William H. Macy, Bojana Novakovic

The final scene of “South Side Rules” could be the best, most succinct thematic encapsulation of Shameless as there’s been on the show. Ian and Mickey come tumbling down the street, bruised, bloodied, and drunk, howling “Love Is A Battlefield” like two strangers who let a karaoke battle get way out of hand, but made peace andwill become best friends for life. Theirs is a literal interpretation of Pat Benatar’s hit. Ian goads Mickey into a fight by needling him about softening up in response to his condition. They whale on each other, roll around for a while, then have some beers and get loose like old times. Upon their return to Gallagher Manor, where they’ve stopped to clean up before their first proper dinner-date, Sammi is waiting with her own interpretation of the song. Sammi tells Ian he’s a good kid with a big heart, and she knows he’s tough enough to endure what’s ahead of him. Then she signals the military police to haul Ian away. For Sammi, this is war.

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It’s a war Sammi is waging with family members with whom she shares a home, and she launched her latest attack while still living at Gallagher Manor and perusing apartment listings at a leisurely pace. For most people, this would constitute insane, unreasonable behavior, but for Sammi, it’s the kind of simple, elegant, symbolic cruelty that family communication is all about. And man alive, is it ever cruel. Ian’s hallucinations in “Carl’s First Sentencing” were important. He wasn’t seeing randomly generated images, he was seeing his very worst fears manifested, and he was doing so at a convenient time for the audience, given how easy it is to forget about Ian’s desertion. This is literally the last thing Ian wanted to happen, and Sammi’s motivation for facilitating it is purely retributive. Hell, Sammi would sooner let the milk curdle and funk up the entire kitchen rather than taking two seconds to toss it into the fridge. You’re with her, or you’re against her. Sammi is Frank Jr.

This is definitely a problem as Shameless continues with Emily Bergl as a series regular, and that’s no fault of Bergl, who’s never less than phenomenal in the role. Frank is a narrative leak that begins seeping out of one crack the second the writers plug it in another. One Frank is usually more than Shameless can handle, so it’s hard to imagine the show can accommodate two Franks.

Sammi’s betrayal also calls the show’s sense of humor into question, not because of taste level but because of how it colors perceptions of the story. “Carl’s First Sentencing” showed Sammi’s anger over Chuckie’s introduction to the industrial prison complex. But it was mostly played for laughs, with Sammi leaping across a table to attack Carl and giving Chuckie a hand job tutorial to help him survive juvenile detention. Those were funny moments, but they undercut the seriousness of what was happening to Sammi. Ian’s arrest isn’t a gut punch only because it’s Ian’s worst nightmare come to life, it’s also because it initially feels like it comes out of left field. But then it’s like, “Oh yeah, because of the Gallaghers, her developmentally delayed son and only companion is now incarcerated for something he didn’t do.” That’s far more motive than Frank has ever had for his horrific behavior, but because of the audience’s investment in Ian, especially with his relationship with Mickey in a relatively stable place, the vast majority of the audience is not going to see it from Sammi’s perspective.

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It’s an appropriate moment for the audience to redefine its relationship with Sammi, given how much of “South Side Rules” is about people clumsily navigating the changing dynamics of their relationships. Kevin and Veronica’s arc never quite managed to jell this season, but when its weaved into what’s happening with Ian and Mickey, there’s a synergistic effect that makes the Kev and V stuff suddenly feel involving. Ian and Veronica are basically in the same position in that they’ve had life events that require their respective partners to rise to the occasion and be the anchor for a while. But when Kevin and Mickey stepped up to be what their partners needed, doing so came at the expense of the passion that had come to define their relationships. Everyone wants a partner who will be compassionate, dutiful, and self-sacrificing when the situation calls for it, but that isn’t a sexy dynamic. Getting a pep talk from your boyfriend when you can’t get erect because of your psych meds isn’t sexy.

Nor is Frank sexy, but he has developed a genuine crush on Bianca, which is a brilliant direction to take that story. We’ve seen Carl become infatuated with Bonnie, Debbie become infatuated with Matty and now Derek, but this is the first time Frank has had an honest-to-God, daydreaming, notebook-scribbling crush on someone since Shameless began. Bianca hurries him out the door, but he returns and Bianca’s sister can’t manage to turn him away either. It’s a good thing, because whether or not Bianca realizes it, Frank may be the only person in her life who genuinely understands what she’s going through. Sheila Callaghan’s script powerfully conveys Bianca’s feelings of frustration when her loved ones feel like she’s given up and she feels like she’s fighting as hard as she can, just not in the way her family wants her to. I’m expecting Bianca and Frank to settle into a father-daughter type relationship, much to Frank’s disappointment. In the event the story develops without the two of them hooking up, I’m ready to declare Bianca my favorite Frank playmate.

Lip and Fiona deal with some shifting relationship dynamics of their own. Lip turns down the burner on Amanda but lands in hot water because of Kevin’s drug enterprise, while Fiona floats into Sean’s orbit with Gus physically and emotionally distant. These stories held me back from an unqualified A on this episode, simply because they echo the past a bit too strongly. By nearly the end of season five, the audience understands that Fiona is hopelessly addicted to drama, and that of all Lip’s gifts, none looms larger than his ability to self-sabotage. Lip’s storyline was built from really great scenes including the muted break-up with Amanda, Helene’s snap-out-of-it exhortation, and Lip at the hospital feeling more torn than ever between where he came from and where he could potentially go. But the returns continue to diminish on having a character gallop in to remind Lip that he’s a genius and could really be something if he simply applied himself.

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There’s also nothing new under the sun in Fiona’s story, as she continues to play out her version of Goldilocks And The Three Bears. Fiona convinces herself that Sean needs her when his ex prepares to move away with his son. Sean tells Fiona in no uncertain terms that he’ll be fine and doesn’t need her help, but she comes anyway, fully committing to another path when Gus doesn’t show up for their freaky Skype session. Watching Fiona send Gus to voicemail and choose instead to be sucked into Sean’s chaos is tough to watch. It’s disappointing at this point, but there’s only so much Fiona can be expected to change when she’s in the company of such like-minded people. Frank. Sammi. Ian. Sean. They’re all so desperate to feel something, excruciating pain will have to do in the absence of better options.

Stray observations:

  • Dermot Mulroney has been really good as Sean, and I think now more than ever that Fiona’s storyline could have done without Jimmy-Jack-Steve.
  • I felt bad for Amanda, and I don’t know why Lip had to downshift their relationship. If sharing a woman with another guy is his jam, isn’t that what Amanda initially brought to the table? They’re two smart people. They could figure something out.
  • Oh Debbie…why must you drive up my blood pressure? Please don’t get pregnant. Also, Derek is not ready to say he loves her yet, which she shouldn’t read too much into, but she should definitely take notice of it.
  • Frank’s come-ons to Bianca: “You’re my favorite dying person I’ve ever met!” “Our chemistry is off-the-charts, don’t try to deny it!”
  • Don’t ask Fiona to pronounce Pere Ubu, asshole.
  • Helene’s full come-to-Jesus moment with Lip: ““Drop the whole noble thug shtik. You’re covering your own ass and you know it. Y’know, you have a choice right now. To recognize that you are a promising, young college student, not some ghetto outlaw, and stop behaving like the world is out to get you when it is so clearly dropping gifts at your feet. Or you keep doing what you’re doing and you end up in a cell somewhere angry and out of options.” Awesome.

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