A “Cascading Failure”—the name of tonight’s episode of Shameless—happens when one part of a system shuts down, causing an eventual chain reaction of breakdowns. When the first part stops working, the rest of the network is forced to pick up the slack, shouldering more of the load to keep things up and running. Fiona—the serial slack-picker-upper of the Gallagher family—keeps the system fully operational in spite of her failed parents, but now, after a despicable betrayal by Frank, she finds herself cut off from her siblings and unable to fix things on her own. Her system is officially shut down.
For the most part, the hour is focused almost entirely on restoring operations, and for that reason, it’s successful as an episode. It’s fairly straightforward television for once with less “checking in” than the show has felt the need to do in past weeks. Though there still is a bit of hopping around, particularly because the six Gallagher kids are separated, these all are in service to the larger plot of the episode. There’s a problem—they’re separated—and the parts of their universe come together to restore order.
Though we’ve never really heard mention of it, apparently the five younger Gallaghers have been taken out of their home before. Things aren’t quite what they expected, though—Ian and Lip are sent to a group home for older troubled boys, Carl and Liam are placed with a biracial gay couple bent on adopting Liam even if it means dealing with Carl, and Debbie, in what has become a theme throughout the season, is left to fend for herself under the rule of taskmistress Mama Kamala.
Back at the house, Fiona and Jimmy reconcile—after their sizzling fight last week, they both move toward the middle and offer the support the other needs. Jimmy doesn’t fill Fiona in about seeking comfort with Estefania, though, so they’re still going to have some things to work through in the not-too-distant future. Fiona goes to the supermarket to ask for the day off, but her frosty relationship with the rest of the staff has taken her power to blackmail the manager away from her, and she is forced to resign. She returns home to a strikingly quiet house that feels even more empty without the carnage and chaos she’s used to.
Fiona asks Kevin and Veronica to volunteer to foster the children, but they’re too busy trying to conceive a child of their own using Veronica’s mother as a surrogate. With last week’s turkey baster IVF plan having failed, they’re resorting to more…direct…means of insemination. Maybe it’s just because I’ve always found them likeable and their intentions are pure, but the strangeness of their pregnancy plot—which results in a threesome with Veronica’s mother—doesn’t really bother me as much as many of the show’s other absurd moments have.
Fiona realizes that the best way to get the kids back is, unfortunately, her father. “Why does it always come down to Frank?” she asks, calling him a “sad-ass Obi-Wan Kenobi.” He’s her only hope. Frank enlists a blonde-wigged Sheila to play the kids’ missing mother Monica (Joan Cusack and Chloe Webb do share a passing resemblance) and the two attend a mandatory parenting class. Every once in a while, William H. Macy’s craven Frank hits a sweet spot, where he’s just as disgusting and infuriating as ever, but it just works better. After quitting drugs cold-turkey, he’s a sweaty mess in the class, but knows he needs to pass a drug test to have any chance at putting back together the family he tore apart in the first place. Watching him carry clean urine in his mouth for his test was kind of sickening, but, like with his success as a drug mule, Frank is surprisingly accountable in these strange situations when the stakes are high.
Meanwhile, Mandy and Ian switch places for a couple of conjugal visits—Mandy and Lip’s rehabbed relationship seems to be going strong and Mickey invites Ian over for a night of Van Damme and Seagal role-playing. From the outset, the show has always handled Ian’s sexuality respectfully, while acknowledging that being gay and poor is doubly hard for young men like him and Mickey. Mickey’s father Terry (Dennis Cockrum) returns home early, discovering their secret, beating them bloody, and holding them hostage at gunpoint. He calls for a prostitute, ordering his son to have sex with her while Ian sits and watches. It’s ghastly and hard to watch in a more impactful way than the show’s usual “hard-to-watch” moments.
At the end of last week’s episode, I was excited about the possibility of a larger overarching story arc that had the potential to span more than an episode or two after so many abandoned stops and starts this season. But by the end of the episode, things are pretty close to being resolved, and it feels like the plot has been given an appropriate amount of attention. If they can handle a hearing next week, the Gallagher network will be back online. But with Fiona learning that Frank was the one who reported them to protective services in the first place, we may be primed for a short circuit next week.