Oh boy, Shameless. We leave you unattended for a few weeks, and all of a sudden everything's turned upside-down. Knowing this show always saves a bit of its best drama for the middle of the season, we expected that the relatively upbeat Season 4 premiere was but a mirage, and we were right.
Around this time last season, the Gallagher clan was spread out across Chicago's foster-care system. But when Fiona stepped up and took over for Frank as the family's legal guardian, the threat of the authorities realizing the true extent of the Gallaghers' dangerous situation was finally eliminated. Or, so we thought. In her new role, Fiona would have to walk the straight and narrow.
And this season, Fiona's done anything but "behave," as part of a rapid downward spiral. She lost her good-looking (if boring) boyfriend Mike by sleeping with his addict brother Robbie. And then, to celebrate her birthday, she doubled down by diving headfirst into the cocaine that was left behind as a parting gift from the affair. Last week's tragic reveal that her three-year-old brother Liam found his way into the drugs as well was earth-shattering, and this week we were treated to the results.
Liam was rushed to the hospital with acute cocaine toxicity and seizures threatening his future development. Just the thought of a child suffering to that degree was painfully sad, but the actors who make up the Gallaghers really nailed their moments of terror and made things more than a bit dusty in my household. In particular, Jeremy Allen White once again turned in an award-worthy episode, displaying a complicated mix of anger for his older sister, fear for his younger brother, and even pride in himself when a B+ term paper was delivered to the hospital.
Fiona got the full County Jail treatment, and it wasn't pretty. Shameless smartly took its time showing the painful process, allowing Emmy Rossum to earn her paycheck as each embarrassing moment—from the strip search to her arraignment to being bailed out by her ex—hit home. While we've often thought of Fiona as smart, brave, and responsible over the course of the show's run, she's also proven many times over to be very much a Gallagher. She's partied too hard, slept around recklessly, and ruined great opportunities and important relationships alike. Despite having seen time and again how drugs have hurt her family, in the moment, Fiona didn't think twice about her cocaine pop-up party. She crossed a fine line between letting loose and taking a risk beyond the pale.
As a result of Fiona's carelessness, the Gallaghers are once again at odds. Lip's steely silence indicated that Fiona may have screwed up one time too many to re-earn their trust. Lip's brief run as a parental replacement wasn't pretty, but in the end, he got the job done. Drugged-out Frank showed up just in time to claim Liam from the hospital, and Carl and Debbie eventually made it back to school. Adding intrigue to the shuffle was the near first meeting between the family and their long-lost older sister Sammi (Emily Burgl), who spent the episode helping Frank realize the truth of his failing health. That led to a fun moment where the family realized Debbie's boyfriend is much older, and Sammi realized Liam is black.
Frank had nearly died in his attempt to improve his failing liver a sweat lodge, sending him to the ER for his 56th visit—he's now only two trips away from taking the crown as the hospital's "most decorated frequent flyer ever." Frank's ER doctor was great, reminding me of Mad Men's Roger Sterling in his bedside manner as he chased a joke with a straight, serious message: "Given your four decades of stumble-down, hammered-in-the-gutter commitment to pro-level alcoholism, I think you owe your liver a condo in Boca, and some shuffleboard... You know you're dying, right?" Finally, after an even more sobering visit to a hospice to scope out his future, Frank realized what he's up against. Will Shameless without William H. Macy really happen? According to the doctor, it's looking likely: "Order the flowers and decide between urn and a casket soon." But something tells me there may still be a miracle liver replacement in his future.
"Iron City" will go down as one of Shameless's very best episodes, forcing us to question our trust for Fiona just as we have the show's other characters. In fact, her refusal to give up Mike's brother for providing her with the cocaine could be read several ways. Was she being loyal to Mike in the hopes that someday, he'll find a way to forgive her? Was she being selfish, doing the right thing for her reputation instead of looking out for her family's wellbeing by getting her potential sentence reduced? Or was she purely wanting to take the full punishment for her actions, no matter how ugly it might be? Regardless of how you see it, Fiona's final scene, returning home to an empty house, clutching her shirt like a child, was as heartbreaking as anything the show has delivered.
– This episode did an amazing job adding a beat of silence at two important moments. The first was when Lip took seemingly forever to accept Fiona's collect call from jail, and the second was when Fiona waited as long as she could to enter her "not guilty" plea in the courtroom.
– Financial details always matter to Shameless, and the show again did a masterful job portraying just how hard it is to be dirt poor in America. While Kev wanted the very best legal help for Fiona, the Gallaghers could only ever dream of affording more than a public defender. And while everyone wanted to keep Fiona out of jail, without Mike's final moment of generosity, she would have been locked up for quite some time.
– Was this Sheila's goodbye? If so, kudos to this season's great, if substantially quieter, work from Joan Cusack. I've had my fill of her character several times over now, but the writing this season has done an excellent job of providing her with a romantic interest and hope for a family of her own again.
– Kev and Veronica played an important role in this episode, providing assistance to the family while thinking about their own fast approaching parenthood.
– Kev on his future children: "They're going to be happy and smart. And play for the Bulls."
– The Gallaghers now rely quite a bit on Carl's ingenuity, giving him important responsibilities like keeping watch at the hospital and counting on his knowledge of Frank's whereabouts.
– Carl was an efficient arsonist. His seemingly haphazard use of gasoline to burn down the sweat lodge that nearly took Frank's life somehow avoided taking Sheila's house with it.
– Will Lip go back to school? He was more than willing to drop out if it meant keeping custody of Liam, but the look of satisfaction on his face after seeing his grade on an essay showed that he may finally be hooked.
– I can't say I'm on board the Lip and Mandy train. They may keep each other out of trouble, but it's hard to see them staying together if Lip plans to stay in school.
– Stay strong, Shameless 'shippers. Ian's still out an island, and possibly still drugged out of his mind as he tends bar at a night club, but we know he'll have to come back to Mickey eventually. Hopefully, the reunion won't be interrupted by the Army dragging him back to base for faking his identity.
– The city social worker's great final line: "This family's home visit needs to get scheduled soon. Very soon."
What did you think of "Iron City"?