Structural systems involving mobile shale represent one of the most difficult challenges for geoscientists dedicated to exploring the subsurface structure of continental margins. Mobile-shale structures range from surficial mud volcanoes to deeply buried shale diapirs and shale-cored folds. Where mobile shales occur, seismic imaging is typically poor, drilling is hazardous, and established principles to guide interpretation are few. The central problem leading to these issues is the poor understanding of the mechanical behaviour of mobile shales. Here we propose that mobile shales are at critical state, and discuss how this proposition can explain key observations associated with mobile shales. The critical-state model can explain the occurrence of both fluidized shales (e.g., in mud volcanoes) and more viscous shales flowing with grain-to-grain contact (e.g., in mud diapirs), mobilization of cemented or compacted materials, and the role of overpressure in shale mobility. Our model offers new avenues for understanding complex and fascinating mobile-shale structures.