Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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Like any good family-focused series, Shameless started out as a show about an interconnected group of people: although characters had their own storylines, and certain characters who were in their lives but not the lives of their family members, there was always the idea that they would come back to the same house, changed by their experiences. When push came to shove, the Gallaghers—and Kev and Veronica—were a family surviving on the poverty line, and that was a foundation for every story the show told in its early seasons.

Over time, though, that’s changed. At a certain point, the show started “siloing” its characters. Some of this was necessary: Lip went away to college, for example, and Fiona’s relationships became more complicated. But while early on it felt like the show was accounting for how this isolation was impacting the family unit, after a while the writers lost track of the effect it was having on storytelling. Fiona’s relationship with Gus was a particular turning point: she had just become guardian to her brothers and sisters, but she was never around, and the show never fully reckoned with that fact. It had just gotten used to being able to break up each season into “the Fiona story” and “the Frank story” and “the Lip story,” and I don’t think anyone involved fully realized that the foundation of family was breaking down season by season.

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Every now and then, Shameless is still a show about a family, but it feels almost arbitrary: yes, everyone but Fiona was there for Ian’s departure, but where was that family when Ian’s “Gay Jesus” silo was burning to the ground? How was it that no one realized what was going on in Ian’s life and tried to step in to stop him? It was one thing when the show would isolate Frank’s storyline. His children long ago stopped caring about what happened to him, and so there was no reason for them to be checking in on what he was up to unless it had negative consequences for them. But when Fiona’s life completely falls apart, and she falls into weeks (months?) of drinking and disorderly conduct, and none of her family members seem concerned except for when they realize she hasn’t been paying the bills? That’s a byproduct of a show that’s consciously chosen to abandon the family unit at the core of its show in its interest of making it easier to break story, even if it breaks the show in the process.

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I say all of this because “You’ll Know The Bottom When You Hit It” is one of the best episodes of the ninth season because it finally remembers who these people are to each other. It makes zero sense that Veronica and Lip would have had no conversations about Fiona’s drinking before this, but the fact they finally had that conversation is a crucial lynchpin to making this storyline emotionally resonant if still deeply indicting for so many characters involved. Similarly, as messed up as it is that Lip is holding Fiona’s responsible for what happened to Xan and ignoring the years she spent raising him and his siblings, having Frank draw out the hypocrisy puts it on the table, and lets the sibling story acknowledge history instead of eliding it. And while I still don’t think the show did enough to articulate Fiona’s collapse in the earlygoing, her conversation with Frank and subsequent bottoming out was yet more compelling work from Emmy Rossum, and the show finally recaptured its pathos with Fiona and Lip’s silent moment at the AA meeting. For the first time since the hiatus, the show seems to care about its characters as much as I do.

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

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The episode is also a reminder that Frank is actually a really valuable character to Shameless, even if they almost never use him in the right capacity. In isolation, Frank’s storylines are almost always tangential: while the show has stumbled into some good stories (Bianca and the “American Dream” arc come to mind), for the most part Frank is comic relief, and as I’ve said before the show’s attempts to be a comedy are never in its best interest. But what those successful Frank stories did was force self-reflection, and this week brings out a similar set of themes as Frank and Fiona work together to profit off of the blackout. When Frank sees that Fiona is now on his level—unemployed, drinking at the Alibi during the day—he spots a rare opportunity to share some parental guidance, and Frank proves to be an unexpectedly sober-minded observer of the situation at hand. He’s not right to encourage Fiona to keep drinking, but he’s right to call Lip out on the disrespect he’s showing her, even if he does it while claiming she was helping him be a single parent instead of doing it herself. And when he sees Fiona’s anger and resentment over her collapse bubbling to the surface as she gets drunk, he immediately realizes that she can’t be like him: whereas drinking helps him stay in the present, it only sends Fiona to the past, and there’s no future in that particular cocktail. Frank is really the skeleton key to this entire sibling dynamic, the father whose absence and alcoholism are the root of their own dependencies, and whose presence in their life helps them both gain the perspective necessary to do better and be better.

It’s refreshing to see these kinds of ideas foregrounded, even if the rest of the episode doesn’t give me a huge amount of interest in the show’s future without Fiona. “You’ll Know The Bottom When You Hit It” is something of a trial run for a version of the show centered on Lip, and I’m still struggling with the rush to fatherhood as a shortcut for this story. The way Xan fell into his life never felt natural, and the way she was ushered back in felt even more arbitrary, and I feel much the same about Tami’s pregnancy. We know so little about her that we get no clear sense on why she’d want this baby. The show goes through the motions of some necessary conversations about a woman’s right to choose, but Tami is not actually a fully-developed character: we don’t see her discussing it with her sisters, and they don’t even give us a chance to see her talking about it to, say, Debbie in order to give us some insight independent of her conversations with Lip. I have nothing against Tami, and am fine if the show wants to integrate her into its family unit, but the show has so lost track of that family unit that it doesn’t really know how to do that anymore. There was a version of this season that developed Tami into a character we wanted to see stick around, instead of a character rushed into being important by way of the pregnancy.

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Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

And really, if not for the pregnancy, what was stopping Tami from being shuttled off like Kelly, who bails on Carl after he becomes obsessed with the idea that Debbie was macking on his girlfriend. This story is tired for a lot of reasons, but I actually liked Kelly fine, and it’s super weird that the episode does nothing her to reckon with the implications for Carl’s goal of going to West Point. Maybe that comes up next week, but I can entirely imagine a world where Kelly is Carl’s second straight girlfriend to just disappear and never be mentioned again, although hopefully no one murders this one.

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It’s the latest in a long line of disposable stories for Carl and Debbie, a problem that extends to Kev and Veronica, and pretty much every siloed story thread the show has developed in recent years. There is so little positive momentum on the edges of this story that it’s hard not to imagine it all falling apart in Fiona’s absence, with the writers only then realizing they’ve got no foundation left to hold it together. The part sof this episode that elevated it over the rest of the season are the same the show is about to lose, and unless that forces the kind of self-reflection Fiona finds on the stairs of the abandoned building that used to be her future, there’s little hope this momentum continues on into next season and beyond.

Stray observations

  • Look, I understand that episodes are tight and all, but it is unconscionable that they’re not explaining where Liam is. How did they overlook the fact he was gone for two episodes in a row with zero explanation? And how did they have Lip speak his name in this episode without also thinking “Huh, we should say he’s on vacation or something?” I just don’t understand how that happens. I really don’t. Can we call DCFS on a writer’s room?
  • I just want to reiterate that Lip was totally fine with Fiona’s descent into alcoholism until it personally impacted him, at which point he threw her out of the house and worked to withdraw all support to force a moment of self-reflection that he could have helped create himself by taking action when first observing the problem. I’m finding it very hard to accept him as the hero of this story.
  • Do Fiona and Veronica never text each other? Fiona didn’t know Kevin was having a vasectomy? At least throw in a line of dialogue about how Fiona was too drunk to remember they had the conversation, stop pretending they only speak to each other when they have dialogue.
  • So I know that ostensibly the Alibi serves food, but given that we haven’t seen a kitchen staff anytime recently, or a kitchen, how the hell was Veronica intending to cook a freezer full of ribeyes AND seafood before they were forced into the charcoal situation?
  • I should really rename the Stray Observations to “What The Actual Hell, Show?” but seriously: how did Fiona and Frank have any ice left over after their entire day of selling it on a Chicago summer day, storing it either in a kiddie pool or in a trash can with no insulating capacity?
  • Legitimate question: Why is the scene of Kevin getting all of the coats from home necessary to that story? I’ve been sitting here trying to figure it out: he gets them, but then only puts them on top of the freezer and not the sides, but then it’s irrelevant to the story because they just end up cooking it all anyway. So why bother? Did the costume department just have a surplus of coats? How was that worth time instead of a scene telling us where the hell Liam is?
  • I don’t understand Carl’s restaurant story: he’s there and working, but they’re skipping over anything meaningful (like him allegedly inventing a new menu item) and just having it be a place where he makes phone calls and sends texts and gets objectified by his boss, and that feels pretty empty to me.
  • I really feel they should have done with a “Previously On” that wasn’t Fiona in the house when she had just gotten kicked out of the house?
  • I appreciate that Fiona’s goodbye tour included one last emotional exit from Patsy’s and a final farewell to her apartment building: a nice bit of spatial memorializing there.
  • So is Frank’s $10,000 going to the same place as Lip’s $10,000, the place where lost things go? He doesn’t seem desperate for cash, but that allegedly happened the day before and no mention of it?

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