Frank Gallagher does the cruelest thing yet to his family: He gives them hope. Frank, at least temporarily, quits drinking and becomes something of an ideal dad. He makes Mickey Mouse–shaped pancakes for the kids, pours the orange juice, even takes everybody bowling. Lip is skeptical at the transformation; Fiona is astonished; Shelia’s frightened: Will a sober Frank crave her peculiar brand of crazy? But the little kids, sadly, are thrilled beyond belief.
It’s a moneymaking scam, of course. Frank’s been offered the chance to take part in a paid medical experiment — it turns out his body’s something of a Holy Grail for alcoholism researchers — but he has to stay clean for two weeks. (As he emerges from a vodka coma in a hospital, three doctors lean over him possessively, and one, her eyes glittering as if he were the Ark of the Covenant, says she has a proposition for him. He, an open-minded fellow, bounces back: “"Well, you're hot ... but it's been a while since I've been with a dude, never mind two.")
Two weeks sober is a lifetime in Gallagher years. Nonetheless, Frank embraces it, proudly, proclaiming that java is his addiction now. But time weighs heavy on him, and when Go Fish proves boring and sex doesn’t work (Sheila finds his penis “a gummy worm”), he turns to ripping up the walls in a doomed home-improvement project. Lip warns the younger kids not to believe in the industrious, affectionate new Frank — they’re pets to him, he warns, just like the turtle they let die when they tired of it.
Parenting is the theme, too, at the house down the block, where Kevin and V have decided to take in a foster child. Veronica’s in it for the money, but Kev’s excited; he was a foster child himself, and he’s charmingly psyched about teaching football to the kid who arrives. But the child who shows up is from another channel. HBO's Big Love, specifically: a teen refugee from a polygamous compound dressed for plowing season in Sleepy Eye. Named Ethel, the sad sack of a thing looks as bemused to be there as Kev and Veronica are to have a refugee from a religious cult in their living room. Kev suggests Parcheesi.
As Ethel settles in, tentatively, it turns out that Kev is dying to be a dad and V — who dubs the little girl “a freak” — thinks she’s there to be their maid. It’s an ugly side of her. We’re tempted to just snatch up the skittery preteen and bring her back to Juniper Creek just as protection.
Meanwhile, Lip is invited to the U. of Chicago and brings Karen, who treats it as something of a hostile alien planet. As well it is: The Prof who invited Lip warns that if he doesn’t enroll, he’ll end up knocking her up, wondering if she got pregnant on purpose, and he’ll be lucky to make assistant manager at Best Buy by the time he’s 30. It’s, excuse the expression, a sobering thought.
In an otherwise somewhat bittersweet episode, it's Ian who provides the comic relief. He may be technically in the closet, but it's not cutting down on his social life. He’s the object of affection, or at least attention, of both Kash and Mickey, two disparate suitors, indeed (Talk about ugly sides: Kash treats conceiving a child with his wife as slightly less noteworthy than stocking the beer fridge). Mickey's a passionate, needy lover, and Ian’s “booty-call” grin throughout the ep is its high point.
The low point is just as easy to pinpoint: The kids, resigned to the fact that Frank will inevitably begin drinking again, short-circuit his sobriety. His backslide, Debbie reasons, will hurt less now than it would later. But even as they pour liquor down his throat, it feels so much like a dark, wrong thing to do. Not to Sheila, though, as Frank, drunk once more, crawls back into bed with her.
Just as Frank sinks to the bottom again, Fiona hits a new low. She’s taken a job as a Hooters-type waitress, which she finds humiliating and it drives her to tears. (This doesn’t ring true: She’s pragmatic, a fighter, and would likely shrug it off.) But things are likely to get worse for her: We get a glimpse of Steve driving up to a wealthy Chicago mansion. Inside, his brother welcomes him back from “college in Michigan” and a sparkly blond girlfriend kisses him. And, by the way, his real name’s “Jimmy.” Shameless.