Noel Fisher, Cameron Monaghan

“Uncle Carl” is the Shameless episode I’ve been waiting for all season, the one in which the many narrow tributaries start combining and every plot development begins to feel consequential. The building of momentum is a slow-going process for Shameless every season, and quite often even the goofiest storylines are part of a larger plan that doesn’t make any sense until it does. A classic example is season four’s budding romance between Sheila and Roger Running Tree, which initially just seemed like the latest wacky solution to keep Sheila busy, but wound up being the catalyst for Frank’s diagnosis. It has taken even longer for the writers to get their dominoes lined up in season five, but “Uncle Carl” feels like the first one tipping over, which is a good place to be heading into the season’s final third.

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As is always the case with the Gallaghers, everything comes back to drugs. Carl has been on the periphery for most of the season, dabbling in the drug game only to find out there are practical applications to the material taught in the math classes he skips. Despite his middling performance, Carl gets promoted to drug mule because the kid who previously had his job gets shot. Those aren’t the ideal circumstances under which to advance a career, but Carl takes the shot all the same and is tasked with smuggling an insane amount of heroin to Flint. Frank, being the wonderful and benevolent person he is, suggests Carl strap the drugs to Chuckie, who is much younger, doesn’t look like a criminal, and is far less likely to arouse suspicion. But as usual, Frank has a ulterior motive, and this time it’s spite, pure and simple. He’s pissed at Sammi for shooting him in the arm (which is not unreasonable), and Frank being Frank, getting his grandson arrested seems like a reasonable retribution. As despicable as Frank’s behavior is, it’s completely on brand, and so the father-daughter rivalry with Sammi that seemed like such a dead end early in the season now feels like a natural way of backing into another classic Gallagher family crisis.

Lip too has been wooed back into the drug game as a result of his inability to make his steep tuition payments. When Lip first floated the idea to Kevin, more than anything I was proud of Lip for having gone this long without being tempted by an environment as conducive to drug sales as a college campus. It shows quite a bit of discipline for someone not known for it, but that makes it much harder to watch Lip imperiling all of his progress towards a better life. Lip’s monologue to the finance officer about why he couldn’t sit out a semester was affecting, and Jeremy Allen White played the scene with admirable restraint. Of course, this can’t end well. It’s an especially difficult position for Lip to be in, wanting so badly to achieve but becoming increasingly exhausted by all of the obstacles that put achievement beyond reach for someone like him. There’s no right choice.

There is a right choice for Ian, where drugs are concerned, though it’s understandable why he feels differently. When Debbie is at the gym with Derek, she’s no longer picturing Holly’s and Ellie’s faces on the heavy bag, she’s picturing Monica’s face. Monica’s absence is and always will be a source of great pain for the Gallagher kids, including Ian, for whom the walking disaster that is Monica is symbolic of the condition he now has. Ian doesn’t want to get well, he wants not to be sick, and even though taking his meds will be the thing that makes him most feel well, taking them as prescribed means conceding to having the same condition that played a key role in a major trauma.

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Ian’s return home looms large in “Uncle Carl,” leading to some of the emotional scenes of the season. Emma Kenney has been owning it this whole season, but she gets a few choice scenes here, with the highlight Debbie’s confrontation with Mickey about keeping his distance following Ian’s release from the hospital. The Ian and Mickey stuff has been the most consistently absorbing material of the season, and it has unfolded in a way that feels true and credible even when it’s hard. Mickey was understandably traumatized after visiting Ian in the hospital, because Mickey was probably under the impression that getting Ian hospitalized and medicated meant things would go “back to normal.” But a medicated Ian will be a healthier, more functional person, but Ian will never quite be the person Mickey fell in love with, and that’s difficult for him to accept. Ian and Mickey have come so far and been through so much together, I nervously watch their relationship, waiting for something to throw them off course. It seemed like Ian’s illness might be the thing to do it, but after Debbie calls him out, he scoots into bed with Ian and apologizes that it took him so long. It’s the kind of moment that Shameless one of the most rewarding shows on television.

Fiona gets an emotional showcase in “Uncle Carl” too, pleading with Gus to come along on his tour so they can get to work on repairing their broken marriage. It’s one of the many brave, raw scenes in Krista Vernoff’s script, and more than anything else this season, it’s a scene that makes me hope Gus won’t vanish before season five is over. When Jimmy-Jack-Steve was lurking behind the dumpster at Patsy’s Pies, Gus seemed too much like a foil for JJS and nothing more, an uncomplicated “nice guy” to contrast with the depths of JJS’s profound douchebaggery. But Gus has been thoughtfully developed, and between decking JJS last week and taking a hard line with Fiona this week, Gus has started showing off the sturdy backbone it wasn’t always clear he had. Fiona wants to rush through their marital woes with a good old-fashioned “fight ’n’ fuck,” but Gus is approaching their relationship differently, and in a way that could teach Fiona a lot if she can follow his lead. It’s going to take a while to work through the JJS mistake, and Fiona needs to learn how to scramble back to her feet in a romantic relationship the way she’s learned to do it in the rest of her life.

Speaking of JJS, it’s interesting, though not at all surprising how his departure feels like the removal of a clog that was stopping up the entire season. “Uncle Carl” isn’t a great episode because JJS isn’t in it, but it’s also more than a coincidence. It’s great that Fiona was able to put some closure to that relationship, but “Uncle Carl” demonstrates how good Shameless can be when its focus is in the right place.

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Stray observations:

  • Fiona has returned full-time to Gallagher Manor now that Ian is back from the hospital and Gus is on tour. I haven’t found much use for Sammi this season, as much as I love Emily Bergl’s performance, but it looks like we’re gearing up for a Fiona-Sammi face-off, which interests me far more than Sammi’s silly rivalry with Sheila.
  • Debbie and Derek forever. Seriously.
  • Frank was really surprised to find out Fiona got married, and that was a wonderful little flourish. As horrible a father as Frank is, that title still has meaning to him, so even though he doesn’t deserve a place in Fiona’s life, it’s gotta smart a little to be the last person to find out she got married.
  • Things are going awfully sour between Kev and V. Just when it looks like they’re about to be even-steven after Svetlana extends her “wifely duties” to the woman of the house (equality!), Kev gets wasted at Lip’s college and sleeps with a random co-ed.
  • I really respect V for backing out of her date with Not-That Eddie Murphy, because Demetrius Grosse (of Banshee and Justified) is not tough to look at. Eddie’s line about the “twins” was pretty funny.
  • That rat. My God, that rat.

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