Shameless Season 9 Episode 11 Review: The Hobo Games

Fiona's downward spiral finally has major collateral damage in this significant episode. Has Shameless been a tragedy all along?

This Shameless review contains spoilers.

Shameless Season 9 Episode 11

Before there was Hobo Loco “Mofo,” there was Four Loko. Still an infamous (and maybe even popular?) beverage, I can recall its original formula from my collegiate days… back before it was changed to appease the several states where it was banned for combining alcohol with caffeine. Not that I blame those states considering one of the few times I had Four Loko, it led to the worst hangovers of my life. I only mention it now because its Shameless doppelganger, “Hobo Loco,” appears to be causing all sorts of narrative blackouts on Shameless this week.

Indeed, last week ended with a stark cliffhanger when Fiona Gallagher rallied her entire family in order to intimidate a new pretentious yuppie racist and wound up being escorted by the popo to jail for punching the said racist out. Yet when “The Hobo Games” opens, Fiona is long out of the slammer and digging her hole even deeper than the seeming bedrock she struck last Sunday, Kev has “decided” to get a vasectomy, and Frank and Mikey are now besties, bunking in the street. Did we miss an episode ourselves or has everyone been drinking that darn Hobo Loco?

The answer, I think, is something a little sadder than that. As we realize by this episode’s truly heartbreaking cliffhanger, the writer’s room has not actually forgotten the recent reintroduction of consequence (well, sans the Frank/Ingrid storyline); they’re just recalibrating for Emmy Rossum’s exit from the series. In fact, we knew that it wasn’t until mid-production of season 9’s back-half that producers knew for sure that Rossum was leaving Shameless after nine seasons, and I suspect this episode’s time-jump is the first hour we can actually see that transition affecting the storytelling. It is the hour where most of the remaining Gallaghers—mainly Debbie, Carl, and Lip—saw their narrative threads intertwine in a way almost completely devoid of Fiona’s influence, and then it’s also the one that ends with Lip’s commandment to Fi: he wants his big sister “out of the fucking house.”

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And to be fair, she certainly fucked up this week, but not in the way Lip necessarily perceives it. Clearly written in a way to force audiences to choose sides, it’s best to get into how and why that battle line was drawn. Last week Xan* was readmitted to the Gallagher madness after her deadbeat mother proved to still be a deadbeat. It felt like a natural development given it was unlikely that a mother who abandoned her child once was really ready to commit for the long-haul. Lip should know after being raised by Frank and Monica.

However, I was curious that since Lip now had a little perspective on his own life, and for months he hasn’t been obsessing over this child’s well-being, if he still wanted to be essentially a guardian to another sibling. As it turns out, he doubles and triples down on becoming Xan’s surrogate father. He’ll even do it the right way this time by going straight to social services and beginning the mountainous paperwork he must now climb.

And that’s where Fiona’s failures, perceived and real, come in. When the episode starts, Fi has bruises and scratches we can’t explain and is awakening in little better than a crack den with a rumpled cocktail dress on. She snatches some Oxy and runs for the door. To Fiona’s credit, she hasn’t sunk so low as to be downing the opioid, but she’ll sell it to pay for some utilities. It is not necessarily a shock that she is still living inside of a bottle, even after a time-jump from her arrest, but back in season 4, going to jail and almost prison scared her and Lip enough for him to give her some tough love about cleaning up her shit, and for her to reevaluate her self-destructive life choices.

I imagine the repetition in season 9’s downward spiral has something to do with Rossum’s desire to jump off this merry-go-round, and yet I do wish some repetitiveness had been experienced rather than the rest of the Gallaghers shrugging off an offense that should be risking Fiona’s freedom. Instead they’re turning a blind eye when she’s going to bed drunk and bitter at 11am. It also has disastrous consequences when Lip goes to DFCS in order to avoid the same pitfalls as before. Unsurprisingly, his earnest plea leads to an unannounced inspection of the Gallagher house, and quite expectedly, our South Siders ain’t exactly up to code.

Ignoring the unlikeliness that there’d be an inspection on the same day Lip went to DFCS, it is a terrific go-to cringe when an authority figure is allowed to see the squalor we as viewers come to take for granted. There’s a hole in the floor as Debbie and Kelly are in the midst of replacing furnaces, and worse they’ve left Franny, as well las Kev and V’s kids, unattended in the downstairs while playing in the background in the night’s worst storyline. (Seriously, who is really invested in Debbie trying to steal Carl’s girlfriend via her continued narrative-convenient dabble between being bi and straight?) Nevertheless, this is really just set-up to put Fiona in hot water.

No one asked Fiona to watch Debbie or Veronica’s children, nor did she even know Lip was going to DFCS that day, much less to be prepared for a spur of the moment inspection. She answered the door like a reasonable person and was left to pick up pieces to an unreasonable degree by Lip. The house is in usual Gallagher chaos, a fact that was never negated by Fiona’s sobriety in the past. Her biggest mistake might’ve been to tell the truth that Xan sleeps on the couch, but then again, “Phillip” did not share with her that he was buying a bunkbed. Of course Fi is at least partially responsible for this clusterfuck, because she is clearly drunk (or hungover) in the middle of the day, a fact the DFCS inspector sees and likely smells too.

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When Phillip comes back, he tries to smooth things up, but it’s already over; this house is not applicable for foster care. Yet we as viewers, know Lip is wrong to choose this moment to knock Fiona down for her growing alcoholism. For apparently months now, Fi’s been on a downward trajectory and the younger brother who also circled this drain has failed to throw much of a lifeline or even suggest she attend AA with him. Rather he has watched on as passively as the audience at his sister giving into the same genetic demons he inherited from Frank. And now that he is finally making his argument against Fi’s drinking, it is only in order to blame her for a situation he shares some responsibility in, and is honestly more Debbie’s fault than Fi.

“Old Fiona” wouldn’t have been able to spin the hole in the floor that Debs created any better, nor would she be able to impress a DFCS inspector that Debbie is a responsible adult when she is trying to reenact an American Pie direct-to-video movie in the backyard.

And that is why I suspect audiences are inclined to side with Fiona: Lip isn’t trying to save Fi’s soul; he is blaming her failures for his and his family’s collective ones. Of course things only get worse and become a slow-motion train wreck as we see Fiona mistakenly share her budding alcoholism in front of Jason, a kid Lip’s sponsoring and who the show only seemingly remembered in order to force Fi off-screen. Aye, Jason spends his hundredth day of sobriety begging for her open bottle of vodka.

Once again, Fi makes a bad situation worse via her own problems: she really can’t have a conversation without pouring herself a cup of Russian hospitality on the rocks? Her own alcoholism unwittingly tempts a recovering alcoholic who Lip is incredibly concerned about when the script needs him to be. But it is par for the course that Lip, at the end of his rope for a multitude of reasons, is given the last piece of evidence he needs to condemn his sister.

For consequence after consequence is cascading atop Phillip Gallagher this week. Introduced to a seemingly dippy sitcom narrative involving Tami ghosting him after Xan shows up at his door—an awkward development given how empathetic she was to the child last week—it turns out to be something much more massive. Tami is pregnant with Lip’s child. Worse still for the 20-something college dropout, she is using this very justified reason to ghost him as she debates whether she’ll keep the baby or not. Either way, she doesn’t want him involved in this life-changing decision. Right now, Lip is fighting an uphill battle to make Xan an official surrogate daughter for the rest of his life. And yet, on some level, he knows it is unlikely he’ll win this fight as a single young man wanting to adopt a prepubescent girl. But if Tami chooses to keep her child, he really will be a father for the rest of his life… and he may not even be part of the one experienced by the newborn.

The contrast between whether he wants Tami to have a baby, and whether he’ll then be part of that family, with his struggles to save Xan from “the system” offers a lot of narrative angst for Lip. Wonderful angst that does something new with the character. But for right now, it is all a pretext for the rage that follows. When Jason reveals to Lip that it was Fiona who poured his first drink that resulted in a heroin needle, it’s a tremendous scene for Jeremy Allen White. It’s been months, maybe a whole season, since the actor has had a moment as good as the seething fury that boils over Lip’s face at the revelation Fiona began Jason’s temptation. Lip barely says a word in response, nor does he need to. Jason is practically pleading with Lip not to blame Fiona, but it is debatable whether he even hears those warnings, as the entire screen is clouded by a self-righteous anger that is blinding the soft-spoken Gallagher.

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Thus we are simply waiting for the train to make the hideous screech of derailment as Fiona sits on a couch, eating candy corn and playing the embarrassing big sister to a tee for Carl. Then Lip enters.

The agony of the sequence is Lip is absolutely justified in his fury at Fiona, but he takes it too far. Unlike the DFCS disaster, she is more directly responsible for Jason’s relapse because she herself couldn’t control her own addiction long enough to not booze in front of a stranger in the middle of the day, and she is too self-involved to initially realize the horror that came afterward. Of course as Jason admits, even in a form of mealy-mouthed self-loathing, it is still at the end of the day his own bad decision that she was totally unaware of being made. And there’s the rub. Due to pressures falling on Lip from a thousand different directions, he is going to use this genuinely innocent screw-up not to try and save Fiona, but to abandon her.

He demands she leaves the house and no sibling looks ready to lift a finger to save her from Lip’s wrath. Given that this is Rossum’s last season, it is inevitable this will in some form be the reason Fi exits the show. The frustration of it is the sheer hypocrisy on the part of Lip. Rather than trying to prevent Fiona’s drinking from becoming a problem—one that ruined his life when he let it get him kicked out of the University of Chicago—he is using it as an excuse to turn his back on Fiona. The sister who raised him is becoming a drunk, so she must go, yet he’ll ignore that Frank shows up and sleeps in whenever he wants? Even though Frank has taken active steps at ruining each of their lives numerous times in the past, and would undoubtedly be a bigger red flag to DFCS than Fiona’s bloodshot eyes?!

But on a certain level, this is a fitting resolution between Lip and Fiona’s relationship. While both are fiercely protective of the rest of their clan, often taking turns between who is the most responsible, when one steps out of line, the other is unforgiving. It was tough love that Lip offered Fiona when she first fell in season 4, but it was on the edge of cruelty, and arguably a subconscious revenge for Fiona kicking him out of the house when he attempted to not even finish high school in the second season. She took a tough love approach on him back then, and he returned it in spades. Later, after he had blown his own opportunities, she mortgaged the house on her own entrepreneurial gambit for middle class stability, a gambit he disapproved of, assuming she was as much a screw-up as he’d become. She spat it back, saying she won’t throw her life away like he did.

Now here she is, again on the edge of the abyss, and Lip at his own low-point won’t reach out. In fact, he pushes her right over the precipice. It’s devastating, but in retrospect perhaps the most honest development. Even so, Lip has broken the golden Gallagher rule: family first.

As shitty as what happened to Xan and Jason are, Fi’s family and the Gallaghers are at their strongest when they rally. Like Fiona did when Lip and his siblings were almost swallowed by the system in season 3 due to Frank calling DFCS on them,;or just like they did when Fiona regained Liam after Frank abandoned the youngest sibling to drug dealers; or like when Fiona helped Lip and company avoid being killed by other drug dealers when she revealed where she hid her share of Monica’s “inheritance” and then threatened said drug dealers on their behalf.

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Gallaghers need to have each other’s back, and Lip’s failure to have Fi’s will be the tragedy of season 9 and perhaps the whole series. While Fiona is doomed to leave the home at the end of this season, my guess is there will be a few more twists to make the repercussions of Lip’s demand come back to haunt him. And as viewers it certainly will haunt us, as I still don’t see how this show works without Fiona.

In any event, it is a successful creation of a carefully designed castastrophe that is only off-set by comedy surrounding Frank and Mikey. While the main storyline is all about fallout these days, the comic relief remains in a universe where a fertility doctor doesn’t call the cops on an imbalanced woman who’s locked herself in the basement in order to evade medical laws. It is also one where a corporate company at least thinks it can get away with asking poor people to literally injure themselves badly enough to jump to the head an 11-hour emergency room waiting list… or said ER won’t keep the two top hobos in quarantine after they feigned the Ebola virus.

It’s nonsense, but the happy kind that involves great comic chemistry between William H. Macy and Luis Guzmán. Just the way in which Guzmán sighs “oorah” while the pair are pretending to be gay homeless veterans is worth a star in the below rating. As is the fair dark humor at the expense of well-meaning liberals who are guilted into giving money to LGBTQ homeless veterans, as opposed to any other serviceman sleeping on the street. And their friendship turning violent during a run on the train tracks is a delirious climax to a two-episode arc that I honestly wish lasted longer.

Meanwhile, Frank made the right call in picking the Hobo Games over Ingrid. While the games are incredibly unsafe, he had a legitimate shot at making some serious money in the games while he was always going to abandon his responsibility to Ingrid, even if her “test” was manipulative absurdity. Hence she decides to go back to her ex-husband and (rationally) chooses to keep only two of her six embryos. It is there that Frank fails a real test when he is confronted with a contract meant to waive his rights as a father over Ingrid’s children and uses the moment to shake down the ex for as many zeroes as a doctor’s income can reasonably write.

Granted those are really Carl’s children. It is the seed of a narrative that undoubtedly will come back to haunt the West Point-bound lad in season 10 with far more interesting (if queasy) repercussions than a dippy love triangle with Debbie. But that’s probably for next year. This year is about to become a long goodbye.

Most Shameless Quotes of the Week

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“Wow, your blood is basically jet fuel.” – Marketer to Frank.

“Oorah.” – Mikey.

“You’re still making the wings, right?” – Kev.

“I want you out of the fucking house.” – Lip.

*Thank you to all the readers who reminded me last week that Amirah Johnson’s Xan is named Xan (and not Sam, as I misremembered). 

Read our complete coverage of Shameless Season 9 and episode guide here.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.


4 out of 5