Shameless Recap: The Hammer Comes Down

Ethan Cutkosky as Carl, William H. Macy as Frank, Emma Kenney as Debbie. Photo: Cliff Lipson/Showtime
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Editor’s Rating

As we arrive at mid-season, each Gallagher tiptoes a high wire. They each face a choice: Either scooch forward, or slowly retreat down the ladder.

Over the course of five seasons, I found it easy to assume that certain family members would be fated to follow in the footsteps of a forebear — the ever-uneven Ian after Monica; the criminal Carl after Frank; the obligatory parent, Debbie, after Fiona — but Shameless is not predictable in the usual melodramatic ways. Stories rarely develop along the path of least resistance. Characters may surprise or disappoint us at the turn of a dime, making decisions we never saw coming. Yet, however oddly, things always work out for the Gallaghers.

If anything, Shameless tracks how families cope in the most bombastic, disproportionate ways. And to cope, one must simply scooch forward.

The most painful moments of "NSFW" circulate around Carl, who has struggled to reconcile his newfound gangster identity with the world he left behind for juvie. Having shunned the South Side for a mid-range hotel with his large, brooding companion Nick, Carl thinks he's living in a hip-hop video. He rolls around the lobby in a robe, tosses muffins in slow-motion, talks about titties, and drinks 40s on the hood of their new car. It's difficult to watch someone so young as he desperately claws his way into dystopian adulthood. And soon, the pretense behind his theatrics is stripped away.

Still devastated over the loss of his new bike, Nick tracks down the little kid who may or may not have stolen it, and kills him with the hammer he carries around like a club. We knew this was coming — it's been obvious since episode two — and I wish that it had been written with more nuance and enacted with greater subtlety. Nick's character is not unlike Of Mice and Men's Lennie Small: gentle yet disturbed, aware of his difference in the world, yet not in control of his own impulses. The idea that this fateful urge led Nick to murder a child is horrifying no matter how shakily rendered. (Also, it's glaringly linked to the PTSD of killing his own father.) Yet, I wanted to see something different — a lengthened climax, a struggle, some hint as to Nick's internal goings-on, or perhaps, a better actor. Nonetheless, the murder drives Carl back to Fiona, opening his eyes to the weight she has borne to keep their lives together.

In moments like these, I keep wondering if Carl has it in him to crack a little bit. Is he so hardened that he'll be forever doomed to avoid emotion? It seems possible to see emotions pass through Carl, but it's difficult to tell if he can actually feel them. They may simply be shards of pain that get shoved into a dark, rumbling cache of future violence.

In the end, Carl digs up a duffel bag of cash in a barren field near the El, and gifts it to Fiona. At least there's that.

Which brings us to the elder Gallagher. Shameless has deliberately postponed Fiona's abortion, building further tension around her decision to go through with it. It's no surprise that Fiona's resolve endures, though. Having paled over the course of several grueling episodes, she lies back with wide eyes, bracing for the pain — but she does not crack. With steely purpose, she deflects Sean's concern by joking about her burrito-sized maxi pad, and then requests a post-procedure milkshake. But come episode's end, Fiona does crack, and finally allows Sean to comfort her. These are the moments in which I appreciate Sean's quiet, vanilla consistence. Though a man of few words, he is perpetually supportive as the rest of Fiona's world crumbles.

Meanwhile, the couple who bought the Gallaghers' house at auction rescind the bid after coming face-to-face with its palace-in-decay condition. Fiona jumps at the opportunity to rebuy her home, but realizes she needs her husband, Gus (remember him?), to sign something that recognizes his lack of property claim. He refuses, overturns a coffee cup on the legal documents, and proclaims he doesn't do favors for people who are not friends.

I must rebut this scenario. Sure, Gus is hurt … but he married a woman he hardly knew after two weeks of good sex. Yes, Fiona is a shitty partner, but isn't he also to blame for that lapse in judgment? Regardless, Gus has been portrayed as a truly good guy, which led me to believe that he would sign the papers. For all he knows, it would benefit several children who are now (technically) homeless. Furthermore, why would he tie himself to someone who consistently injects drama into his life? This twist of cruelty seems uncharacteristic, created out of the necessity to delay Fiona's reacquisition of Gallagher Manor.

Perhaps it's all for the best — as established, Carl did just gift Fiona a ton of cash. Unless, of course, the cash's origin is called into question at some point down the line. That would never happen, right?

Still on the path to domestic disharmony, Debbie finds it in herself to warm to Erica's affections. After a midnight cuddle session in which the drunken, in-remission cancer patient uses Debbie as her Melissa Etheridge body pillow, Debbie seemingly considers the possibility of intertwining herself with a woman. I can't tell if this will shape up to be a mother-daughter thing, or if it will transform into Frank's icky, incestual dream of lesbian romance.  

As Lip mopes around campus, sleeping on the floor of his dorm while hugging that damn Klimt book, the infamous nude of Helene ends up on Gawker. No one deserves this kind of exploitation, but I can't bring myself to feel badly for Helene. She's a duplicitous witch. Desperate to repair the damage, Lip begs Amanda to retract the photo, but she's busy trying to flee the university "feminazis." Subsequently, Lip is called to testify about his relationship in scintillating detail. In a spiral, he begs his superiors to understand the mutuality of his professorial tryst, and pathetically pleads with Helene to take him back. Neither appeal is well-received, and he's left to drink away his sorrows with the sloshy Professor Youens. (Youens has grown on me, even though he seems to be a less despicable version of Frank.) It's tempting to worry about Lip's mental state, but I suspect he's too smart to entangle himself further within Helene's nasty web. On the other hand, something tells me the South Side in Lip isn't quite ready to let it lie.

In my version of Shameless, he'd turn it around by winning a Nobel Prize, leaving Helene to wallow in her petty manipulations.

Without a clue about how to date or merely flirt with a crush, Ian attempts dinner with his cute fireman-sculptor crush, Caleb. It's cut short when Caleb is called to a scene. Ian trails him and confirms his natural ability to handle disaster. Stay tuned for a messy firehouse relationship and montages of Ian running drills.

Shameful Observations

  • Frank to Debbie: "A woman's sexuality is as fluid as the Mississippi."
  • Debbie's trials to acquire a bougie gender-reveal-party cake are delightful. The day-old cupcakes for which she settles speak volumes about the antipathy of her situation.
  • Chuckie is living under the Gallagher porch, peeing himself to keep warm. I hate this story line. Its sadness outweighs any chance for hilarity.
  • In a creepy display of dry humping, Frank reunites with Chuckie's grandmother. (And in front of Chuckie, no less.) I hate this blossoming story line too.
  • The hipsters have officially abandoned the Alibi Room.