The writers on Shameless skillfully thread overarching themes through the seasons, vacillating between straightforward and subtle exploration. Fathering or lack thereof has been one of these themes. Through several of its characters, Shameless has developed a strong narrative of fatherhood and fatherlessness as both an aspiration and liability.
No character teeters on the edge of contempt quite like Frank Gallagher. Frank is a paradox. We know that the shoddy foundation built in his youth shaped him into the man he is today, but he insists that we not delve deep into his psyche to understand his ruin. If we attempt to burrow into his brain we realize that though his antics may shock us, his proclivity to look out for himself first and foremost never will. What does the psychology behind an action matter if the result is always the same?
The fact is Frank is a significantly worse person than he is a father. Frank’s blockages make it unrealistic that he could ever be even a substandard father. We cannot expect him to rise to the occasion of parenting when it is a psychological impossibility. He does not have the capacity to care for anybody more than he cares for himself. He is a textbook sociopath. Add alcohol and drugs to a sociopathic nature and you have an extreme ineptitude to function, let alone parent.
We can blame Frank for ever having children in the first place. He had no business procreating. The fact that he has ever risen to the occasion of being fatherly at all is beyond expectations. It is important I tread carefully so I do not create a “Sympathy for the Devil” situation, but the fact that he is truly a horrible person and has actually displayed some redeemable qualities when it comes to parenting is impressive. When the bar is so low that you can sliver over it, is it really an accomplishment? For the purpose of this article, I’m going to go with yes.
Though he will never be devoted to his children more than he’s devoted to himself, there have been times where he has stepped up even if he did not do it in a way that was admirable or respectable. In Season 3 Episode 11 “Family is Forever” Frank admitted to robbing Carl’s foster fathers’ house while the police were arresting his son. Now, this may not seem like a grand gesture, considering Frank did, in fact, commit the crime, but it was not a stretch to think that Frank could have let Carl go to juvie while he enjoyed the spoils of their heist. When the police car pulled away with Frank in the rear, Ian asked Lip what happened. Lip responded, perfectly, “Hell froze over.” And maybe in that moment, it did.
Surprisingly, Frank is not the worst father on Shameless. Great writing includes contrast, and lucky for Frank, there is father darker and more destructive than him. Enter, Terry Milkovich, one of the most despised characters in Shameless’ history. Unlike Frank, Terry is completely devoid of redeeming qualities and has no softened edges. He is hatred personified.
A lifelong criminal, Terry is in and out of jail throughout the series. Terry was never incarcerated for some of his most heinous crimes. In Season 2 Episode 10 “A Great Cause”, Mandy reveals that her pregnancy was a result of Terry raping her while he was blackout drunk. She makes excuses for Terry’s sexual abuse, stating that he gets confused when he drinks and thinks Mandy is her late mother making it clear that this was not the first time she was raped by her father. As a result of her abusive childhood, Mandy acts out sexually and habitually enters into relationships with men who mistreat her.
Excepting Molly, all of Terry’s children are delinquents. Violence is commonplace in the Milkovich household. Terry’s most abhorrent demonstrations of brutality have been against his son Mickey. One of the toughest scenes to watch on Shameless was when Terry walked in on Mickey and Ian having sex and savagely attacked them while spewing a disgusting homophobic diatribe. Terry’s subsequent indecencies against Mickey included having him raped by Svetlana at gunpoint, forcing him to marry a pregnant Svetlana, and another brutal beating when Mickey finally publically accepted who he was and that he was homosexual.
Possibly more reprehensible than Terry’s actions towards Mickey were the years of emotional abuse that made Mickey feel as though living a lie was his only option. If Mickey had not connected with Ian, I believe, he would have denied himself of the opportunity for any genuine love in his life, be it romantic or familial. Terry raised Mickey without love and would have preferred he live a desolate life rather than be gay.
Thanks to an equal amount of prodding and support from Ian, Mickey Milkovich came crashing out of the closet in a public speech that was the ultimate “screw you” to his father. Prior to Mickey accepting and admitting who he was, he defended his father. In Season 3 Episode 11”Order Room Service” Ian pleads with Mickey not to marry Svetlana. He tells Mickey “Your father is an evil, psychotic prick” to which Mickey responds angrily “Grow the fuck up. Don’t act like you know a thing about my dad.” Mickey lives by the code of loyalty, even when no respect is given to him in return.
Though he has been beaten both physically and emotionally by Terry for years, Mickey still wants to please his father. When Terry arrives at Yevgeny’s christening party, Mickey immediately hurries over to take Yevgeny from Svetlana so he can present the baby to his father. You can see the pride in Mickey’s eyes as he watches Terry hold his grandson. This is an especially revealing moment, because, before this scene, Mickey had shown no regard for Yevgeny and was numb to his existence. His interest in Yevgeny peaked only when it meant impressing his father. Consistent with the psychological state of many abused children, Mickey is desperate to please his abuser.
To blame Mickey for lacking a connection with Yevgeny would be unfair. Yevgeny was a child of rape, a consequence of the atrocities Mickey endured for being caught with the man he loved. Mickey’s regard for Yevgeny grew when he saw how much Ian loved and embraced the baby. There was a certain amount of fulfillment for Mickey, seeing that Ian could not only love him but also love his baby solely because Yevgeny was Mickey’s. For a man who had not experienced love, this display from Ian was powerful.
Still, Ian would always be more of a priority to Mickey than Yevgeny would be. In Season 5 Episode 6“Crazy Love” when Ian kidnapped Yevgeny, Mickey was more worried about Ian than his infant son. For a parent, that is incomprehensible, but Mickey cannot be demonized for his complex emotions regarding Yevgeny. There was a tender moment when the police officer returned Yevgeny to Mickey and he took him in his arms and snuggled his face to his baby’s. It leaves you to wonder what could have grown if not for Mickey’s incarceration.
As it stands today, Mickey will be in prison for a significant amount of time, thus missing the opportunity to be a present physically and emotionally in Yevgeny’s life. It leaves us to wonder if, because of the “thrupple” situation with Svetlana, we will see Kev step into a father-figure roll for Yevgeny and in what capacity Ian will be involved. However, as you can see with Frank and Terry, kids don’t always benefit from having a father active in their lives. Svetlana is a strong woman capable of being both mother and father to Yevgeny.
Admittedly, the competitors vying for “Father of the Year” on Shameless are unambitious, but even if he were to be pitted against worthy opponents, Kevin Ball would be the victor. Kev is the prototype for fatherhood and has been before he became a father to Amy and Gemma.
Though at first V was unsure if she wanted to be a mother, Kev was resolute in his desire to be a father. When the couple decided to foster a child, V was interested in the opportunity to make money, but Kev wanted to be a dad in whatever capacity was available to him. He formed a special bond with Ethel, wanting to integrate her into their lives completely and give her the childhood that was robbed from her. He was patient, protective and compassionate. Before Ethel ran away she tearfully thanked Kev for everything he had done for her and Jonah. He had impacted her life greatly, and she his. Kev was distraught when Ethel left, and when V told him that she wanted to try to conceive, he was over the moon.
Kev and V’s infertility struggles showed just how committed they were to becoming parents. Without the funds to go through traditional fertility treatments, the Ball/Fishers had to improvise. For Kev, that meant having sex with his mother-in-law, multiple times and participating in the most disturbing threesome to appear on a television screen (and hopefully ever in life itself). To build the family he coveted he had to take extreme measures, and he did so because he knew that having children was worth the discomfort.
One of the most heartwarming scenes on Shameless came in Season 3 Episode 10 “Civil Wrongs” when V comes bursting into the Alibi waving a home pregnancy test, excitedly announcing that Carol was pregnant. Kev’s was elated and his reaction was incredibly touching. The man that dreamed of becoming a father was finally going to have a child. When life threw Kev and V a curveball, and they realized they were going to have multiple babies, Kev took the news in stride, excited for the future.
After Kev and V welcomed Amy and Gemma into the family we really saw firsthand what we had always known to be true, Kev was meant to be a dad. He was hands on, concerned, and devoted. Kev and V’s relationship suffered because Kev put the girls first at the expense of V’s feelings. He had tunnel vision for babies and did not consider what V was going through; missing the relationship they had shared prior to the children and struggling with her new identity as a mother. Being a father came so naturally to Kev that he did not understand having a baby (babies!) can be overwhelming for others, like V. He stayed home with the babies while V ran the Alibi and she resented and reveled that parenthood came so much easier to Kev.
“The best gift you can give is neglect. Neglect fosters self-reliance.”-Frank Gallagher
It is important to note Kev’s relationship with Lip. Though it is a stretch to say that Kev is a father figure to Lip, there is a fatherly/big brother type aspect to their relationship. Obviously, Lip would not go to Frank for advice or guidance as they had one of the more strained father/child relationships in the Gallagher household. Instead, he often sought Kev’s council, especially when it came to women. More importantly, after Kev gave Lip advice, Lip’s intent was to take it, showing the respect he had for Kev and his opinions. Kev and Lip’s most impactful interactions came when Kev implored Lip to stay in school. He recognized Lip’s potential and wanted better for him than the South Side. Kev’s pressure irritated Lip, but Kev would rather nettle Lip than let him squander his opportunities.
Our own perceptions on what fatherhood entails, or should involve, will color the way we view those who are a part of the institution. A person’s parenting prowess could concern us, but they may think they are doing a wonderful job. In the end, the man who best twists reality illustrates this concept perfectly, “The best gift you can give is neglect. Neglect fosters self-reliance.”-Frank Gallagher
Written By Sarah