Lip Gallagher deserved better than this, Shameless – The A.V. Club

Jeremy Allen White stars in Showtime's Shameless
Jeremy Allen White in Shameless
Photo: Showtime (Paul Sarkis)
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When Shameless first introduced us to Phillip Gallagher, he was a genius. If Fiona was working to escape her mother’s fate by providing for her siblings like Monica failed to, then Lip’s story posited that he could be what Frank—whip smart, charismatic—could have been if not for the drugs and alcohol that sent him down a darker path. And while Fiona’s position of responsibility made it difficult to imagine her ever being able to up and leave the South Side (funny story about that…), Lip was always the family’s best chance at someone achieving the class mobility that society tells people like the Gallaghers they should be striving for.

The fact that Lip failed to achieve this is consistent with the character we met back in the first season. He was always resistant to the idea that his gifts should elevate him to a better life: he didn’t want to take the SATs for himself when he was taking them for others, and he had no desire to go to college until he was pushed along the way. The fact that it all burned down—his expulsion from school, his descent into alcoholism—is part of the show’s thesis that the Gallaghers are doomed to make their parents’ mistakes, and since then Lip has been working day-to-day picking up the pieces. He got sober. He found a career. He had a kid. And now, in the show’s final season, he’s been working to return to his goal of providing a better life for his family by selling off his past to start anew.

Lip’s story arc—which I’ll return to in a minute, I’m articulating a point here—is echoed throughout “The Fickle Lady Is Calling It Quits.” Debbie spends the episode evaluating why she’s unable to find a partner in life, and eventually lands—with Tami’s help—on the fact that Monica and Frank made it impossible for her to find love by never setting a positive example. Does this ignore the fact that her siblings—Lip with Tami, Ian with Mickey—nonetheless found a way to build meaningful partnerships? Yes. Does it also ignore that Kev and Veronica, who Debbie had previously gone to for advice about relationships, also existed as role models? Absolutely. And does Debbie randomly running into an ex-con on a larcenous rampage through her former life and being held at gunpoint turning into a meet cute do anything to steer the story successfully away from the indisputable fact that Debbie is alone because she’s an objectively terrible person? C’mon, you know the answer to that. However, it’s nonetheless a story that taps into the larger question of why the Gallaghers are the way they are, critical to understanding Lip’s story.

Similarly, Lip’s anxiety about upward mobility during the early seasons manifests in Mickey’s allergic reaction to living on the West Side. While Ian sleeps peacefully on their air mattress, Mickey rages against the moon, feuds with the people who leave laundry in communal machines, protests the false advertising of model apartment units, and returns to the South Side to fall asleep to the soothing sounds of sirens and street crime. Was I ever entirely clear on why Mickey was confused about the fact the apartment was unfurnished, and why he and Ian didn’t have any of these conversations? Sure. Did Ian’s seeming obliviousness to Mickey’s anxiety over the move as he ogled some sweaty abs at the gym and hung out at the pool strike me as pretty awful husband-ing? You betcha. And does it surprise me that the show once again teetered on the edge of exploring Mickey’s vulnerabilities before mostly just resolving the story at face value, denying the characters an opportunity to explore what deeper emotions could be driving their respective actions? No, it does not. And yet, the story does bring to the surface that it’s not so simple to “leave” the South Side for someone whose life has been defined by it, as it has been for Lip.

Noel Fisher and Cameron Monaghan in Shameless
Noel Fisher and Cameron Monaghan
Photo: Showtime (Paul Sarkis)

This brings us back to Lip. Scripted by executive producer Nancy M. Pimental, and shot by directing producer Iain B. MacDonald, “The Fickle Lady Is Calling It Quits” finds the eldest remaining Gallagher working day and night to fix up his family’s house in the hopes of flipping it, until an opportunity presents itself: the same developer who bought Kevin and Veronica’s house is looking to buy up more of the block. Suddenly, Lip sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and even sweetens the deal by talking up the price of the house an extra 75 grand since the developer needs a third house to get the land they need. Before the ink is even dry—heck, before an offer is even officially made—Lip is celebrating with Tami and selling off the family’s appliances, when the developer’s assistant shows up to tell him that Old Man Robertson down the block didn’t ask for an extra 75 grand. There is no deal. There’s just a half-finished renovation that he’d already half-deconstructed. As he’s confronted by this reality, Frank wanders in, digging up a memory of buried gold in the backyard, a remnant of a time when their childhood play was built around fantasies of imaginary riches unlike the real money that he just threw away. At episode’s end, a fraught Lip is knocking on Kevin and Veronica’s door in search of guidance, but there’s no answer, and he sits on the steps to contemplate his predicament.

If you’re reading this without actually watching the show—which I know is a meaningful part of the audience for these reviews—I imagine this might sound like a thematically resonant storyline when placed into conversation with the other themes operating throughout the episode. However, I offer this extended summary of the episode because I want it to be clear that this penultimate episode is emblematic of Shameless’ struggle to tell coherent storylines, because all I found myself thinking about at the end of this episode is how much the show has failed Lip as a character. I respect that there is a value to subtlety in storytelling, and that Lip—like most of his siblings—isn’t necessarily the type to express his feelings plainly to those around him. But while it’s possible for one to connect the dots between Debbie and Mickey’s stories, Lip’s desperate desire to elevate his family out of poverty, and the character’s earlier story arc, nothing about the way this episode of television plays out makes a logical case for the answer to any question being something beyond the plot demands of ending the show. At a time when reflective storytelling should be almost inevitable, the writers seem ignorant to the fact that seasons of untethered, aimless, and often illogical storytelling have left the burden to connect the dots on their doorstep. It’s up to them to convince me that everything that’s happened this season was something meaningful, and not just a jumbled set of actions and reactions presented with no connection to the characters’ history.

Because if you leave me to connect the dots, the result is not going to work out in your favor. Remember at the end of last season, when Lip and Tami were presented with a free house in Milwaukee to start a new life together? And remember how Lip got cold feet off-screen between episodes, which the show presented as being due to his concern over Liam, who he promptly ignored when planning to sell the house this season? These are stories that happened a season ago, and the show hasn’t even bothered to connect any of those dots, so how are we supposed to think that any of this connects rationally to the character’s origins? Yes, there was a global pandemic and Lip eventually lost his job, but none of that explains why he was so desperate last season that he would agree to rent a house without a lease and fix it up with his own money, an absolutely idiotic plan the show never stopped to justify and which led to his casual relapse which the show subsequently ignored for most of this season. The show had no interest then—or at any point in the past few seasons—in exploring the logic behind Lip’s actions, and the same goes for Lip failing to register that maybe he should wait for an official offer on the house before he takes apart all of his existing work. Lip is not perfect, and like all Gallaghers he is capable of rash decision making, but why is he being this much of an idiot?

Illustration for article titled Lip Gallagher deserved better than this, Shameless
Photo: Showtime (Paul Sarkis)

The likely answer is how John Wells has basically addressed every story decision the show has made in recent seasons: characters do things because they are flawed because that’s the kind of show Shameless is. It’s like when you question something absurd that happens on the show—like the played-for-laughs shot of a victim of Frank and Liam’s blindness con getting hit by a truck—and someone is all “Pfft, it’s called Shameless, you idiot.” And I’m willing to acknowledge that some of my frustration with Lip could be productive, insofar as we are yearning for these characters to catch a break and make their lives better, and there’s value in pushing against that desire. But it’s harder for this to feel earned when the show’s tone so rarely lands in the dramatic space necessary for this to resonate in recent seasons, and it only works if we understand why this happened to the character. It doesn’t work, in other words, when the only rational explanation for a character’s actions is the show artificially making them dumb as rocks in order to justify contrived plot twists, and the only alternative the show is presenting is vague gestures at broad themes the show has struggled to manifest in meaningful ways for at least five seasons. I don’t need Lip to escape the South Side, but Jeremy Allen White and his character deserved better than what’s happened to Lip over the final seasons of the show’s run.

It was five years ago that I talked with Pimental about this very moment in the show’s life. Believing Shameless was near its end—oh, how innocent I was—I asked her how often the writers were thinking about how they wanted the show to end for characters like Lip, and she offered the following:

I don’t think we’ve landed on anything, but we certainly talk about each character in those terms. Do we want Lip to go back to school? Do we want him to finish school? Do we want him to get a job? Do we want him to stay in the South Side? Do we want him to get out? What kind of job is he going to get? Will he work at Best Buy, or will he get an engineering job? We’ve landed on nothing.

I believe the writers had these conversations. But I also believe that as the show dragged on for four more seasons, the short-term needs of keeping the show running muddled whatever plans they might have been developing, and some combination of bad decision-making and COVID complications meant that this final season has been unable to return to those questions in a clear or productive way. There are thematic bread crumbs in this next-to-last hour of Shameless that could make Lip breaking down in the midst of trying and failing to sell the house into a meaningful end for his character, but forgive me if I’m not inclined to pick them up off the dirty floors of what the show has become in its final seasons.

Illustration for article titled Lip Gallagher deserved better than this, Shameless
Photo: Showtime (Paul Sarkis)

It doesn’t help that “The Fickle Lady Is Calling It Quits” doesn’t center Lip’s story in its final moments. No, that moment belongs to Frank, who Liam drags out for one last day of debauchery before Chekhov’s Heroin Needles from last week reemerge as Frank pens what seems to be a suicide note, shoots up, and falls unconscious in the living room. It’s a decision consistent with the show’s unwillingness to decenter its most destructive character long past the point Frank was dragging down the rest of the show, and thus a decision that combines with everything else to inspire little but dread for how exactly, after more than five years of thinking about it, John Wells and his writers believe the story of the Gallagher family should come to an end.

I don’t know what I thought it would look like back in 2016, but I can safely say the 2021 version is not what I hoped for when I asked Pimental to paint me a picture of their thinking. And I guess the question I have now is whether or not the writers would agree, or if they really believe that this was the fate they wanted for Lip and the rest of his family.

Stray observations

  • Nothing about Carl’s wokeness feels earned in any way, and the idea that he knows TikTok dances ignores that he has shown absolutely no interest in popular culture at any point in time, but I’m still mostly concerned with the reappearance of the “allergic to latex” girl looking roughly eight months pregnant, implying that eight months have passed in this season of television. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Shameless was committed to destroying the space-time continuum with its final episodes, and yet still there I was, yelling into the void. Some sick part of me will miss that, I think. Sigh.
  • When I asked Pimental about the ending of the show, there were two characters I was concerned about. One was Lip. The other was, obviously, Fiona. And I can’t help but imagine what a version of the show looks like where it’s ending with Fiona still a part of the narrative, and wonder whether this flailing conclusion was inevitable the second Rossum chose to leave.
  • Liam doesn’t even flinch at the sound of a man getting run over by a truck? He just sits calmly while Frank has sex with a prostitute? A classic example here of writing Liam as whatever the story needs him to be, here as a willing accomplice to help Frank fulfill his bucket list, embodying none of the anxiety he had about being responsible for Frank that dominated last week’s episode.
  • There wasn’t much precision in Mickey’s rampage—does he not know what Tide Pods are?—but I could related to his rage at the moon, given that my parents installed a piano window in their bedroom without curtains and my mother entered a lengthy feud with moonlight until they broke down and ordered custom blinds. Moons: bad places to live, and disruptive to sleep.
  • The choice to introduce us to Heidi free of context read like a backdoor pilot setup, and I swear if they are seriously implying that Debbie could anchor some type of spinoff of Shameless the writers may truly be living on the moon, because on this Earth I refuse to believe anyone who has kept watching this show would invest in such a thing. (It’s super weird that we don’t see Debbie’s reaction to her revelation about her violent ways, too? I just am flummoxed by everything about it.)
  • Are we really going to get through an entire plot about trying to sell this house without even attempting to address the fact that it’s wildly unclear who actually owns it, and thus is able to sell it? I would take a throwaway line about how no one really cares as long as they get what they want! I don’t need the result to be absolutely realistic, I just need there to be some semblance of the show acknowledging that there is a history here beyond “Hey, aren’t these Gallaghers messed up?” I realize I sound exasperated, but I really don’t feel like I’m asking for too much, y’know?
  • Since I’m curious, and we’re a week out: how did you imagine the show would end when you were watching earlier seasons and more invested in the story and its conclusion?