Insecurity and lack of trust corrode relationships. Everyone knows this, and yet people always manage to make choices that will introduce those dynamics to the relationships they value most. In this week's Shameless, there was a thematic link that ran through most of the plots, even the sillier ones, about the emotional pitfalls that can break even the strongest bonds.
As I've written the past couple weeks, I tend to be frustrated in the early going of a Shameless season about how nothing is happening. It isn't that I necessarily need large blasts of plot from this show, but many installments of Shameless feel like a collection of moments less than a cohesive episode. This can work when all, or even most of those moments are effective on their own. With this show, it’s often enough for the whole to be equal to the sum of its parts.
The trick with Shameless, though, is that the show's very nature—its scuzziness, its titillation, its tendency towards puerile, prurient extremes—means those individual moments always have a high likelihood of not working. Those moments can be simply off-putting or uncomfortable and wear down the viewer’s good will. For example, there are Frank stories that work and are funny, and others that are revolting and make me wonder why I'm supposed to be laughing. There are Kev and Veronica stories I find charming, and others that sprint down dark alleys. (I'm glad we didn't have to see any more of the master/slave porn site.) It's hard to predict what will fall out of the Shameless pinata from week to week.
"May I Trim Your Hedges?" is the best episode of the third season to date, because it delivers enough great moments to make up for those that left me wanting. It was also the first episode that left me excited to see what happens next, which tells me a bit of momentum is growing.
What I found most impressive about "May I Trim Your Hedges?" was the way Krista Vernoff's script weaved in lively conversations that got at the show’s larger themes in an organic way. The best of these was the conversation between Lip and Ian about the fraught implications of sex between adults and minors after Lip’s “perv posse” find out the neighborhood child rapist is a pretty, broken blonde whose claims she fell in rapturous, not-at-all-inappropriate love with a 14-year-old student.
That story has disturbing implications and I was concerned about where it might lead. It showed the issue with sex offender registries: they essentially hand down a life sentence for a crime that doesn't carry one, potentially endangering people who may not actually pose a threat to the community. Shrewdly, the show turned the mob's righteous rage in on itself and confronted the hypocrisy of the moment. But better still, it led to Lip and Ian talking candidly about Lip's discomfort with Ian's relationship with Kash, which is a brave choice for a show that often feels like it loves to present those kind of outrageous moments but seldom wants to contextualize them within the story.
The episode also revisited one of Shameless's larger themes of what constitutes a family and its roles in the Kev and Veronica plot, which was far more affecting than what we're used to seeing from those characters. When Kev's wife Cheryl reenters the picture, Kev tests Veronica's patience by trying to keep Cheryl smiling long enough to get her to sign divorce papers. Of course, Cheryl is being as obnoxious about it as possible—flirting, asking for a cup of "KevieCaf," dressing like a silhouette on a mudflap.
Veronica is insecure enough watching their easy, jovial interactions, and when she finds out about Kev's potential kid, she completely loses it. But when Fiona tries to comfort Veronica by telling her they would solve the problem by getting a paternity test and proving it wasn't Kev's kid, the script didn't let that lie. Veronica pointed to Fiona as the perfect example of how there are people who assume roles they aren't obligated to because they feel called to do so. Kev is that kind of guy, and Veronica was right to worry.
What I especially thought was great was Fiona's confrontation with Kev and Cheryl in the street, and her tearful plea for Kev to make sure he and Veronica remain one of her life's few constants. The great thing about it, besides Emmy Rossum's typically impressive performance in such moments, is how it showed the flip side of Fiona and Veronica's relationship. Veronica is usually the ride-or-die friend juicing Fiona up to take what's hers or tell someone off or right some wrong, and she's always more than willing to provide back up. Cheryl's return guts Veronica and drains the fight out of her. And then we see why this bond is so strong: as Veronica stands silently on the periphery, Fiona goes into the ring and throws haymakers.
Kev hobbling in during the Gallagher family dinner to tell Veronica that he wasn't going to choose between his partner and his child was an amazing moment, and all the actors killed it. Of course, the treacle didn't last long; Cheryl came in popping off at the mouth and got her ass handed to her when she admitted that not only was young Kyle not Kev's kid, he wasn't even hers. (Kev's plaintive "You can just initial" when Cheryl was trying to sign the divorce papers ranks with the season's funniest line readings.) That sequence was Shameless at its finest, when the show's earnest instincts and its tendency towards shock humor blend seamlessly rather than feeling messily soldered together.
I felt the same way about the story of Fiona's new gig at the supermarket. I especially appreciated the choice of cutting away from Fiona's reaction to the disgusting manager, letting her conversation with Jimmy be the first time she addresses what happened. Fiona has a strong moral center, but she also makes bad choices around men and sex. When she tells Jimmy the story of how she was sexually harassed, not only does Jimmy silently wonder if she acquiesced to the manager, I wondered too. I felt slightly guilty about doubting Fiona when she said she didn’t do it, then hatched a plan to get revenge and a new job in one fell swoop. But I loved that the execution of the story caused me to think about how I really look at Fiona and what kind of person I think she is.
There was an elegance to the way "May I Trim Your Hedges?" was constructed that elevated some of the episode's less effective moments. I'm mostly referring to the Lip plot, which started out intriguing but took a bad turn. Lip being pissed at the injustice of the situation and wanting to punish the naughty teacher was a provocative idea that fit the character well. And his plan to run a "sting operation" to catch her reoffending is an idea that probably sounded hilarious as a pitch. But I couldn’t buy that southside Chicago’s Hester Prynne would fall into Lip's trap simply because he tossed some too-obvious, infantilized innuendo at her. Then, for her to take on a sexy headmistress persona and yank Lip’s pubic hair didn’t ring true and was too on the nose to be funny. That said, the way Lip’s story branched off from Ian’s, as both had confusing adventures in taboo sexuality, was structurally deft.
Ian continued his doomed dance with Mickey. The Ian and Mickey relationship reminds me of a gender-tweaked Fiona and Jimmy, or for that matter, a Lip and Karen. Shameless is all about asking the audience to root for its characters as they work tirelessly to reel in partners who are clearly beneath them. But there's an authenticity to the Ian and Mickey relationship that makes it one of the strongest in the show, and the easiest to root for, even if it doesn’t always seem like the best idea. Everything Mickey does makes perfect sense emotionally, even when it hurts Ian, something you can't always say about Jimmy with Fiona. Mickey’s ability to compartmentalize is unparalleled, but perhaps his broad-daylight beating of Lloyd for sniffing around Ian will be enough to get Mickey to start talking straight, so to speak.
As is usually the case as I'm writing and thinking about Shameless, Frank and Jimmy tend to attract the least amount of my energy. In the case of Jimmy, I don't really have a grudge against the character anymore, which is progress. I actually like Jimmy as the knucklehead trying to do right by the girl he loves under an extreme set of circumstances. And the scene in which Fiona breaks down and tells Steve how much she trusts him is a scene I need to see periodically to understand Steve's importance.
Steve is like a close friend's boyfriend who you're kind of indifferent to but you like him in as much as he's making your friend happy. But it's great to see Fiona relying on him emotionally in such an explicit way, and it pulled me back into their relationship, even if the specifics of Jimmy's situation are still goofy and contrived. Seems like a guy like Nando could pay anyone else to pretend to be married to his hot, nympho daughter. Can someone explain to me why it's important that Estefania be married to Jimmy as opposed to anyone else?
- Kudos to director Steve Shill for a lively-looking episode. I adored the frenetic tracking shot that opened the episode with all of the Gallaghers (except Fiona) sleeping soundly in their beds. I also liked Shill's version of the standard "bad-ass slow motion shot" as Lip's "perv posse" went on their mission, an image that usually comes paired with a Kid Rock cue.
- Speaking of music cues, I really enjoyed the sprightly, jaunty incidental music that played through the episode. It's quirky and buoyant, and seems to match the tone of the show. I'd like to hear more of this kind of Rolfe Kent-style scoring and less of the show’s loud, generic alt-rock, which has become redundant and has always felt too overtly "OMG, did you see what Lip just did? This show is KWAAAAZY."
- Say what you will about Beto, but he takes fidelity very seriously.
- I forgot about the Kash N Grab completely. Does Ian own that place now? I don't understand the store's place in this universe anymore, aside from giving Ian and Mickey a place to have sex, and they don't seem to be wanting for those.
- The Frank plot was characteristically revolting, and my energy for it went out the window once he started jabbing a baby with a push pin. Carl gets to go to camp though, so bully for him. I don't understand Frank and Carl's relationship at this point, though. I'm not clear on why Carl wouldn't have had more feelings around Frank's long absence if the two are still close enough that Carl would have so easily gone along with the cancer ruse.
- The same goes for Sheila. Sorry, but I can't be made to believe that a sleep-deprived Sheila would be so desperate for help with the baby that she would let Frank take him, and hand him a wad of bills. No one in the Shameless universe trusts Frank, no matter how long they've gone without sleep. Not with money, and certainly not with a baby.