Halfway through Shameless’ third season, the show continues to ask hard questions that willingly lack easy answers. Frank—as much the fool as he is the Gallagher family’s mad King Lear—is probably the source of most of them. This season, more than ever before, John Wells and his team have asked, “What can Frank do to his children is too despicable for them to forgive him?” Weeks ago, we saw Debbie of all people snap, attacking Frank after he broke a school project he’d failed to help her with. Last year, Lip and Frank were at war all season. Frank’s children’s loyalty has shown its cracks here and there, but I was left wondering what a final straw—if one was even possible—would have looked like. After last week’s episode, it felt like we may have finally gotten an answer.
After learning that Frank was responsible for child protective services coming in the first place, Fiona is on the warpath. In her most businesslike attire, she visits a lawyer seeking custody of her siblings. To do that, she needs to get Frank and Monica to terminate their rights, prove she can provide a stable environment, and show evidence of a steady job. In the process, she plans on cutting off Frank’s access to the home (with new locks) and source of income (with a substitute corpse for Aunt Ginger, ending his Social Security cash flow).
If Fiona’s taken one thing from her father, it’s her willingness to lie and cheat the system when she feels justified in doing so. She fakes a tax return to make it seem like she has enough money to support the children and falsifies a will for Aunt Ginger that should guarantee her ownership of the home. After a woman dies at the nursing home where Veronica works, Fiona and the others pass it off as Ginger by cutting off one of its toes. For once, I found myself really questioning Fiona here—the lengths she’s going are pretty extreme to be able to adopt her siblings. Obviously, what we’ve seen from the city’s foster system suggests that she is the most willing guardian, but is she definitively the best one?
Last week, it seemed as if the return of the children to normalcy was a foregone conclusion, but there is still the matter of a custody hearing. In the meantime, the younger Gallaghers have settled into their new roles—Carl has to deal with parental control settings on the television, a math tutor and two parents all too eager to keep tabs on him. (“They’re always around seeing if I’m OK,” he complains.) and Debbie is working in Mama Kamala’s basement swEtsy shop and getting paid in White Castle chicken rings. Before long, her emergent mean streak continues as she drugs Kamala and superglues her eyes shut before sneaking out in search of food.
At the Jacksons’, Jody is continuing in his quest for sexual stimulation, inviting a group of men over for an orgy Sheila has no plans to participate in. After an intervention, Jody hands Frank his now-useless sobriety chips, giving Frank ammunition for the pending hearing. I’ll give the show some credit for trying to connect these plotlines, but Jody’s antics have been pretty tired this season otherwise. The other side of Hymie’s family—his petulant grandmother and shamed father—come demanding Sheila share the baby and a bedraggled Karen returns, finally ready to accept the existence of her child. She seems small, beaten up by the world and seeking her mother’s arms…and eggs Benedict.
Mickey is ignoring Ian after the pair were caught in flagrante by Mickey’s father last week. Lip is deflecting Mandy’s attempts to get him to take the SATs and is helping Fiona prepare the paperwork for her court battle. Immigration officials show up at Estefania’s, forcing Jimmy to run over to play the loving husband. Estefania’s sexual rewards for his efforts, though, are soon going to prove problematic.
The other half of the show’s great question is explored…if still unanswered throughout the episode. Why does Frank care about keeping his kids so much in the first place? The obvious reason—welfare money—is surely a factor. But Frank has always seemed to take some ownership over them; like scabies, as Fiona said in this season’s premiere, he does always come back. Even though he’s a deadbeat dad, he can typically be counted on to do just enough (and nothing more). The season has been peppered with Frank’s particular parenting methods—sending Carl to camp (only after failing to scam Make-A-Wish) and helping Debbie hold her breath. These token acts of kindness—some accidental—ask yet another question: How much credit does Frank deserve for trying “just enough?”
On the periphery, more troubling signs are beginning to pop up. Never-before-seen cousin Patrick Gallagher has filed his own fake will for Aunt Ginger and may have control of the family home. Jimmy is growing more and more concerned about Fiona’s quest—de facto fatherhood probably wasn’t ever in his plans, and although he’s handled added responsibility well so far, something seems like it’s going to give here.
A lot will be written about the Fiona/Frank faceoff in the courtroom because it is great theater that taps into a welcome ambiguity. Does Frank really care about keeping his kids or is it all a part of a greater scheme? Are we rooting for Fiona to win custody of the children and, therefore, signing away any real hope for a future for her in the process? Is either the right option for the children?
Emmy Rossum’s Fiona is a force of nature in the courtroom as she and Frank battle over the responsibility of custody. Rossum had done a lot of press in advance of this episode (perhaps seeking an award to match her first name) and for good reason—she’s a riveting presence and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. When she tells the story of Frank’s first abandonment—she was six at the time—it becomes clear that even I’ve been beguiled by Frank and was probably wrong to believe anything he said in the first place.
In the end, they reach a compromise where Fiona will have guardianship but Frank will maintain the perks of parenthood with even less responsibility than in the past. In effect, nothing has actually changed in the present, but Fiona has no choice but to be in this for the long haul, now. Doors are closing for Fiona, but this episode does open plenty of windows for what’s to come in the season’s second half.