Saturday, April 19, 2014

Character Analysis: Ian and Mickey from Shameless

I honestly wasn’t sure about watching Shamless at first. It seemed to be a fairly typical Showtime series with extremes in sex, nudity, and vulgarity, but very little in character development or sound plotting. Couple that with its seeming premise of a low income family just struggling to make it through addiction and poor parenting, and I didn’t think there’d be much in the series for me to latch onto. But a very early promo for the series seemed to imply that at least one of the characters was gay.

Immediately, my attention was piqued. I make no bones about the fact that a show with a queer storyline will grab and better keep my attention than a show without one. In a world where so many minorities are ignored or nonexistent within a number of storytelling forms, it doesn’t seem like it’s too much to ask for a little visibility. So given that early promo, it seemed we were dealing with a show that would, at least on some level, cover the issue of growing up poor in the inner city and still having to navigate the murky waters of an "alternative" sexual orientation. That, at least, was a story I could dedicate some time and interest to. But I still went into the show, which is ostensibly a comedy, with fairly low expectations on how they’d go about handling this character and his story.

So imagine my surprise when, a mere four seasons later, Shameless has proven to feature one of the best and most nuanced queer relationships TV has ever seen. From the moment when Ian and Mickey have sex for the first time in the seventh episode of the first season, it’s clear that this relationship will be anything but simple and straight forward. But its the continued manner in which the writers find to complicate things between these two boys that makes the story so fundamentally fascinating and important. Here’s a couple of the reasons I think this is one of the most important queer story lines in TV.

The Characters

Ian and Mickey are two of the most unique gay characters that I think I’ve ever seen on the small screen.

As the show opens, Ian, who is about 15 or 16, is having an affair with his adult, married-with-children, boss from the convenience store where he works. But it’s important to note that Ian isn’t a victim. He isn’t being preyed upon by Kash so that the man can get his perverse sexual needs met. If anything, Ian is the aggressor in the relationship. This is a fact that’s made even more obvious when you find out that Ian is the top in all of he and Kash’s sexual encounters. Indeed, Ian is also the top in his sexual relationship with Mickey, but more on that in awhile.

Kash is certainly a closet case who is too afraid of his wife and shamed by his muslim religion to come out properly, but what he isn’t, per se, is a pedophile (or an ephebophile to be more exact). Even though he is engaged in a sexual and even fairly romantic/emotional relationship with a teenager, the show never made it seem like Kash was attracted to Ian specifically because he was a teenager. Instead, everything about it seems to suggest an arrangement of convenience (interesting when you consider the place the two of them work). Kash sleeps with Ian because Ian is the only gay man he knows and he isn’t strong enough to go out and find someone his own age; Ian sleeps with Kash because he honestly likes the man and also because its a way for him to take control and have some level of power within his sexuality.

Ian isn’t really shown as being ashamed of his sexuality in the early goings of the show. He doesn’t live in an environment that’s very conducive to alternative sexual orientations, and his family and the support they give each other is so important to him that of course he’s worried that disclosing his sexuality might color their opinion of him. But the truth is that while it might take Ian some time to come out, when he does so it’s done rather effortlessly. This is a credit to the series as well as to the character who seems to have far less anxiety about his sexuality than most gay teen characters on TV do.

Mickey, on the other hand, carries a lot of anxiety and conflicting feelings towards his sexual orientation. It’s to the character’s credit that these fears and uncertainties manifest themselves in very interesting and entertaining ways. Instead of being almost obnoxiously self-conscious around people, trying his hardest to hide what we all know to be obviously true, Mickey has a tendency to simply live his life, lashing out from time to time.

The thing with Mickey is that his hyper-masculine personality isn’t a persona or a facade to hide his divergent sexual orientation; its who he really is. Mickey’s grown up in a world where he had to be hard and tough in order to survive. The Milkovich family is one of criminals. They’re what the Gallaghers would be without the steady, gentle hand of Fiona to guide them and keep them on track. Raised by a patriarch who is in and out of prison and is verbally, physically, and it’s suggested even sexually abusive when he is out, Mickey had to learn early on how to be tough and how to give as good as he got in order to survive.

This is one of the many ways he’s set apart from a lot of the other closeted LGBT characters on TV. Mickey has sex with women, he robs stores, he carries guns, he gets into fights, and he’s the “dirtiest white boy in America” because he honestly doesn’t know any other way to be. In the early moments of the first and second season, Mickey isn’t so much in the closet as he’s just incapable of conceiving of the possibility that he’s gay. Getting fucked by Ian is just something that’s fun and feels good. Indeed, for him bottoming isn’t about status, or the giving up of any level of power or masculinity at all. Mickey is in full control of his sexual proclivities. “Liking what I like don’t make me a bitch” he expresses to Ian once after Ian tries to shame him for being a bottom.

In fact, Mickey seems to be way more understanding about what he likes in the bedroom than a lot of gay characters tend to be. At a pivotal point in the third season when he invites Ian over while he’s got the house to himself for the weekend, he comes out of his room with a string of (fairly large) anal beads and asks Ian to use them on him. While it’s possible that he acquired the sex toy only recently, my guess has long been that Mickey learned early on that he enjoyed being penetrated, and Ian isn’t the first boy to be granted that pleasure. Conversely, Ian has no clue with the anal beads are for and has no idea how to (or why he’d even want to) go about using them. So while Ian is more in control and has a firmer understanding about his sexual orientation and is strong enough to come out, Mickey is in more control of his sexuality and sexual lifestyle. It’s a distinction that works to set this relationship apart from others like it.

But again, that element of Mickey’s stunted emotional and psychosexual development is still important. So when he tells Ian after their first sexual encounter “Kiss me and I’ll cut your fucking tongue out,” it’s important to remember that he isn’t posturing; this simply isn’t the kind of situation where kissing will be a part of the equation for him because in spite of what he might do in the bedroom, he simply isn’t gay.

The Pacing:

So the Ian/Mickey storyline starts out with a couple of very solid characters. But the show doesn’t stop there. The slow burn of Ian and Mickey’s relationship is one of the other elements that makes this story so worth watching. This isn’t love at first sight, and it isn’t the typical shoehorning in of intense emotional feelings where they don’t belong; it’s two fully realized characters slowly falling in love with each other and their relationship progressing from something purely physical into something a lot deeper.

Admittedly, it would be easy to say that Ian falls for Mickey quicker than Mickey seems to fall for Ian, but in a lot of ways even the show isn’t too clear on Ian’s feelings. As recently as the penultimate episode of the latest season, when asked whether or not he loves Mickey, the best Ian can come up with is that he likes the way Mickey smells.

For Mickey, however, the process of falling in love with Ian, and more importantly realizing that he’s falling in love with Ian, is slow and arduous, and wonderfully rewarding. There are a couple of ways in which the show has a tendency to show rather than tell us that Mickey is falling: the first is with really rewarding moments that harken back to, and obviously contradict earlier moments in the show.

It’s wonderful to watch the couple’s first kiss and to remember that early line about tongues getting cut out. But it’s also wonderful to have Mickey get out of juvie at the beginning of the third season, immediately find Ian for one of their sex romps, and in the midst of their special brand of pillow talk let it slip that he missed Ian while he was on the inside. He plays it off like this emotion was only due to not being able to get the kind of sexual gratification that he craves, “I have to do all the fucking in Juvie, otherwise I’d end up someone’s bitch,” but when coupled with the scene from the first season where Ian visits Mickey in jail and tells him he misses him and gets another threat for the effort, it becomes easy to see that Mickey’s on a steady path towards loving the guy he’s been having sex with for the last few seasons.

The Ian/Mickey story is crammed with these parallels. There’s the kissing of course but also small scenes where Ian begs Mickey not to do something harmful which is then mirrored in one of the more heartbreaking scenes between the two where Mickey, despite his protests that he’d do no such thing, begs Ian not to leave him and join the army. These moments show growth for the character and the depth of their relationship as a whole and they never cease to be amazing to watch.

The other cue to Mickey’s continued growth and his deepening feelings for Ian lies in his clothing and styling. It’s something my friend Stephanie first pointed out to me when we were watching one of the recent episodes together: Mickey’s gone from being the “dirtiest white boy in America” to someone clean, presentable, and all the more attractive for it. I think this is due to two reasons: 1) Mickey feels good about himself when he’s with Ian and therefore takes more care and pride in his appearance. 2) After watching Ian engaged in a relationship with Kash and then in one with Ned (both of whom are older, well groomed, and somewhat well-off gentlemen), Mickey seems to have started transforming himself into someone he thinks Ian would be more likely to find attractive. It starts with one of my favorite scenes in the third season where Mickey asks Ian what it is about this old dude that he finds attractive and then almost immediately starts to take on some of those elements himself.

Notice how the gunshots are used to punctuate each of Ian’s statements about Ned. He’s engaging Mickey in a conversation that gets at the heart of Mickey's insecurities about their relationship and it angers him and in his anger he fires the gun. The remark that Ian makes about Ned buying him things is aggravating partially because Mickey knows its bullshit and partially because he knows that’s something that he can’t give to Ian. But he doesn’t fire the gun in the wake of the oh-so-important “He isn’t afraid to kiss me” statement because he knows that that’s not bullshit and that it's something that Ian values. And in his desire to be the kind of person Ian can love, he knows that this is the sort of direction their relationships needs to take.

But I’ve often thought that more than just wanting to acquiesce to whatever it is that he thinks Ian wants from him, Mickey also feels the desire to take their relationship to that next level but he lacks a basic understanding of how a healthy romantic relationship works which would help him to know how to navigate those waters. The look on his face when Ian says what he says about the kissing is one of deepest shame. He knows that Ian’s claim that his unwillingness to kiss him is based in cowardice is accurate, and yet the way he responds to that isn’t with the bruised ego of the tough guy, but by almost immediately rectifying the situation. It’s as if he’s saying “If what it takes for me to keep you is a kiss every now and then, then by God am I willing to do that.” Likewise, I think he’s equally ready and willing to alter the way he dresses and grooms himself to those same ends. It’s one of the most subtle things the show has done, but when Mickey starts showing up in the third and fourth season with his face washed and his clothes looking oddly more conservative and almost yuppy, it’s a noticeable change.

The Roadblocks:

But all of that would be for naught if it weren’t for the show’s willingness and amazing skill at placing interesting, horrifying, but believable roadblocks in Ian and Mickey’s way. In a typical show, the romantic roadblocks tend to be about cliches such as infidelity. With these two characters, the roadblocks are more along the lines of Mickey’s homophobic and abusive father catching the two of them together, beating them both, and then hiring a hooker to come and basically try to rape the gay out of him.

Their roadblocks have a tendency to be Ian trying to confront Mickey about what he’s long known to be true in an attempt to get a real reaction from him and Mickey responding by beating the shit out of him. These scenes are never easy to watch, but there’s something to be said for the couple’s ability to work past them and to overcome their
issues in the long run. Also there’s the fact that these moments are all grounded in the show’s strong characterization. There never seems to be any question that Mickey’s beating Ian has nothing at all to do with wanting to hurt the boy, or even to assert some level of dominance over him, but has everything to do with his futile attempts to beat this thing out of himself. I don’t know that this rationalization makes the act itself any better, per se, but I do know that I watched the scene in question feeling much worse for Mickey than I did for Ian.

These roadblocks (or speed bumps, maybe?), as well as the many others, serve to make this relationship unlike any other on TV. The element of one of the boys being singularly unable to accept this crucial part of who he is is important. But if that’s where the story stayed, it could easily become just another story about a gay man in love with a closet case. The fact that the show adds unique and interesting outside forces into the mix keeps this story well ahead of the curve in a lot of ways.

The Ian/Mickey storyline is one that I follow closely in part because it perfectly encapsulates what I love about long form storytelling. It’s taken 4 seasons to get them to this point, but Mickey has finally come out of the closet and told the world that he is in fact gay. He did it in a moment where it looked as though if he didn’t, he’d lose Ian. Their entire storyline over the course of this fourth season has more or less been about how incapable Mickey is of losing Ian again, and so we’ve seen him take some drastic steps forward to ensure that that didn’t happen. The relationship will never be easy, and indeed the speed bumps the show has lined up for them in seasons to come seem to be as exciting and interesting as anything they’ve thrown their way thus far.

Shameless isn’t really an all around great TV show. There are a lot of elements to it that they haven’t quite figured out as well as they have the Ian/Mickey thing, and even more elements that simply don’t work no matter what they try to do with them. But the odd thing is that the way the show fails in so many other story lines only serves to show just how well it succeeds with this one. Through consistent characterization, strong pacing, and an ability to keep the struggles of the relationship fresh and interesting, the writers of Shameless have succeeded in creating one of the single greatest queer relationships, and maybe one of the best relationships in general, that TV has ever seen. Now if we could only get the two of them to finally say “I love you!” my life would be complete.