This week’s episode might well be called: “Bad Parenting: Can you top this?” Monica Gallagher has moved back home, and she’s a Mommie Dearest of incompetence and neglect. She can’t make a meal, can’t stand up to her lover Bob barking meanly at the children, can’t handle money, and can barely tell her kids apart. She just wants Liam, like a little brown teddy bear, to hold and keep as a souvenir.
Furious at her return, Fiona’s moved into the cavernous, empty house next door that Steve has bought them. Instead of enjoying the space, the freedom, the (small) distance, she sits by the open window to hear what’s going on in the Gallagher household, sad-eyed and lonely. A baby monitor/walkie talkie provides a lifeline to the little kids, who seem to need to keep in touch less than she does. Frantic that Monica will do damage to them, emotional and physical (shortly after Liam was born, she burned his footie pajamas with her cigarette while nursing), Fiona and Veronica visit a lawyer they’ve found on the web (where we find out Monica has only been gone for 22 months). Since her parents are clearly incompetent, can she be declared Liam’s guardian? No such luck, it seems, as he, and the other kids, would probably just end up in foster care while the case slogged on.
Frank, in his never-ending ratcheting up of self-involved thoughtlessness, ratchets it up yet another notch. An investigator is tailing him to prove he doesn’t deserve his disability check, because he’s not really disabled. The investigator’s car crawls behind Frank, hour after hour, as he walks through the neighborhood, just waiting for him to show some energy. The guy will have a long wait. Meanwhile, Carl’s in the backyard rigging up a ramp contraption that he hopes will send him soaring on his bike above the backyard. He lands with an ugly thud, and comes to Frank: “It really hurts. I think my arm is broken.” Frank, seized by an amoral genius idea, gets the investigator to follow him in his car until he turns a corner, at which point the already injured Carl shoots out into the street on his bike, and gets hit. His arm’s broken, shouts Frank, who now has ammunition to use against the investigator. He tells Carl to scream just a couple more times for good effect. (Lip later punches him for this, and Frank mutters, “Kids.”)
Amazingly, this is not the worst bit of parenting this week. Karen agrees to go with her father Eddie to the Promise Keepers meeting, which involves teen girls dressing up like Priscilla Presley in 1966, confessing their sexual urges or experiences, and then creepily pledging their chastity to their fathers. For a minute, it looks like the family will be reunited, as Sheila, weepy-eyed, takes adorable dad-and-daughter photos with her pink camera, and they all share a meal together. But things go wrong at the Purity Ball. Most of the young women talk of their first-base shenanigans. Then Karen stands up. Is it cruelty or a true desire to get it all out and get it behind her that prompts her to describe all the boys, the girls, the orgies, the dildo? We’ll never know, as her father begins screaming halfway through her detailed confession that she’s a whore. When she gets home, crying, she heads to the basement and destroys every clown painting he has.
Sheila, to her credit, slams into Eddie for how he’s treated Karen. (This goofy fruitcake is the only good parent of the bunch.) She’s wailing on him, smacking his shoulders with her fists, before she realizes he’s run into the street and so has she. After sending Eddie away and telling him to never, ever come back, Frank sees her and calls out, “You’re outside.” She hops with delight, delirious to be out of the house. It’s a turning point. Of course, her reward is heading back into the house with Frank.
Ian, arguably, has the most complicated life of all. He has two lovers, one facing a prison term for robbing the other, with lots of secrets and potential blackmail dotted in for good measure. He visits Mickey in prison, who threatens him with harm for saying “I miss you,” but then seems to warm up when Ian laughs it off. (There’s something psychologically dark, rich, and oedipal about Ian’s attraction to another inconsistent good-for-nothing who can’t be relied upon to show him consistent affection.) Mickey faces a reasonable jail sentence, but realistically, he knows he’ll be in far longer: Even he predicts he’ll snap and beat up the guy who keeps stealing his Jell-O. Things only get more complicated for Ian. DNA tests show that while dark-skinned Liam really is Frank’s kid (Nana Gallagher, Frank weakly explains, had an affair with a sax player); Ian is not.
Monica has no real explanation for who Ian’s father is (apparently, he’s one of Frank’s brothers); she just seems baffled and a little put out that anyone expects her to remember that far back. Indeed, Chloe Webb plays Monica as someone getting over a hangover, picked up back in 1974. The only time her eyes sparkle with any life is when Frank’s in the house. She’s his soul mate, Frank explains to Kev, and the two fine actors play off each other like people who indeed have been together nearly twenty years. They had good sex, he reminds her, and tells Bob not to underestimate him based on the fit of his Wranglers. “I’m a grower, not a show-er.”
Frank’s all for signing Liam over to Monica — he’ll be able to grab the settlement that’s due to them both, and he figures, probably correctly, that she’ll soon tire of motherhood again and just return the baby. But Fiona’s not having it. At a family dinner where Ian’s paternity is revealed, Fiona, who has accidentally started calling Monica “mom” again, lays down the law: If their mother loves any of them, even a little, she’ll leave Liam and then she’ll leave. Fiona storms out, and so do the rest of the kids — they’re not going to make the same mistake as last week. They know whose side they’re on now.
At the very end of the episode, Monica, perhaps realizing she and Bob are more “Sid and Nancy” than “Cliff and Clair” hands Liam back. Fiona, eyes welling up with tears, nods in thanks and calls her “mom,” acknowledging her kindness and eleventh-hour good sense. As Monica and Bob’s truck drives off into the sunset, we can’t help but feel the family would have been even better off if Frank had been sitting in the flatbed.