Well, goddammit. Seriously, goddammit, Shameless.
In the past couple weeks, there’s been much debate about the gravity of a moment, whether one scene, one character beat or one story choice can corrode the audience’s goodwill toward a television show in which it has invested entire days. I trailed off with How I Met Your Mother seasons ago, and I think The Good Wife made the most of a tough set of circumstances. But the tag on “Lazarus,” the finale that concludes Shameless’ best season ever... honestly, it just sucks. It’s unbelievably cheap, and it’s heartbreaking to be left with that moment following a season in which Shameless largely outgrew the puerile instincts that defined its early years.
What makes the last few minutes of “Lazarus” so frustrating is that, as this show’s typically placid finales go, this was a good one. With the exception of “Survival Of The Fittest,” Shameless finales do the work of settling the story elements in preparation for the season to come. They don’t tie a bow around the season so much as they say to the viewer, “There’s some ribbon in this drawer, should anyone need it.” “Lazarus” accomplished a good bit more than that, delivering some satisfying moments, resolving some questions, and doing away with some problematic elements. It had all the makings of the perfect palate cleanser between season four and season five.
When “Emily” concluded, I was worried the season could possibly end with Fiona still in jail, which would have been deeply depressing. But Fiona manages to catch a break again, this time because prison overcrowding makes her irresponsible drug use seem considerably less urgent. There’s still a tough road ahead of course: a new gig waiting tables with an assortment of fellow wayward travelers, along with the steep climb facing any released felon. But “Lazarus” is a surprisingly hopeful episode for Fiona, who finally, soberly, concedes to Lip that she’s her own worst enemy, and seems aware that she’s equally capable of being her greatest ally. She finally feels like an integral part of the family again, and she’s immediately dispatched to take care of the Gallaghers the way she used to. At long last, the clouds are parting.
There was an oddly hopeful vein running through Ian’s story too, though it didn’t seem that way at first blush. I got the impression the writers were prepared to play with the irony of Ian and Mickey spending all this time thinking Mickey’s refusal to come out was the biggest problem their relationship faced, only to get over that hump and fall apart when Ian’s illness became too much for Mickey to handle. Mickey seems committed though, if a little unclear of how mental illness works, and if you’re invested in these characters, it was impossible not to be touched by how protective Mickey is over Ian. There was a darkness to the story, obviously, with Ian nearly catatonic. But with Mickey having overcome his shame and Ian now having a support system to help him deal with his bipolar disorder, those two crazy kids just might make it.
I wasn’t completely sure how to feel about the Frank stuff, and while that’s typically the case, it felt unfamiliar in “Lazarus” because Frank’s impending death lent the character an uncommon focus. My feelings about Frank have been all over the place all season, but I feel slightly duped now. After starting to think it might not be the worst thing in the world if Frank survived, the closing shot of an unchastened Frank drinking and pretty much punking out God leads me to believe Shameless would do just fine without him. I wasn’t rooting for Frank anymore, and all I could think was “Who else was waiting for that liver?” Would it make sense to have Frank see the error of his ways and declare himself all-time designated driver? No, it probably wouldn’t. But after three seasons of watching Frank leech off his family, and one season of watching him deal with the cumulative effect of his choices, it was a bit disappointing to see the reset button pressed and know it likely means a season five full of “Frank put something up his butt” jokes.
And uh... while I’m on the subject of disappointments, how about that thing with Jack, eh? Yes... Jack. Once Steve, later (and before) Jimmy, now Jack appears in front of Gallagher Manor, cleanly shaven and deciding he’s not ready to reintroduce himself just yet. The thing is, I’m not ready for it either, and I’d guess I’m not alone in that.
Listen, “I told you so” doesn’t get anyone anywhere, so I’ll refrain. (Besides, it’s not all that satisfying to say when you wanted to be wrong about the prediction.) But I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that there’s no way a show like Shameless, which thrives on excess, could resist the urge to show a weird, gruesome death scene for Jimmy-Jack-Steve if there was one to show. Then weeks passed with no word of him, John Wells apparently confirmed the character was gone for good, and I accepted it. But he’s alive so… Wells got me, I guess?
The problems with this are legion, but I’ll try to hit the main points. I never liked JJS, I was inoculated against him. The nonsense with Estefania is some of the least satisfying storytelling this show has seen, and Fiona seems much better off without JJS, all things considered. It’s possible that I’m misjudging the degree to which my opinion of JJS reflects an audience consensus, but it’s tough to pull off the “Surprise, he’s alive!” trick with a character about whom the audience was, at best, ambivalent. I never needed to see Justin Chatwin again.
The bigger issue with the reappearance of JJS is that it’s one of those choices that erodes the trust between the storytellers and the audience. It’s no coincidence that Shameless’ best season is also its most mature, and I can think of few maneuvers more immature than “The character who died off-screen is actually alive.” I’m really trying my best not to let that final moment tarnish my opinion of what was otherwise a stellar season, but... just... goddammit. If I was binge watching this on Netflix, I’d have serious reservations about starting the next episode. And I’d have never believed I could feel that way at the end of this finale.
- Make what you will of the grade. I was clueless.
- “Lazarus” was also a beautiful episode of Shameless, directed by Mark Mylod.
- If Carl is, in fact, destined for serial murder, Bonnie’s disappearance is an important step in that process.
- I was surprised there was no follow-up on Matty’s offer to take Debbie to the dance.
- It’s amazing how Sheila goes from being an amazing character to an unbearable one and back with such frequency. At least the adoption plot is done with.
- Thanks for reading, folks!