In this, the penultimate episode of Shameless’s stuttering third season, I found myself asking some bigger questions about what this season of television was supposed to do. After investing 11 hours of our time over the last three months, what has actually happened to the Gallagher family? Fiona’s become the kids’ guardian, but she kind of already served that role all along. Jimmy’s become a permanent member of the family, but he’s stuck and hasn’t really done anything all year.
Most of the developments this season have either been few-episode arcs—Fiona’s club management, Frank’s gay rights demagoguery—that (rightfully) went nowhere or—in the case of Karen’s coma and Kevin and Veronica’s pregnancy attempts—have involved the players on the periphery. So how far have the Gallaghers really come since the season kicked off?
Fiona is seriously turning over the thought of a move out of Chicago to Ann Arbor with soon-to-be-Dr. Jimmy. I truly never thought of this show being set anywhere other than the urban blight of the South Side, but for a brief second, I got a laugh at the thought of Fiona and the kids dealing with a maize-and-blue college town. Lip could outsmart undergrads and run afoul of the football team, Debbie could thrive in public school, Carl could kill at Pop Warner football. But I really should’ve known better—this was obviously never going to happen.
Ian is going off the rails, upset about Mickey’s impending marriage to a prostitute. Lip rightly reminds his brother that Mickey’s “a car wreck,” but Ian continues to think of Mickey as his car wreck, and the sham wedding is driving Ian to drink. Ever the masochist, he volunteers to help Mandy set up for the wedding, unfolding chairs in front of a “Mickey & Svetlana 4Ever” banner. The Ian and Mickey plot has been one of the season’s stronger ones—Ian’s idealistic love for Mickey clashing with the very real danger of its consequences in their world.
Lip is dealing with equally problematic relationship drama as he holds the smoking gun text from Mandy to Karen that led to her motor vehicle ambush. After realizing Mandy is responsible for Karen’s coma, Lip goes to talk to Kevin about the assault. Kevin’s as good at dispensing bro-y advice as he seems to be at everything else, advising Lip to cut the cord with Mandy as quick as possible. At Sheila’s, Karen returns, unable to form memories or hold a conversation. At least Karen’s demeanor has certainly improved; “She seems nicer, though,” her mother observes.
Robbed of his “voice of a movement” perks, Frank’s sleeping on the L arguing with a homeless man who claims subway squatters’ rights. “You’re a terrible homeless person,” the real bum tells Frank, enacting some “get off my lawn” justice and kicking Frank out of the car. He finds Carl walking down the street and convinces him to unlock the van in the backyard for him to sleep. For whatever reason, Carl remains the only Gallagher kid Frank hasn’t completely alienated yet, so he accedes to his father.
It’s sometimes easy to forget sometimes that Frank probably didn’t have the easiest childhood either (his mother was remarkably awful in a cast of bad, bad people) and while it’s not an excuse, it does probably explain some things about Frank’s failures as a parent. This season in particular, Frank has done right by the kids every once in a while, particularly Carl. He’s still a deadbeat, which is inexcusable no matter what the circumstances, but it’s at least in part a function of his own life exacerbated by alcoholism and borderline disorder-level megalomania.
Meanwhile, Fiona’s starring in her new full-time role at her company office. Her boss, Mike, who’s been falling for her for weeks now, finally invites her and the kids to a lakeside company camping outing for the weekend. While planning their camping trip, Fiona breaks the news to Carl and Debbie that she’s considering leaving Chicago but learns that Jimmy has already moved ahead with an application on a studio apartment, planning to leave her and the kids in arrears. After she confronts him, Jimmy claims he put in the application for the studio apartment before he and Fiona had talked, but it becomes clear that there are some deeper tensions here. He’d rather do a year alone, keeping the relationship going long-distance rather than uproot the kids. Fiona is angriest, it seems, that he’s made this decision himself, prompting Jimmy finally to reveal that he’s unhappy with Fiona’s choice to become the kids’ guardian without asking him.
Obviously, for Fiona this decision was always a no-brainer, but in taking it on without even discussing it, Fiona robbed Jimmy of any agency or voice with regard to the matter. She’s right that Jimmy should’ve known what he was getting into all along, but the extent to which she’s taken things did presume his willingness to commit himself long-term to a half-dozen children that, he finally realizes, will never go away.
Things aren’t going to be simple for Jimmy, either. Beto reminds him that he has an Estefania-sized albatross preventing his getaway to Michigan. She’s going stir-crazy locked in her apartment, calling Jimmy’s emergency number that’s supposed to be reserved for the arrival of INS agents. He ignores her call, and the next morning Beto and her father, Nando, pick him up; she’s been deported and Jimmy’s in dire straits, having seen earlier this season what angering Nando can do.
In the backyard van, Frank shares some life lessons with Carl: “People fuck up,” he says. “That’s life. Family is supposed to be forever. They’re supposed to take care of you no matter what you do. That’s the whole point. Otherwise, why bother?” In spite of Frank’s coarseness—and often failure to follow this mantra himself—it’s a nice moment for the father and son. Carl has always been the family’s hell-raiser; although his older sons have shown their latent Frank DNA at times in the past, Carl is a pre-teen Frank-lite. He suggests robbing his former foster parents’ apartment, and the two gleefully plot a caper. Carl’s heartfelt “I’m your family” and a few attempts at a secret handshake seal the deal.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Mandy starts the battle with Lip that’s been building. Despite Kevin’s advice to abstain from sex, Mandy forces Lip to have sex with her, and Lip feels sucked back in again, calling Kevin frantically from the bathroom. He leaves and goes to Karen’s to try to apologize for everything, learning that Jody is taking Karen and Hymie to Sedona to pursue alternative healing measures. Lip’s feeling understandably guilty even though the accident wasn’t his fault, and as the two reminisce, Karen either doesn’t care or just can’t. If this is the end of Jody, Karen, and the baby, I’m concerned for what Sheila’s going to have to busy herself with, but the trimming going on here probably isn’t the worst thing for a show that’s felt like it’s been struggling to keep all its balls in the air all season.
Debbie’s enjoying the camping trip, and Fiona is enjoying Mike in his tent. She realizes, though, that she’s only really using Mike as an outlet for her disappointment with Jimmy’s decision. Mike asks Fiona when she knew her relationship with Jimmy was over; the answer for me was when we saw his face after the custody hearing. She calls him, conceding that he was probably right to want to move on his own and that she still wants to make things work. The call goes to voicemail, though, as Jimmy boards a boat with Nando and rides off into the dark night.
Lip eventually shows up at the wedding and confronts Mandy for what she’s done. Ian, in the meantime, ambushes Mickey backstage with a last-ditch effort to get him to call off the wedding. They have desperate sex, and post-coitus, Ian is still trying to get Mickey to cancel the wedding. Mickey tells him he needs to grow up, and, to a certain extent, he’s right. Having a father like Mickey’s is a reality for many gay poor urban youth, and, as Mickey says, “Not everybody gets to just blurt out how they fucking feel every minute.” During the wedding, though, Ian does just that—revealing Mickey’s secret to Mandy and storming off with his equally-pissed brother.
They come home to find the police at the family home, arresting Carl for robbing his foster parents. The police are taking him away, Carl looks SCARED, and Frank is hidden safely in the backyard with their loot. In perhaps the most surprising twist of all, though, Frank comes out to confront the police and takes the blame for the robbery. It’s a well-acted scene by William H. Macy, who has done good work with an often-frustrating character over the past few weeks. The philosophy Frank outlined to Carl earlier had always felt like an excuse—no matter what he does to disappoint his children, as far as he’s concerned, they should always take him back. For once—perhaps the first time in the show’s history—Frank has stepped up for someone else with no ulterior motive. As Lip said, “Hell froze over.”
So all-in-all, it seems like the requisite amount of “stuff” happened for our 11th hour of Season 3. Time will tell if this means the end of Karen, Hymie, Jody and Jimmy, which is probably not the worst idea for a group of characters who’ve had little to do this season. I’m not sure how problematic it should be, though, that the development from Frank feels like the season’s largest development. Throughout the previous 10 episodes, at times the stakes have ratcheted up but often let us down slowly. If Frank is really going to feel the effects of his arrest, then we’re setting the scene for new and unexplored territory in Season 4. But we’ll have to see if he—and Jimmy and the various others for that matter—get let off the hook in next week’s finale.