Shameless Review: "Frank the Plumber" (Episode 3.09)

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<i>Shameless</i> Review: "Frank the Plumber" (Episode 3.09)

Relationships on television typically have to remain objects in motion. Happy couples make for uninteresting TV. In romantic stasis, nothing happens and plots don’t advance. Instead, we rely on these changes to create tension and momentum, learning more about our subjects by seeing how they adapt to the changing situations around them.

This week’s Shameless is all about the dynamics of the show’s relationships—the ebbs and flows that, therefore, keep plots moving. This is a moving hour—major shifts are lining up characters for big changes, new connections and con- and divergent paths. Some fight to keep their relationships together, fighting against the tide even when all the evidence suggests a change is imminent. Others, on the other hand, are building steam and realizing they have no choice but to keep moving.

Jimmy’s officially sick of “being” a Gallagher—he has to teach Fiona how to dress for her new office job, and after a night out with old friends who have left him behind, he’s forced to admit that he’s capable of more than just his coffee shop job. Add on the loss of his (stolen) car and a mugging at gunpoint and he’s done, basically. He and his Colombian shadow Beto (Bernardo de Paula, who’s been following him all season) commiserate over his misplaced silver spoon, but they both acknowledge the problems that always complicated his relationship with Fiona. Walking angrily down the city street, as ambulances whistle by and a prostitute accosts him, he’s checking out, realizing more and more how out of place he is in Fiona’s world. By the end of the episode, he’s thinking about returning to medical school. It’s not exactly an easy way out, but it’s something new—a future that looks brighter than the one Fiona faces.

Fiona’s making moves of her own, taking on a temp job at a sales agency making calls. She’s a little coarse for a stuffy office environment; improvising and adjusting to situations on the fly are what she’s best at, though the other employees encourage her to stick to the script. The particulars of her unique life interfere, though—she has to keep track of her siblings’ whereabouts, fielding questions about why Debbie is absent from school and handling Kevin and Veronica, who are off the surrogate plan and returning to making homemade pornography. They’re arguing about the potential circumcision of their potentially male potential child, forcing Fiona to check out circumcision photos gone wrong. It doesn’t get more NSFW than that.

Even with her unconventional workplace manners, though, she’s a good saleswoman, so her handsome boss is willing to overlook her missteps to the chagrin of the rest of the stereotypical office drones. On the train home, Fiona allows herself a second to smile. She knows she’s done well, entering a thrift store to pick up some new, more work-appropriate clothes.

To no surprise, things between Mandy and Lip are frosty again. Understandably stung by Lip and Karen’s past (and present, though she still doesn’t know about Lip and Karen’s reconnection last week), she’s moving her things out of the Gallagher home. Behind Lip’s back, Mandy applied to college for him and he’s angry—even though she has the best intentions, he’s against her taking control of his life and would rather do nothing. Again, Lip is a character seemingly hell-bent on preserving his own personal stasis, even though college might be his last, best chance out.

After some afternoon delight with Karen in a restroom at school, Lip seems bent on blowing off an MIT interviewer waiting at home for him. Finally, though, someone hits Lip where it hurts—suggesting he wouldn’t have gotten into the school anyway. He appeals to Lip’s competitive genes, stirring a fire in him we haven’t seen in far too long. Lip’s biting rant about the stupidity of the essay question in the first place earns him the respect of the interviewer. Much like how he doesn’t want to be forced to go to college, once there, he doesn’t want to buy into the system itself. If he’s going to be forced to change, he wants to do it on his terms. He and Mandy reconcile, and she admits she’s dreaming of getting out with him. But in reality, she wants what’s best for him, even if he won’t take her with him.

Elsewhere, Frank and Christopher have settled into a regular boho homelife complete with bloody marys, toothbrush swordfights and laughing at Garfield in the funny pages. For all his bluster, Frank is a chameleon of sorts—he can become whoever he needs to be in any situation. In this case, he stumbles into gay-rights conversation in the most self-serving way, planning to pass Christopher off as his domestic partner. He makes a quick hop onto his soapbox—lambasting “heterophobia”—before heading to the city offices to fake his way into free healthcare and other benefits.

Ever since Mickey’s father’s chilling discovery of Ian and Mickey’s relationship a few weeks ago, Mickey has been ignoring Ian’s pleas for attention…or at least acknowledgment. Mandy reveals that Mickey plans to marry a prostitute he has impregnated—it’s a swift blow to Ian’s insides. He confronts Mickey over the latter’s impending nuptials, begging him to admit to both of them that he’s gay and that they’re in love. All he gets for his trouble, however, is another blow—a vicious kick to the teeth. It’s one of the season’s more tense moments, scored exceptionally with music that builds and swells around them.

Sheila is also struggling—she’s had to confront the rottenness of her daughter Karen’s true motives for returning home. After Hymie’s birth, things have obviously passed the point of no return, but Karen’s working to bring things back to a simpler time for her and her mother, not caring how her selfish desire is hurting those around her. Sheila finds an unlikely caretaker in Debbie—opposite Joan Cusack, Emma Kenney considers to shine, tending to Sheila and showing her what real sweetness with no ulterior motive looks like. These two are a really stellar on-screen pair—they’re the mother and daughter the other deserves.

Sheila tells Debbie about her OCD—the evidence Karen used to convince the Wongs to take Hymie away—and reveals how deep her daughter has cut her. Debbie’s innocence, though, forces Sheila to confront how difficult her own illness was for Karen. When we first met Sheila, she was unable to leave her home because of her crippling anxiety, and Karen—at the beginning—was a rock for her, perhaps before she was quite ready to be.

Buoyed by Debbie’s support, Sheila apologizes to Karen for her past failures. It’s Cusack’s finest work this season, a reminder of her nuanced skill. Although things have irrevocably changed for the two of them, they can forge a better present together. After receiving a text from Lip’s phone, Karen leaves her home in the best state it’s been in in years…only to be hit by a passing car. As the blood pooled around her dries, the next morning, we find Mandy wiping blood and hair off her car. It’s pretty ghastly sight, and we’re left wondering how this huge decision will affect what is becoming a sicker love triangle by the week.

Out on the street Frank’s found a platform—hijacking a mayoral candidate’s camera crew going on a viral screed and, for once, finding an audience. Frank’s now famous—for “being gay”; his rant reverberates through Chicago’s South Side. The denizens of the Alibi (that might as well be their collective character names on IMDB) are razzing him, so he takes refuge at a gay bar, singing karaoke to the delight of his new fans. His accolades have come at a price, though, when Christopher’s mother forces an end to their domestic partnership.

Sleeping on the street, he’s awoken by lobbyist Abraham Page (Bradley Whitford(!)), who credits his role in “the most significant moment in the history of the gay rights movement.” They’re offering him a plum(ber) deal as the “Joe the Plumber” of the movement. In a really essential move for his character, Frank is set to become the face of gay rights. What could go wrong?

Honestly, this was one of my favorite episodes in what has been an admittedly uneven third season for the show. Littered with really well-acted performances, the episode captures actors unpacking major shifts for their characters—catharsis, self-actualization, desperation—in profound ways. The decisions they’re making now feel like they have real stakes in the season’s endgame; their actions will have real repercussions on the series’ direction as it moves out of the idle much of this season has seemed to be stuck in. Though I started this recap saying that change makes for good TV, give me a little more of the same from this week’s episode and you won’t find me complaining.