Shameless S4 Ep04 – Strangers on a Train

Fiona and Robbie continue their affair on The L

While the show itself is a vast departure from the UK series it’s based off of, the fourth season of Showtime’s Shameless even feels like a bit of a departure from its previous three seasons. With Lip off at MIT and Ian spending time off-screen enlisted in the army, the family dynamic so far feels different with fewer kids in the Gallagher household. 

Fiona and Robbie continue their affair on The LBad decision-making seems to be the theme of “Strangers on a Train.” The episode begins with Robbie coincidentally boarding Fiona’s train car on the ‘L’ in a very surreal scene in which he fingers her with other people in sight. I personally thought this seemed like a dream sequence for multiple reasons. Despite saying that she had every intention of staying with her boyfriend Mike, Robbie’s brother, she puts up shockingly little resistance to Robbie’s very public advances. Even the hypnotic music and total lack of dialogue kept me waiting for an alarm clock to sound off and a quick cut to Fiona waking up from a sex dream. I don’t think we’ve had a scene this unrealistic since an airplane’s landing gear fell out of the sky, nearly killing Sheila, in season two.

At MIT, Lip seems to be having a rough time. After studying hard for an important exam, Lip decides to do his laundry in the seconds before he has to run out the door to take it. Honestly, I didn’t know a single guy in college who washed all his jeans more than once a month, so his laundry load of pants probably could have waited until after midnight—when most everyone at my college did their laundry. Then when he’s late to his exam and isn’t allowed in, he decides to take his anger out on the parked cars by smashing in all the windshields and outrunning campus police. I said this episode is about bad decision-making, right?

Mickey, now married to a Russian sex worker, has a strange plot this episode in which he “emancipates” the Russian women working in a brothel because he thinks they’re being ripped off by the owner. This strike doesn’t work out so well for him when the brothel’s owner brings in a literal truckload of new Russian “employees,” which means the ones Mickey tried to help are out of jobs. The show has had a tricky time trying to keep Mickey relevant after Ian enlisted in the military. Cameron Monaghan, the actor who plays Ian, is definitely a star on the rise right now. With four films due for release in 2014, including the star-studded film adaptation of The Giver, his schedule is looking pretty packed these days. The good news is that most of these films are in post-production right now, which leaves Monaghan the opportunity to come back for the second half of season four. He is still credited as a series regular on the show, after all.

Frank’s storyline this episode revolves around trying to commit insurance fraud. While on the surface this feels like typical Frank Gallagher, the money is actually needed for something other than drugs and alcohol this time. After discovering that liver transplants aren’t free without insurance (are we supposed to be surprised?), Frank has to come up with around $150,000 to cover the operation. He realizes that Sheila has personal liability coverage under her home insurance and sees that as his golden ticket. I’m no expert on insurance fraud, but I didn’t think it’s so easy to commit. Here’s hoping Sheila’s premiums don’t skyrocket after this fiasco.

Debbie goes to Mandy for advice about how to get Matty to get physical with her.Thirteen-year-old Debbie has been trying to woo a twenty-year-old guy this season, and the results are pretty hard to watch. In a bad decision double whammy, Debbie tries to get Matty to make out with her by dressing provocatively, but he rejects her advances. Debbie then goes to Mandy for advice, and receives some of the worst advice ever given. Mandy says that he just doesn’t want to get in trouble, so all Debbie needs to do is let him know that she won’t run to the cops. She explains, “Statutory rape? Some old school shit left over from when women wore corsets and didn’t carry mace.” The cringing continues later in the episode when we see Debbie flipping through one of her brother’s porn magazines, looking for a photo she can pass off as a selfie. Though hard to watch, I think the idea of a thirteen-year-old feeling inadequate in comparison to an airbrushed model is an unusual commentary on the tribulations of puberty, and just how early on in life young women are forced to compare themselves to society’s ideals of beauty.

Checking back in with Fiona, she decides it’s a good ideas to visit Robbie’s apartment in person to tell him to back off. Fiona, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how that could go wrong. They continue their affair as the show continues one of the most ridiculous plotlines of the season. When they first hooked up behind Mike’s back, we assumed that Fiona was at least a little drunk. But even from the start, Robbie calls her an “addict”—likely an addict to bad boys, drama, sex, you name it—despite knowing relatively little about her. How did Robbie pin her as an “addict” so accurately, so early on? To me, this subplot seems a tad lazily written. They knew the kind of drama they wanted, so they wrote it in too quickly without a proper buildup. Fiona’s total lack of control seems out of character for someone who has spent her life keeping a household together.

As the episodes starts to wrap up, Lip returns back to their neighborhood to see Mandy. More bad decisions are made as he has unprotected sex with her and muses about the idea of them having a baby, all while she’s scrounging for money to buy the morning after pill. This is a surprise, since the Lip we all know from the last few seasons has been too smart to think that way. He then says he’s dropping out of school, which is a lot less surprising. Many viewers were expecting this, since the show might need Lip back in the Gallagher household to keep him relevant to the family’s plotlines. For the last round of bad decisions, Frank is told by daughter Sammi that she isn’t a match, and despite having hidden from her that he’s her father, he exclaims, “Even my own daughter wasn’t a match!” Then instead of covering by saying that he also had his daughter tested and she didn’t match, he admits that Sammi is his daughter. Talk about missing an easy save.

After an episode of just wanting to ask each character “Why are you doing this?,” it was nice to see Shameless’s heart shine through with a scene between Debbie and Fiona. These emotional moments between members of the Gallagher family are really what Shameless does best. Emma Kenney, the young actress who plays Debbie, was able to display her acting chops here, and I’ve enjoyed seeing her improve throughout the years. The last scene finally broke the chain of terrible decision-making with Lip showing up very early to his professor’s office building and talking him into allowing a retest. This wasn’t just a good decision on Lip’s part, but also on that of the writers. While having Lip back home may have felt more like the good old days, all of the character development leading up to Lip leaving for college would have been wasted.

A lot went down in “Strangers on a Train,” but I’m most curious to see where Frank’s storyline goes from here. My guess is that Fiona will eventually donate a piece of her liver to him, but this show can be pretty unpredictable sometimes. Do you have any theories?