For the first few episodes of Shameless’ final season, I’ve been waiting for the show to start acting like it’s about to close the book on this chapter of the Gallager family, and the show’s insistence on ignoring this built-in pathos and largely just treading water has been a significant point of tension as a result. But “Frances Francis Franny Frank” is the first episode of the season where it feels like, at least for a moment, that John Wells and the show’s writers are aware that they’re writing toward a series finale.
Of course, because they are spiteful, it’s consigned to a Frank storyline.
While I could write an entire thesis about the problems with Frank Gallagher as a part of Shameless in recent seasons, the simplest explanation is that the show lost the ability to tell stories about Frank’s relationship to his family, and began using him as a conduit for entrees into zany plots that the writers wrongly believe is the essence of Shameless. Earlier in the show’s run, the strategy of isolating Frank worked because the show was still largely operating as a drama: the storyline with terminal cancer patient Bianca, Frank’s last actual good storyline, began as a zany plot but turned into a story about mortality, and about his complicated relationship with his own. But ever since, the show has lost track of whatever thematic point Frank’s cockroach-like existence was originally serving, meaning that any time he spends away from his family is pretty much a complete waste of time.
I empathize with the writers on this, in a way: while the kids all have natural arc structures where they’re growing older and experiencing new things—love, adulthood, parenthood, etc.—Frank is by nature static, and coming up with adventures for him inevitably turns into a cavalcade of dumb sitcom plots because it’s really the only way to justify his continued existence. While I doubt that Wells—who, as we’ve previously established, thinks Shameless is a sitcom—ever actually considered getting rid of Frank, and Showtime likely would have never let the show kill him off as long as Macy was racking up Emmy nominations, my gut says that the writers on the show regularly wished they didn’t need to be spending hours brainstorming another wacky Frank situation that would be erased from the whiteboard at the end of the season and erased from viewers’ memories by the time the next season rolled around.
The one exception to this in recent seasons, though, has been Frank’s relationship with Liam. From the beginning of the series, Frank’s relationship with his youngest children has been central to this character: Fiona, Lip, and Ian had already written Frank off when the show’s story began, but Debbie was still putting pillows under his head as he was passed out on the living room floor, and Carl was still jumping in front of cars to be able to sue the drivers at his father’s request. And so in more recent seasons, the show killed two birds with one stone and threw ever-underserved Liam into Frank’s care, reinforcing a central thesis that there is some part of Frank in each of his kids. But more recently, Liam has become too old to follow Frank willingly into battle, leaving the family patriarch to mostly squander screen time at the Alibi or some other dead end storyline.
But Frank is also a grandparent, and “Frances Francis Franny Frank” marks the first time in a while where I’ve felt compelled to even say anything meaningful about a Frank storyline. I don’t want to suggest that Frank’s “Take Your Grandchild To Work Day” story is brilliant or profound, but it was a reminder that Macy is a talented actor, and that exploring Frank’s relationship with his family is the kind of pathos the show needs at this stage in its life. No, it doesn’t make sense that any of the drug dealers that Frank deals with fall for whatever the hell his “Rain Girl” scam was supposed to be, but the story pulls at the vulnerability Frank feels about his relationship to his family, reminding us that there is deep sadness within Frank even if there is also cruelty (e.g. calling child services on Fiona) and absolute disregard (e.g. everything else). When Frank delivers his haul for the day to Kev and Vee at the Alibi, having named his new strain “Little Half-Mexican Red,” Vee notices that Franny has made quite an impression, and Frank’s answer says a lot: he starts by making a dig about how entitled his kids are, but he acknowledges that the good thing about grandkids is that they don’t expect anything from you, and so you can never disappoint them. And as someone who drags the weight of being a derelict father behind him, unwilling and/or unable to actually carry it, Frank relishes the opportunity to feel like there’s someone connected to him who has not yet written him off.
While I bristled at the use of Frank’s narration in the opening episode, I do think this episode demonstrates that Frank is central to any attempt the show intends to make to reflect on the show’s history within the narrative (and not just within the extra-narrative clip shows that will be extending the season starting over the holidays). And while the premiere mostly presented Frank as omniscient and reflective, what worked better here is that he is an unreliable narrator, and also a failing one. While he insists that he’s done most of his parenting drunk or high, he takes Franny to the wrong school, is unsure of whether a memory of measuring blow with Monica was with Fiona or Debbie, and later loses all track of where he is and what he’s doing there. We could shrug this off as Frank being Frank, but my read is that the show is suggesting that he is losing his ability to live as he once did, and that the toll of his lifestyle is coming to bear. And while I will always contend that Shameless would have been better off killing Frank off as a way to stave off its decline and reinvigorate storytelling three or more seasons ago, I’ll admit that his death would be a fitting way to bring the series full circle, and his day with Franny—memorialized in a tattoo—was an effective way to kickstart such a storyline.
It was also facilitated by the latest in a series of stories that are coming so close to going all in on Debbie being a terrible person before putting on the brakes at the last minute. The Franny and Frank storyline is entirely the result of Debbie being a terrible mother: she starts the episode trying to force Franny into a dress for the Little Miss South Side pageant, an extension of the Princess Party pressure from the previous episode, and then promptly leaves for work having no confirmation of who was taking Franny to school. Once she realizes—after abandoning a worksite and stealing from the pantry to meet a snack obligation she forgot about—that Franny isn’t at school, Sandy gently points out that it’s a little insane that she doesn’t know who was responsible for getting her there, and when they return to the house at episode’s end the rest of the family are quick to point out the same. Lip, in particular, digs into her selfishness, noting that everyone is dealing with a lot right now and that it’s not their fault she’s a terrible mother. And it’s refreshing to hear someone just outright say what is clearly true, which is why it’s doubly frustrating that the episode pretends like he crossed a line, and ultimately forgives Debbie after Frank convinces Franny to wear the dress and give her mother a win she doesn’t deserve. I don’t know if the writers fully comprehend how irredeemable Debbie is at this point, and so these episodes where she does terrible things—like immediately removing her mask after her client leaves—the episode knows are terrible but ultimately gets redeemed for are a real salt in the wound situation.
This is the second week in a row where the episode has brought the entire family together in the Gallagher kitchen, here twice for both breakfast and dinner, and while I have issues with pretty much all of the show’s ongoing storylines right now I’m reminded that I’m less annoyed by default when the show’s characters are actually allowed to interact together. Ian and Mickey suddenly experiencing gender panic over who wears the pants in their relationship now that they’re married is more or less nonsense, but it’s fun to see the family members react to their dumb argument, and it’s great to see Vee step in to set them straight (pun unintended) when things get out of hand at the Alibi. Carl’s new partner doesn’t accomplish much outside of a fairly rote portrayal of a corrupt cop (to the point that even Carl bristles at the law breaking before indulging in the perp beating), but it’s charming to see him sending photos of his first arrest to his siblings, and celebrating when he arrives back at the house. I could go on long rants about either of these storylines, but at the end of the day they brought characters together and enriched their relationships with one another if only briefly, and the end often justifies the means when Shameless achieves this.
There’s no question that Shameless’ final season would be improved if the kind of reflection embedded in Frank’s portion of “Frances Francis Franny Frank” was happening in every storyline, but this was the first time this season where I started to think that maybe the show just needs time to build up to it. This isn’t to say that I’m optimistic that a show that has forgotten how to tell meaningful stories will magically figure it out across the entire narrative in the next nine episodes, but I’m at least convinced it’s something they’re aware of needing to strive toward, and I’m going to choose to see this as a positive sign if only for the state of my mental health reviewing the show.
- Nothing like a “Martha Marcy May Marlene” joke in the episode title to drive home Shameless’ timeliness.
- Maybe this makes me a monster, but given that I didn’t even know Brad and Cami’s second child existed, it was hard for me to feel much of anything as he was placed in peril. Any financial struggle is inherently relevant to the show’s plotting, but the emotional pull of this one felt forced.
- Okay, so now that we’ve put a number to it, Lip spent $6000 of his own money during a pandemic in order to fix up a house he was renting, never once considering informing the person he was renting from that he was doing so in order to potentially get relief on rent or, potentially, repayment? And the show rewards him for this idiocy by having the dude come back from active duty to agree to pay for half of it, as though this is something any landlord would do when not contractually obligated to do so? What fantasy universe it this show set in, again?
- Everything about Kev’s performance of “ballerdom” was embarrassing and bad, but the end result of pulling Mickey into the drug operation as muscle is a positive development for the promise of giving him more independence in the show’s storytelling. Throwing him into the Alibi gives us insight into his conflict with Ian, which does a lot to make that conflict seem more productive even if, as previously stated, it is rooted in a dumb argument that doesn’t make sense this far into their relationship.
- Mickey should just be glad that Ian didn’t say Kevin, honestly.
- Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not convinced Ethan Cutkosky looks anything like Billie Eilish, but if someone wants to photoshop her hair onto his head maybe I’ll feel differently.
- Ian quitting his job over being asked to work on his lunch break is a story that makes no sense, when you consider how patient the boss was with Mickey during the interview in the previous episode and Ian’s concerns about a stable income, but the show had mined very little out of his coworkers or the situation, so moving him into more interesting narrative spaces is a win.
- “Buffant?” made me chuckle heartily.
- Do we think Carl has a legal driver’s license?
- I’m giving any television produced during the pandemic a pass on empty coffee cups, because I realize there are much more important things to be prioritized in this moment, but Lip sure made Brad feel better with two cups of air in the hospital, huh?
- As noted, for the next two weeks over the holiday Shameless will be replaced by the first two installments of “Hall Of Shame,” a six-episode clip series (with some new material built-in, apparently) that begins with an overview of Gallavich. We won’t be covering them here at The A.V. Club, but I’ll be watching the first episode at least and will likely comment in some form on my Twitter, for those interested.