Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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After mostly meandering through the back half of its ninth season, Shameless finally revealed its endgame for Fiona’s fall from grace at the end of this week’s episode. Fiona’s collapse has been precipitous, but it has mostly been self-destructive, with her siblings forced to pick up the slack but mostly in terms of missed payments and general maintenance of their day-to-day lives. But in the wake of losing her job and getting arrested for assault, Fiona’s struggles have reached a breaking point: by the end of “The Hobo Games” Lip basically orders her out of the house, the latest chapter in a series-long conflict between the two Gallagher siblings who have been most impacted by the responsibility placed on them over the course of their lives.

But as much as I appreciate that the conflict of the season is being connected to the sibling drama that lies at the core of the show’s storytelling, how Shameless gets to this standoff is endemic of this season’s failure. Fiona’s first transgression is being drunk in the middle of the day when DCFS shows up to inspect the house as a suitable place for Xan to live, and stumbling through the tour when circumstances outside of her control (Debbie’s construction project, unsupervised children in Debbie’s care, the general chaos of the house) clearly lead to a failed evaluation. And then, when she goes looking for Lip in order to apologize, she stumbles into his sponsee Jason at the bike shop, and pours herself a drink to drown her sorrows and triggers a relapse for the young man about to celebrate 100 days of sobriety.

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I lay all of this out because there are two problems here. The first is that Lip, juggling all of this with Tami’s revelation that she’s pregnant with his child, holds Fiona responsible for all of it, which is insane. Lip never told Fiona that DCFS was coming, nor was she consulted on the idea of Xan living with them, which Lip basically forces on everyone without even an attempt at a family meeting to discuss the possibility. You could argue that a sober Fiona would have been better at navigating her way out of DCFS entering the property, but is it her fault that Lip failed to realize how quickly the home inspection could take place and wasn’t ready? And while Lip argues that the drunk Fiona “didn’t care enough to know” that Jason was his sponsee, Lip should know from his own experience that personal responsibility is critical to the process of recovery, and he actively ignores Jason’s own insistence this it wasn’t Fiona’s fault to hold her accountable instead.

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

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You might feel that Lip’s position is reasonably “explained” by an emotional day, but the second problem with this story is that—and this is going to sound mean—I don’t care about Xan or Jason. The writers have done nothing to invest me in these characters except as props for Lip, each there to activate his sense of responsibility but failing to activate any investment from me as a viewer. I feel bad for what happened to Jason, but his sobriety is not meaningful enough for me to understand why Lip is lashing out at his sister instead of staging an intervention to help her deal with her own issues. And while I obviously understand that Xan feels safe with Lip, I don’t know enough about her or her situation to feel that entering the foster care system is enough of a threat to tear this family apart. The show dropped both of these characters on Lip’s doorstep, shuttled them off-screen once it no longer needed them, and then wheeled them back out when they wanted to create conflict, but nothing about it feels organic. I hadn’t once thought about Xan after the show shipped her off with her mother (and $10,000 the show just pretends never existed), and Jason’s sobriety has never entered my mind, so using them as triggers for the destruction of the family unit rings entirely false.

Everything about Shameless rings false right now. How in the world are Kevin and Veronica off in their own world with a stupid vasectomy storyline a week after Fiona was arrested for assaulting someone, the latest example of her reckless behavior? Unless there’s a Good Wife situation between Emmy Rossum and Shanola Hampton that has been underreported, how in the world is Veronica not working to help her friend get out of this spiral? And how does the show think that it can keep shifting between a frivolous story about a vasectomy where Kev gets high on Vicodin for fun and a dark tale of Fiona stealing and then selling a bottle of Oxycodone? How can the no-stakes world of Ingrid’s six babies and Frank’s absurd Hobo Games live alongside the story the show wants to tell with Lip and Fiona? It’s not that I’m frustrated the show isn’t telling the stories I want them to tell: it’s that their choices reveal the complete unwillingness to think of the show as an interconnected ecosystem, despite ending last week’s episode with a “trademark” moment where the whole neighborhood comes together to shame a racist neighbor. But now it’s a week later, and most of the stories have no stakes, and Liam is yet again completely absent with zero explanation.

Photo: Chuck Hodes (Showtime)

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Jeremy Allen White and Emmy Rossum remain the core of the show’s dramatic storytelling, and their performances here showcase the depth they’ve developed as the seasons have gone on. But it’s insane that Rossum’s first scene actually exploring Fiona’s emotional state is with a random addict she doesn’t even know instead of anyone—Veronica, one of her former tenants, any of her siblings, even Frank for pete’s sake—that has some kind of relationship with her. The show could get away with separating Fiona from her family when it isolated her within clear story worlds—her relationships with Gus and Sean, the apartment building—but it’s insane that none of them have done the work of reaching out to her in this situation. Rossum has captured Fiona’s pain effectively, but the choice to have no one actually confront that pain has stranded her, and the way this episode works to escalate Lip’s pain fails to register effectively. It all builds to a conflict that is meaningful, but only because of the history behind it, as opposed to anything that’s happened this season, and the show isn’t doing the work necessary to connect to that history.

This week’s “Previously on” sequence has Debbie expressing frustration with our forgetfulness, and encouraging us to get a pen and take down some notes. Well, Shameless, I’ve been taking down notes for over three seasons now, and I really don’t think you should be throwing stones in glass houses. The show’s short-term memory problem is robbing it of the emotional resonance that it needs, and which it should be relying on as it negotiates Fiona’s departure from the show. “The Hobo Games” is filled with a combination of stories that lack the history necessary to land emotionally and stories that feel entirely disposable, destined to be forgotten by the show and its viewers alike. Ingrid is written off with a $10,000 check and the possibility of Carl claiming paternity that I don’t trust the show to actually remember; the Hobo Games end with a complete non-decision, and cultural commentary that failed to say anything about anything. Debbie’s still a lesbian and is being super flirty with Kelly, and Carl is insecure about it, and I’m still puzzling over what the stakes are supposed to be. Why does any of this matter if the show is just going to forget any of it happened a year from now?

It’s a bad question to be asking, but a downright destructive one when the show is about to write out its central character while awkwardly writing another one back in. That’s a tough thing for any show to navigate, but a downright impossible one for a show this discombobulated.

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Stray observations

  • So, Tami is pregnant. I understand that the show wants to reinforce themes of responsibility—the one through line that barely connects Frank’s dumb story to anything else—but I feel like this only reinforces how thin the surrogate child story was with Xan. But hey, at least Lip’s child didn’t emerge from him actively entrapping someone like Debbie’s? Remember that? And similar to when the show randomly made Fiona pregnant, I’d love to know more about how this happened—Tami was sleeping with Lip and her weird betrothed military dude and wasn’t on birth control? I have questions.
  • “Take some notes or something”—I’m happy to share my notes with Debbie, there’s a lot of caps lock.
  • Luis Guzmán and Katey Sagal are both engaging performers, but everything about this Frank storyline has been a complete and utter waste of time, and the idea that the Ingrid story ended at a Hobo mascot contest and in no way attempted to explore her mental illness and its parallel with Monica is just another reminder of how disinterested the show is in exploring the depth of its storytelling.
  • I refuse to believe that DCFS would move so fast that a caseworker would show up at the house in the amount of time it took Lip and Xan to run errands. It felt like a story that needed to be spread over a couple of days, at least, but got stuck within a single day because of the episode around it.
  • Despite the fact they were able to physically restrain a teenager, Veronica is just going to leave the twins in a pack-and-play with Franny? Surely they’re capable of climbing out of that, right?
  • Shameless was actually in a position to tell a reasonable story about LGBTQ individuals and the military at one point, but I’m glad we get a “Homosexual War Veteran” scam instead.
  • I realize that the show has done a lot to suggest Fiona’s life has really fallen into disrepair, but since when does Fiona have drug contacts she can sell Oxy to on short notice?
  • I’m not shocked that they didn’t bother to match Kevin’s discussion of learning how to Floss with actual Fortnite gameplay, but I’m really curious how they landed on Super Lucky’s Tale of all things.

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