At the top of tonight’s Shameless, Frank laments that casual viewers who skipped last week missed a “great episode.” This may be so, but it’s okay since this is hands-down the best Shameless we’ve had all season and is a contender for one of the series’ greatest. This week’s “Iron City” reminds us once again just how impossible it is to categorize Shameless as anything other than sometimes brilliant. I may have had issues about how Fiona’s personality could make the mistake that she did last week when she brought the wrong kind of snow into her siblings’ living room, but the aftermath of that is not only stripped to its emotionally exhausting core this week, it reaches a level of cathartic complicity with the Gallagher clan that is unknowable with almost other television series. This is shamelessly, and tragically, great.
“Iron City” pulls you in fast by throwing viewers into the world of iron and bars with its entirely earnest look at the process of being booked and jailed. Unlike most shows or stories that gloss over the humiliating terror that comes with being turned into fiercely violated cattle within the state’s correctional facilities, Shameless chooses to linger without an ounce of irony upon Fiona’s degradation after leaving cocaine within baby Liam’s reach. She is fingerprinted, photographed, disrobed and anally probed in a scene-by-scene account of the meat being made. Yet, the show takes a remarkably restrained approach to these horrors by never leaving for more than a moment the edges of Emmy Rossum’s soul-searing eyes. Last week, I applauded the actress’ ability to find the truth in a complete breakdown of total failure during the episode’s final moments, and tonight was a 50-minute encore of that moment. Fiona has never been more vulnerable than in the horror of going to county, yet so much of this stems from the mental anguish and guilt over what happened to Liam. And she has plenty of reasons to truthfully blame herself.
Lip surely does. As expected, Lip internalizes the danger in this family crisis by taking on the responsibility of being the only viable adult around. And he has reason, between Frank, Monica, and Fiona’s recent screw-up, he is the only 18+ Gallagher doctors would even consider having a major conversation with. And he gets more than that when it is revealed that Liam has had two seizures due to the cocaine overdose and given the child’s developing mind, there is a large chance that it has done permanent brain damage to his ability to learn, develop, read, or function in an everyday formality. The pure tragedy of what happened only fully sets in when Liam and the audience witness the 3-year-old child strapped into tubes and wires, a breath away from what could have been death. If Shameless is a comedy, then how come it is one of the few shows that so unflinchingly deals with the realities of characters’ choices like this?
Another example of a startlingly unsentimental approach is the fate facing Frank. Honestly, until this week, I have been waiting to see how the Gallagher paterfamilias would cheat death, so he could resume his heavy drinking and heavier failing at being a decent human being. It did not sink in until the doctor gave him the bad news that this is likely how it ends. And isn’t that the case with so many addicts, boozers, and other shortsighted folks in life? Maybe that’s how it hits us all? With the realization that there is no short-cut, and Frank’s hard-drinking has left him in a position where he will not be able to get affordable healthcare (or a liver transplant) in time, there is a freezing splash of water rarely felt on television drenching the frame. When Frank entered the Christian hospice center recommended for his meager means, it finally hit home: if he stays here, this is where he dies. This is how it ends for Frank Gallagher, not with an uproarious toast, but with a self-denying wheelchair roll away from verity.
Then again, maybe not. Frank has an important part to play in his children’s lives. With one foot in the grave, he has to stand-in as a father so that Child Services do not take Liam away from his siblings. I had previously speculated that Lip would be at odds with the possibility of Frank getting custody of Liam, and possibly the rest of the kids, but with Frank’s time so limited, he appears to be the blessing Lip needs to keep it in the family. It is telling that the final shot of the episode is all of the Gallaghers, even Frank, embracing Liam as he comes out of the hospital, juxtaposed with Fiona getting out of jail because Mike paid her bail (and implied her now inevitable termination from World Wide Cup). The family is however fleetingly reunited around Liam, and Fiona is alone with her own grief and self-hating blame, despite whatever protestations are made by Kev and V.
Here is the real drama for the coming episodes. The family will band together to keep Child Services away from Liam, but will they also keep him away from Fiona? Or will she do so herself? Lip ferociously blames Fiona by lumping her in the same pile as Frank and Monica. When she finally gets her phone call, he hesitates to even take it. After he finally does so, he lays on thick the damage the cocaine may have done to Liam and verbally smothers Fi’s face in it like the white powder itself. Later, he refuses to even consider finding a way to pay Fiona’s $10,000 bail. It is a tender moment when he finally treats Carl like as an adult, as the children on the show continue to grow. Carl is finally realizing how “fucked up” the world is and his family in particular might be. Yet, it is he who contacts Mike to bail Fiona out, when Lip has some rich contacts of his own, including Jimmy’s dad. He would not consider exhausting even a few phone calls, as he appears ready to take on the responsibility of parenthood like Fiona before him. The only silver lining to this self-destructive martyring is that Lip also realizes he is doing better at school when his roommate brings him his term-paper grades…in the hospital waiting room where his brother rests in intensive care.
Lip is at the ultimate crossroads of being there for a family that he views as helpless without him and getting the help he really needs to make a difference in their lives, as well as his. Unfortunately, he has a real reason to pause now. It is unclear how much longer Frank will be on this show, but no matter the funeral date, he has no future as a parent for the Gallagher siblings, and Fi is destined to be a pariah both legally and probably morally. Other than Kev and Veronica’s support, the noose is already tightening. Lip not only has an excuse to drop out now, he has a burgeoning necessity to. There is no easy answer for what is to come. For a show that prides itself on its snark, Shameless has found an urgent sincerity in the flames of the Gallagher children’s unity, and it is impossible to look away from.
Most Shameless Quotes of the Week:
-DOCTOR: Silly me. I should have skipped the Narcan and let you OD. I suspect our billing department would have sent me on a Carnival cruise if I had just let you choke to death on your own vomit.
FRANK: No, it’s fine. I’ve done five speedballs before, no problemo.
-KEV: Christ, I am tired of being poor.
-Sammi: Liam is black?