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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Won’t someone please think of Liam, who even Shameless occasionally forgets exists?

Emma Kenney and Christian Isaiah star in Shameless
Emma Kenney and Christian Isaiah star in Shameless
Photo: Paul Sarkis/Showtime
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When Shameless divided up its characters for the “Hall of Shame” episodes, they lumped Carl, Debbie, and Liam together. And given that they were only doing seven episodes of the clip show, that made sense: while Fiona, Frank, Ian, and Lip have all at one point or another been ostensibly the leads of the show, and Kev and Veronica needing to be addressed, putting the younger siblings together was really the only option. And they share the same general arc, beginning the show as sidekicks before eventually maturing into their own stories over the show’s eleven seasons.

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However, there’s a pivotal distinction that we need to make, which is that although I have a lot of issues with how Debbie and Carl’s characters have been handled, their transitions to their own storylines was narratively justified. I may hate the person Debbie has become—she spends this episode blaming Lip for her own reckless behavior, seriously considering reporting him for incest as punishment for wanting to sell the house—but the narrative arc of a Gallagher having to grow up fast was a productive parallel to her older siblings. And while Carl’s journey was a little more scattered thematically, if you ignore some of the specifics—like the absolute waste of time that was Carl’s story in this episode—and just cover the broad strokes, the intent is logical. They started the show at an age where they were an afterthought, and they’re ending it with more agency, and that feels true to the show’s thesis as it were.

But Liam is a different story. Liam started the show as a narrative burden: a toddler that needed care and attention, unable to do anything for himself. His most prominent story was when he overdosed on Fiona’s cocaine, and while there was a period where it felt the show was using the character as evidence of the consequences by suggesting some type of brain damage, eventually the show got to a point where they decided that Liam needed to be a character in his own right. And so they recast the role, and transitioned him into the sidekick role that Carl filled when the show began, all the while gesturing at but never committing to stories regarding his race. And then they decided to commit to those stories, but immediately backed out of them, reverting Liam to just another Gallagher. But unlike his siblings, who have grown into adults over the course of the show, Liam is still trapped in the liminal space of middle school, and the show has never cracked how to tell his stories without making it seem like they have no idea how to tell his stories.

Which is to say that Liam’s current predicament is frustrating both within and outside the narrative, as it’s hard for me to get a grasp on who exactly should be held accountable. On the one hand, the episode itself is arguing that this is Lip’s fault, because he’s ostensibly Liam’s guardian by default in Fiona’s absence, and he didn’t make it clear to Liam that he would be living with him and Tami in the instance that they were to sell the house. The final scene of “Survivors” certainly affirms this, transitioning into the credits without any kind of music, meant as an emotional moment of Liam finally realizing that his family is there for him. It’s not the first time that the entire family has basically forgotten Liam existed, but it was one of the more consequential, and resolving it puts the family back on solid footing as they prepare to say goodbye to this era of their lives now that Debbie has admitted she just doesn’t want to lose her connection to the family and seems open to the idea of selling.

But at the same time, I was so perplexed by Liam’s behavior in this episode. In general, the current incarnation as Liam has been positioned as being smart beyond his years, clever and shrewd in how he navigates his world, but I have no grasp on what he was doing throughout this episode. He goes to DCFS and asks about being adopted, or going into a group home? He tries out being homeless to see how it might feel? The episode tries to frame this as him being pragmatic and preparing for the worst, but why in the world wouldn’t he just ask his siblings about this? Yes, I hold those responsible for Liam at fault for not being proactive in making him feel safe in the situation, but the show’s inconsistent characterization of Liam makes his unwillingness to ask them a simple question inscrutable. He literally moved out of the house without them knowing before, but this time he’s so concerned that he can’t ask them directly? The final scene is pitched as a big emotional moment, but I have no grasp on his emotions, because the show has had no idea how to tell stories using the character. Liam is too old to not just ask his siblings what’s going to happen to him, and too young for his actions to read as a clear story arc, meaning the time we spend on him ends up lacking the resonance we would normally associate with the end of a series.

Illustration for article titled Won’t someone please think of Liam, who even Shameless occasionally forgets exists?
Photo: Showtime (Paul Sarkis)
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The characters who could resonate—Ian and Lip—are mostly sidelined from the series finale preparations this week, outside of Lip’s drop-in on Liam: Ian and Mickey handle Terry’s affairs and find out his neo-nazi origin story (he murdered his would-be Jewish father-in-law after he forbid the union, and then she married an African American), while Lip fixes a crime boss’ grandson’s mini Mercedes for some reason. Tami doesn’t even appear in the episode, which I suppose means there might be conflict if Lip didn’t run the Liam plan by her, but it mostly seems like we’re meant to see that story as resolved, and so I’m curious when we start getting a clearer picture of the endgame for the show’s two most important characters.

The march to the finale was strongest with Frank, which is to be expected, as he wanders through his co-conspirator rolodex to discover all the people on his old crew are either dead, retired, or unable to perform their old duties. As I stated previously, Macy is a strong actor, and I do think it’s productive to see him pushing the bounds of his dementia as a way to think about his situation. The big speech about how conditions like Alzheimers and Dementia put seniors in vulnerable positions is not entirely untrue, but obviously Frank isn’t the most sympathetic source of that argument, which could generate good tension in the weeks ahead. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with the mid-credits suggestion that Frank actually successfully stole “Nighthawks” from the Art Institute of Chicago off-screen, but we’ll wait and see if it’s even canon as of next week’s episode and if they use it to provide an influx of cash to simplify the conflicts ahead.

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That said, although the Alibi story itself was as pointless as Kevin and Veronica’s stories have been for seasons now, I do think we’re starting to see an endgame for them as well. Veronica went to Kentucky to help convince her mother she doesn’t actually want to move there, but the choice to contrast it with Kev’s childcare misadventure at the alibi where the twins get into the edibles seems to be signaling that they might start imagining a simpler life outside of Chicago. I resent the premise of this story—Is there not enough money from the Alibi for a babysitter? Or a part-time employee to tend bar to the roughly 5 customers while he watches them?—but I will say that my biggest question mark about the finale is how they decide to handle these characters, and if they angle toward a potential spinoff that has no narrative motivation in the current moment but could scramble to find some in the three episodes remaining.

With the issue of the house apparently settled—Debbie sure went from Defcon One to “I mean, as long as we have a weekly dinner at Lip’s house” in a hurry, huh?—we’re at the point where each character will now need to find their space within the new normal. I don’t know if I’d say that “Survivors” did much to tap into the natural momentum of the season’s final act, but admittedly the simple proximity to the end tends to make me more invested in what’s happening even if it isn’t necessarily earned, which is making this stretch of the series dull if not necessarily tortuous.

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Stray observations

  • As with many previous moments related to the show’s amnesia about its own past, they do not get points for admitting that no one knows who Liam’s legal guardian is within the show as though it justifies the show’s refusal to acknowledge that it was Fiona, and she left without considering this. It was still very, very dumb.
  • Given the comic resolution to Lip and Brad being kidnapped, it seems safe to say that the crime boss is happy to commit some insurance fraud and has no need to go after the parts, effectively meaning that the big freakout over the Born Free theft is over? So the point of all that was...I know, I know, it’s not worth it.
  • The choice for Ian and Mickey to sing “I Will Survive” over Terry’s burning corpse was admittedly lost on me, and I still don’t really have a clear answer, although I’m reminded by my Googling that Frank sang the song during a lucid moment back in the first season?
  • Speaking of Ian, I was absolutely perplexed when he was the one who was like “You could marry him now that he killed your father, right” during their meeting with Rachel. Ian is typically more rational than that, and so it felt like a line that would be more likely to come from Mickey between the two of them, and I’m still confused where that thinking would come from.
  • I realize that one of Shameless’ central arguments is that the problems plaguing institutions are so significant that the dysfunctional but functioning Gallaghers are far from their central problem, but it’s still weird that neither Debbie’s unhinged discussion with the clinic nurse nor Liam’s discussion with DCFS resulted in either party reporting them in some capacity.
  • Beyond the fact that it served no purpose beyond bringing back Joshua Malina, that little “because they defunded the police, SWAT is just me and a sniper” line in Carl’s storyline was wildly misjudged, not unlike the both sides-isms of the cancel culture story last week.
  • Veronica step-brother-son is stressed because his Weedle card is missing? His WEEDLE card? Kid, unless it was a shiny, you’re going to be able to replace your Weedle card no problem. Chill out.
  • “It freaks me out when you’re here by yourself”—after only Tommy appeared in the seventh episode, only Kermit appears here, and I agree with Kevin. It freaks me out as well.
  • What was with that establishing shot of the Kentucky border that made it seem like they were entering Hicksville?
  • I was preparing a whole rant about how Kevin was going to go “make some more fries” since the show has previously suggested the Alibi has a magic kitchen somewhere, but then he just went to the microwave, which is an acceptable justification if a bad statement for the quality of the food at the Alibi.
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Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.