a sustainable way of moving forward for the character and the show.

This particular episode gets good mileage out of asking what might await these characters on the “other side” of their current situations, but it’s not something the show can rely on too heavily given that getting to the other side probably means leaving the show. And while Shameless has transitioned out a few characters—Sheila and her family, Mandy, etc.—it is going to get to a point where all of these characters could move on at any moment. Although the opium could break Queenie’s commune apart, maybe it doesn’t and Debbie stays there to raise her baby; although Ian’s relationship with Caleb could break down, maybe it doesn’t, and Caleb gets transferred somewhere new and Ian chooses to follow him. Shameless is more on the verge of transition now than it’s ever been, which is a positive development even if I’m girding myself for the fact that actual transition may be impossible with the show having at least a season left in the tank.

Stray observations

  • Speaking of transitions, Svetlana’s story gets a very hastily introduced immigration threat, as Mickey going to jail complicates her ability to remain in the country? I don’t entirely know how that works, but Svetlana divorcing Mickey and marrying V does at least legally remove one tether to the missing Milkovich.
  • While I think Ian’s perspective is clearer here than it has been earlier in the season, I still don’t entirely understand where it came from. Why is he suddenly lecturing Debbie on the importance of staying in high school when he was totally on her side with Fiona earlier in the season and didn’t finish high school himself (which should make this EMT training stuff much harder, but we’re clearly skipping over that)?
  • I realize that they needed a reason for Frank to go to the commune, but I thought the Uzi shootout that opens the episode was a bit much? I realize a drive-by fits the world the show is in, but it went on a bit too long, as though the show was having too much fun with it.
  • Fiona is not dumb, but I was so confused why she thought the pawn shop where she sold Gus’ ring wasn’t playing fair or living up to their end of the bargain. And what universe does Fiona live in that she’s not concerned about losing that $500 “deposit” she left behind? They better follow up on this, because the idea that money is no object for the family now that they’re not paying rent can’t become a thing.
  • I know Shameless doesn’t always follow through on its mid-credits scenes, but I’m gonna need to see how Chuckie’s showdown with a mountain lion turned out.
  • Random, I know, but when I landed at LAX earlier this week, there was a driver with a sign for “Milkovich.” Maybe one of Mandy’s dates flew her to Los Angeles?
  • Oscar Nunez is one of the Office cast members who I’ve seen in enough things other than The Office that he has his own acting identity, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen him in anything—I thought he did well with the shark, here.
  • “Pause when agitated” is a good life mantra—I’ll keep it in mind if none of these proposed transitions go anywhere by the end of the season.

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