There’s a moment about halfway through this episode when everything clicks into place, for the family and for the show. The Gallaghers execute a scheme with military precision, each family member playing their part, even Frank. Though his part seems to be watching TV, a beer in his hand, and railing at what’s wrong with America today: “And why are all the news ladies Chinese?” he cries out, as an Amber Alert for Chicago is broadcast. “They should stick to what they know — railroads. And sushi.”
This week, Little Debbie steals a kid. Which seems ridiculous at first: The Gallagher house does not want for company — but she seems to be looking for a Barbie doll of her very own. All red hair, pigtails, and cunning, she steals a little boy from the birthday party across the street, luring the 3-year-old with candy. “I wanted a little girl, but there weren’t any,” she tells a horrified Fiona, with unusual pragmatism.
It seems she’s gotten tired of playing with a sack of potatoes topped with a wool hat stuck in a broken stroller. (She’s also apparently gotten tired of playing with brother Carl, whose favorite game involves locking her in the basement: It’s called “Loser Goes to Gitmo.” We’re a little worried about Carl.)
If Shameless is a black comedy, Debbie is the one character who makes it hard to be funny. She’s clearly the most traumatized of the Gallagher kids — the older boys have each other, the younger two seem blissfully unaware of their circumstances, and Fiona gets off on the chaos. But that leaves red-haired, pig-tailed Debbie, alternatively the canniest (skimming from Unicef, scamming the welfare system) and the most heartbroken (weeping as Aunt Ginger is hauled away) to bear the brunt of poverty, abandonment, and alcoholism. No laughing matter. Psychiatrists would say that, with the kidnapping, she is calling out for attention. And that a capital crime is what’s needed to stand out in her house.
We find out about the nicked kid as Fiona and Steve, now apparently happily reunited, coo in the kitchen and discuss potential quickies at the Sheraton. He seems in love; she’s still deciding. Hearing a noise upstairs, in a house that’s supposed to be empty, they head up to investigate, frightened but bat in hand. Actually, there’s a cute scene in which Fiona sprints forward, telling Steve to watch Liam, but knight-in-shining-armor-like, he’s having none of that and grabs the bat.
As the baby they find fusses, Debbie confesses her crime, and offers an explanation. He was crying and no one was listening to him. Earlier that day, Debbie had been in the kitchen in much the same situation. “I want to make a pie,” she had announced, but over the chaos of four brothers and a broken water heater, no one heard. (Aunt Ginger would have.)
It’s bracing that, as Fiona finds out all this early in the episode, there is nothing of the nineties political correctness of child-rearing theory, no talk of a child counselor or meds. “Gallaghers do not do therapy,” Fiona announces, with (probably mistaken) pride.
Meanwhile, as the family and neighbors begin to brainstorm a way to return the child without tipping off the cops, over at Frank’s new pad, Sheila (Joan Cusack) is making Bundt muffins. Trays and trays and trays of Bundt muffins, as her Food Channel illness seems to reach a yeast-fueled peak.
She’s reacting to the stress of her husband, and his clown memorabilia collection, returning to their home. He’s set up shop in the basement because he can’t afford to both pay child support and rent his own apartment, so he’s just stretching the TV cable downstairs. It’s a development that strains credulity — and this says a lot, given the A-story of the episode. He seems unperturbed, relieved even, at the idea of Frank remaining in the home as his wife’s lover/sexual pincushion. (“Does your ass ever stop hurting?” Frank asks him, over a beer. “No.”)
His teenage daughter, Karen, though, gets the weirdness of the whole situation and acts out, trying to seduce Frank. He resists, pretty much his first responsible action of the whole series. He takes to the TV instead, narrating the search for the missing child. Little does he know his own family is behind the kidnapping. “This is what happens when the world goes crazy,” he cries out. “People steal babies, and Rastafarians can roam free.”
The Gallaghers united have birthed an elaborate scheme to return the little boy to the toddler birthday party from whence he came. (As they plan, we see flashbacks to photos of when the family was broken up and in foster care, and we see what they are fighting to hold together.) They’ll call in faux sightings of the child, spotted in his Superman costume, in a path around Chicago. Then they’ll call in sightings of him with Debbie, as if she had found and rescued him. It all involves a broken phone, split-second timing, a map, baby switch, and alibis, not to mention Debbie learning a tall tale to tell spurned-suitor Tony and the other cops. But, balletlike in its choreography, it works.
There’s a wonderful scene when Debbie and the baby reemerge on the sidewalk outside the birthday party. The little boy’s father, dazed and dizzy with relief, pulls out his wallet to give her a reward. Then, realizing no money is enough, he just begins tossing its contents out on the street at her feet. Horrifically, Frank begins to gather the bills — until Ian steps on his hand. (There’s too little of the boys in this episode, but that moment is choice.)
For a minute in the Gallagher household, all seems joyous. Debbie’s “hero” winnings have enabled her to buy a water heater for the family. Steve, thoughtfully, has bought her a baby doll to play with. (She names her Gin-Gin.) Fiona’s best friend and next-door neighbor Veronica is bubbling with delight, as is the neighborhood on her behalf: She’s finally gotten engaged to her stallion/bartender of a boyfriend Kev. (His proposal has arisen out of a misunderstanding, pressure from her mom, and liquor.)
So far, the neighbor couple has pretty much been used for sex scenes, running gags, and bum shots at the corners of the drama, but things are about to get more interesting. Because, while everything seems perfect. Kev confesses to Fiona, outside on the stoop: “I’m already married.”