One of the central criticisms of the past few seasons of Shameless has been its attempts to rewrite its own history—the end of “Gallavich” (Ian and Mickey’s relationship) was necessary due to Noel Fisher’s exit, but the way the show reframed their relationship as purely destructive and worked to basically erase Mickey from Ian’s narrative was a conscious choice. It is in the soap-opera tradition wherein the past is inherently malleable: In order to be able to tell the best (or in that case, the least-complicated) story in the present and future, history can easily be rewritten. That’s how the greatest soap-opera love story of all time, between Luke and Laura on General Hospital, happened despite beginning with sexual assault.
In general, I’ve always seen this as a missed opportunity for Shameless, but I’ve tended to forgive the show for it. The show has been at a weird crossroads for a few years, trending toward a conclusion but still performing well for Showtime, leaving the writers in the unenviable position of writing at “the end” without being able to write toward a clear ending. The show’s ambivalence toward its own history is a byproduct of this: Monica’s death last season was one of the only developments in the past few seasons that has fully reckoned with the show’s history, and part of me wonders if that was because they knew there was a possibility that the show would come to an end when contract renegotiations with William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum began late in 2016. But once the show was confirmed to return, and with new contracts that could carry on for multiple years, the writers were suddenly operating with an open-ended mission, and I see why this might mean—for example—eliding the Mickey storyline to be able to push Ian forward into a new story, even if I understand why fans were angry at that decision.
But as much as I might be able to forgive Shameless for some of its choices with regards to its past, there is no forgiving how little I care about its future. “Sleepwalking” concludes a season that managed to generate zero forward momentum, largely ignoring the show’s history but never managing to use that clean slate to say anything meaningful or create any stories to interest me in what next season brings. The stories that are resolved are done so poorly, and the stories that are left unresolved have offered no reason to feel like their resolution will rescue them from poor story decisions. Even the season’s best storyline could not escape “Sleepwalking” unscathed, leaving behind a show that failed to capitalize on its history, struggled to articulate its present, and seems entirely disinterested in investing me in its future.
Lip’s storyline was the season’s strongest, anchored in his alcoholism and the clarity of his recovery narrative. Jeremy Allen White was consistently strong in capturing Lip’s struggle to still be himself while also being sober, and the story benefitted from the fact that several of the characters he was interacting with (Youens and Sierra, especially) had history within the show. Although the motorcycle shop was a new environment, and Brad was more or less a new character, Lip’s story felt rooted in his past in ways that made it resonate well in the broader narrative. I also mostly liked how the story concluded in this finale. As I noted last week, I’ve never felt like Lip’s story was about getting Sierra back, and so the way the show leaned into their reconciliation didn’t land for me. And so it was encouraging when Lip started exploring his ambivalence towards it, and the fact that he’s not convinced he really loves Sierra when he’s sober. The show has left the door open for the relationship to continue, as Lip is basically making the “I need to work on me before I work on us” speech, but it’s a good note for the story to go out on.
But what in the hell is going on with Lip adopting Eddie’s niece? Eddie’s role in this story was always about serving whatever purpose the narrative needed: She was a fuck buddy when the show wanted to talk about how Lip’s libido could be served without being in a relationship, and then she was a third side of a love triangle when Lip was getting closer to reuniting with Sierra. But as much as Eddie may not have been a fully formed character, the idea that she would run off with a guy to Cabo and abandon her niece (who she had taken in willingly to begin with and seemed to reasonably care about) is complete character assassination for no reason other than to enter Lip into the pantheon of television scoundrels softened by the presence of a child. It’s a sour endnote to a story that weathered the storm of the rest of the season around it, despite embodying some of the problems that were pervasive across the season.
For example: Remember when Lea DeLaria was introduced as Lip’s potential new sponsor? Or when Fiona’s tenant appeared to be running some type of cryptocurrency scheme out of her building? Or when Liam was struggling in school because he was never in class? Or when Liam’s place in the school was threatened by the presence of another black kid? Until this episode, it seemed liked the return of Debbie’s baby daddy, Derek, was going to be another red herring, but he shows up to request joint custody for him and his new fiancée, so that’s at least one storyline the show didn’t entirely drop. I don’t necessarily think any of these would have been compelling storylines, but their presence makes the season feel messy, like they didn’t have a clear grasp on the stories they wanted to tell and kept changing things up in search of something that was working.
Unfortunately, in the case of Fiona’s storyline, that never happened. I waited all season for anything introduced in Fiona’s ownership of the apartment building to amount to something, but it proved to be futile. There was nothing inherently wrong with Nessa or Melanie as characters, but they had no story: I didn’t care about Melanie being a bitch to Fiona, and Nessa’s existence was mostly just so Fiona would have someone to talk to consistently since the show chose to mostly isolate Vee in her own (terrible) storyline. They served a practical function—they knew the building’s tenants, they knew Ford, etc.—but there was never a moment where I said “I want to know more about them” or “I hope they stick around in the future.” They were not characters; they were props, used to fill out Fiona’s story.
And what was the point of that story? The root of Fiona’s storyline was the idea of her moving out on her own. The apartment building gave her more independence, and the drama with her family and the empty apartment converged to bring the idea of her separation from her family to the forefront. But then the family started squatting in that apartment, and the story became about… what? Are we supposed to read Fiona “going Gallagher” with the smoke bomb to sniff them out as her acknowledging that she can’t entirely escape her roots? I can understand that reading, but once the apartment is empty, Fiona doesn’t do anything else to clarify where her story is headed. This doesn’t feel like an important moment for her in the least, it feels like an overly convenient ending to a story introduced three episodes ago, and which distracted from Fiona’s actual story. Is she going to move into the apartment? Is Liam going to move in with her, given that he remains a minor in her care? The show never managed to find a way to turn Fiona’s burden of responsibility into anything other than a burden on its storytelling, and that’s unfortunate given Emmy Rossum’s capabilities and the potential for Fiona even within the scraps given to the character this season.
Fiona’s story echoes a consistent issue, though, which is that the show did a bad job this season of generating new characters to enter into this world. This is most true of Kassidi, a truly toxic and vile creation that never amounted to anything but a barrier for Carl’s return to military school. Kassidi is the kind of sitcom character that could work in a single episode, but across half a season there is just not enough substance to justify her continued presence. The show came close last week to saying something about her privileged upbringing and her understanding of Carl’s poverty, but this week there’s no attempt to expand on that. It’s just Kassidi being crazy, Carl trying to work around her, Kassidi handcuffing Carl to a bed, and then eventually Kassidi freaking out as Carl leaves on the bus (after Liam un-cuffed him). Nothing about this story revealed something about Carl, and there was nothing left to reveal about Kassidi, and thus we have a considerable amount of narrative space wasted on a dead end that somehow the show suggests could continue instead of having Kassidi meet some fate that would assure us as viewers that we’ve seen the last of her. If there is ever a TV character who should be Santiago’d (or Poochied, if you prefer), it is Kassidi.
In the case of Carl’s story, it wasn’t like Kassidi was a disruption. There wasn’t really much for Carl to do once the (frankly uncomfortable) detox storyline was set up, and Kassidi was the writers’ (terrible) solution. But what happened to Frank’s storyline this season was more tragic, as it started out in a fantastic place: His reaction to Monica’s death pushed him into the work force, and had him fast-forward through the lies of the American dream. It was clever, and gave Macy some great material, and technically speaking the story continued in the second half of the season, leading to his attempt to play Robin Hood with Liam’s rich friend’s family. But beginning with his trip to Canada, Frank’s story felt like paint-by-numbers, throwing him into scenarios that fit the character but offered nothing new or particularly compelling. This reached a low with Frank selling “Church of Gay Jesus” T-shirts, which is logical but amounted to nothing. The pivot to Frank’s failed robbery—undone by Liam deciding he didn’t want Frank robbing his friend’s family—has moments of commentary on class hierarchy, but mainly just reads as “Here’s another Frank plot where he ends up in a porta-potty, isn’t that just so Shameless?!” Despite on many occasions wishing they had written Frank off years ago, I wanted more for the character with the beginning of this season, and the end of the season went in the complete opposite direction.
What did Frank’s story do to make us interested in his future? Or Liam’s? When we ask the same question for each of the characters, it’s clear that the show has generated only negative momentum, leaving next season to more or less start over in most storylines. And outside of Lip, none of those storylines resolved in ways that felt like a climactic finish to a season’s arc. In most cases, they were short-term stories vaguely connected to what had come before, procedurally generated and lacking in purpose and reason.
And then we come to Ian. This is the one story that Shameless chooses not to resolve, using Ian’s arrest as a cliffhanger. After the firebombing of the van last week, Ian goes into hiding, refusing to answer calls from family or Trevor. Immediately, the show (finally) returns to the idea it raised back when Ian first went overboard in his war with Fiona. Trevor asks Fiona if Ian is off his meds, and then she asks Lip the same question. Everything we’ve seen from Ian suggests that something is out of balance, and so the question is not unreasonable. However, when Trevor tracks him down to talk to him, Ian refuses to address the question as though it is an insult, and when he hears there’s a warrant out for his arrest, he arranges yet another public protest instead of simply turning himself in. He seems to show no understanding that his actions had escalated beyond a point of reason, and the episode offers no explanation or justification for his choices (and doesn’t delve into the clear ramifications, like the loss of his job that he’s been ignoring for multiple episodes now).
I am so confounded by the choices surrounding Ian’s storyline. While I’m glad that the show did finally have the other characters acknowledge that Ian’s actions could be related to his bipolar disorder, the show seems unaware or incapable of acknowledging the nature of those actions. Ian is publicly arrested after having blown up a van, and yet in the mid-credits scene the family just smiles wryly at a returning Frank instead of immediately rushing out the door to go see what’s happened when they hear about Ian’s address on the news? Ian’s actions are the type of thing that should have shut down every other storyline. Trevor shouldn’t have been the only person who went out to try to find him, and writing it that way makes the rest of the family seem like they don’t see how Ian blowing up a van is a big deal. The show wants to silo off its stories, having each character operate in their own bubble that occasionally collides with others, but there comes a time when it is necessary for the rest of the stories to stop so that the family—still the heart of this show—can come together to help one of its own.
When Ian is placed into the police car, he drops the face of protest, swallowing conspicuously to face his uncertain future. It’s a similar moment to the one after he and Fiona’s big fight, and a clear sign the show wants to say something about Ian’s mental state in this pivotal moment. But the problem with this story is that the show never said it: they’ve turned it into a cliffhanger, built around a “Church of Gay Jesus” storyline that was too broad and repetitive to say anything meaningful. Any investment I have in Ian is entirely based on things that happened before this season, and I could say the same for every character other than Lip and maybe Frank. Shameless failed to generate meaningful narratives for the majority of its characters this season, and yet strangely left the door open for all of those stories to continue on when the show returns later this year. Nothing about Fiona’s relationship with Ford suggests that it has anything to say about anything, but there’s Ford still hanging around, useful only insofar as he is able to provide and use power tools. This finale made no effort to try to invest us in him as a character or in his relationship with Fiona; he just exists, which is about all you can say for this season as a whole.
I wish “Sleepwalking” made me feel like the writers knew this season would inspire me to use the title of this episode as an analogy, but it doesn’t. It makes no efforts to fix the season’s missteps, or promise more for the future. In a perfect world, the show would have written out the characters that weren’t adding value, and suggested new avenues that would create new story possibilities, but that wasn’t in the cards. Its failure is perhaps best exemplified by Kev and Veronica, who should no longer be a part of this show if this nonsense is this is the type of story the writers intend to tell. Who cares about Svetlana’s sham marriage? Beyond creating “shameless” things for the characters to do, what was the point of any of this? Remember when Kev found his birth family? Remember when they hated Svetlana, but then suddenly switched to helping her get married? Remember when Kev and Veronica were actually a part of the television show Shameless, instead of off in their own universe? They need to either give Steve Howey and Shanola Hampton meaningful material, or they need to give them a spin-off and allow Shameless focus on letting its other storylines breathe.
I don’t want to feel this way about Shameless. I don’t want to feel like this is yet another Showtime series running longer than it should have. I don’t want to feel like the show should just disappear a half-dozen characters between seasons. And I most certainly don’t want to argue that this season, as a whole, should be erased from the show’s history, given how important its sense of history is to the show’s success and my relationship with these characters. However, if this is the best “present” the show can offer, then it doesn’t deserve to be a part of that history, and I remain extremely worried about what the future holds.
- It’s one thing for the show to not raise Fiona’s guardianship of her kids when she was considering moving out, but in this episode she briefly considers leaving the country and it doesn’t come up, despite Fiona talking about it with Ford earlier in the season? C’mon, now.
- It is the 21st century. Ian’s face was all over YouTube, and the artwork created for “Gay Jesus,” and probably various other forms of online records. So what in the world was the logic for “I Am Spartacusing” at the protest. They clearly knew who Ian Gallagher was. C’mon, kids. (I get that there is a statement in that they are all a part of him, like Jesus’ followers, but they could have achieved that with a less silly “You’ll have to arrest us, too.”)
- “Zlata Super Long Last Name”—again, if it hadn’t evolved into an entirely separate and poorly plotted show, Kev and Vee would be a great source of comedy.
- Sharon Lawrence’s return to give Fiona a plan to get rid of the squatters and erase the lawsuit was good continuity, but it sure felt like the situation resolved itself too easily, huh? The stakes just never felt real, and the easy way it got erased contributed to that.
- “Why is Liam sleepwalking,” I asked early in the episode, so I appreciated that it was mainly so he could steal Kassidi’s keys and free Carl.
- “I’ve been drunk or high every day since I was 12 years old”—I feel like this is an exaggeration? I mean, we’ve seen him using those substances since the show started, but I’m not convinced that he’s been impaired that consistently.
- So where has Fiona’s dog been this whole time, exactly? Is Debbie dogsitting? What ever happened to Debbie’s drugs? (I could do this forever.)
- Thanks to everyone who has stuck with these reviews, and by extension the show, this season. I remain convinced there’s a good show built around these characters, but this season didn’t reflect that, and I certainly expended many words trying to explain why. Thanks for reading and offering your thoughts in the comments, and for joining me on this roller-coaster. Until next season!
- Update: How many more seasons will there be? Emmy Rossum’s potentially misstated tweet suggests there might only be one more, at least from her perspective. And Isidora Goreshter announced on Instagram she’s leaving the show, so it would appear it’s Svetlana who’s getting Poochied.