In one of the first and last scene of “Iron City,” director James Ponsoldt (who, by the way, also helmed the staller coming-of-age film The Spectacular Now) made the very smart choice of filming two very important scenes in mirror image, in a sort of stripped down montage that aims to strengthen one part of the story by intercutting it with parts of another. In the first, Fiona is being loaded into a police van and then walked through central booking intercut with Lip walking through the halls of the PICU to see his ill brother Liam for the first time since he ingested a dangerous amount of cocaine. In the second, Fiona returns home from prison (I’ll get to how in a moment) only to find the place empty and devoid of life while the rest of the family, plus Kevin and Veronica, are at the hospital picking up a smiling Liam from the hospital. Besides being a beautiful and thoughtful filmmaking technique, it shows just how splintered the Gallagher family has been this season, how alone they all feel and just how much more splintered it will become.
Let’s rewind. Most of Fiona’s arch in this episode takes place in prison. In a harrowing, beautifully shot and almost silent sequence we see Fiona being lead through the prison, getting her fingerprints taken and being strip-searched. In my recap a few weeks ago, I wrote about the role of nudity in Shameless, saying that “Fiona…seems to be most comfortable in the least amount of clothes,” that her naked body was not just something freeing but nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve seen Fiona nude during sexual encounters, sure, but Shameless has also shown her topless in the shower and getting dressed. I bring this up because I found it very telling that, in a scene devoted to a strip search, where Fiona is literally at the most vulnerable we’ve seen her in four seasons, no nudity is shown, instead we focus on her face and eyes. Nudity is not what makes Fiona feel violated and vulnerable, it’s showing her raw emotion.
After getting into prison clothes, Fiona dreamily walks to her cell and tries to survive prison life for a short time. She meets with a court-appointed attorney, who tells her how serious the charges are and that she should plead not guilty. She spends a few sleepless nights in prison and is only allowed one phone call – a teary conversation with Lip who angrily wants nothing to do with his sister. But before Shameless turns into Orange Is The New Gallagher (and before Fi runs afoul of the prison cook and is served a tampon sandwich), Fiona’s ex Robbie bails her out. Why is somewhat unclear. He has already severed ties with her after finding out she cheated on him with his brother. The brother who, unbeknownst to him, brought over the cocaine that started this whole mess. Out of prison, but nowhere near out of trouble, Fiona returns home alone and very unsure of her future.
Thankfully, it seems Liam is doing better. When he was rushed into the hospital, Liam had acute cocaine poisoning, was having seizures and was suffering from violent, psychotic outbursts. With medication and time, Liam became stable enough to be returned home, although it’s unclear whether the seizures will impact his development in terms of learning or emotional issues down the road. While the family (sans Fiona) came together to welcome Liam out of the hospital, it came at a cost. The episode saw Debbie fighting with Lip, who blames Fiona for Liam’s accident. While Kev tries to tell him it wasn’t her fault and that “she’s family,” Lip now sees Fiona as just another Gallagher screw-up rather than the strong, material figure she’s been.
Speaking of material figures, Sammi continues to bond with Frank who almost died in the sweat lodge. Back at the hospital, Frank’s doctor confirms just how little time he has left and recommends that Frank look into hospice care. But at once such visit, Frank completely freaks out and is, for the first time, face to face with his own mortality. For Frank, who has always been able to weasel himself out of any predicament, it seems the realization has finally dawned on him: he will die, there is nothing he can do about it and it’s all his fault. William H. Macy has always done a fantastic job on Shameless and the quick scene in front of the hospice is one of his finest, a subtle and well-acted glimpse into a part of Frank we rarely see.
“Iron City” is one of the best Shameless episodes in the show’s run. It’s also, perhaps, the show’s darkest episode with only a few moments of humor coming from Sheila’s relationship with Running Tree. It’s a bold, thoughtful, heartbreaking episode. One that will clearly change the direction of the show for good. In this crazy world, the Gallagher family has always been an “extra special…kind of f****d up” (as Lip put it) but at least they’ve always had each other. Now even that’s not so sure.