Fiona Gallagher deserved better than this, Shameless

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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Eight years ago, toward the end of the show’s seventh season, Steve Carell decided to leave The Office. It was a significant blow to the series, and the writers spent most of the eighth season struggling to understand what their show looked like without Michael Scott. However, it was actually pretty easy for The Office to write out Michael Scott: as much as he loved his job in Scranton, and as much as he loved his co-workers like they were his family, the prospect of finding the love of his life and being with her was more important. As hard as it was for Michael Scott to leave Scranton, you understood why he was willing to, and what kind of life he was leaving for.

I found myself thinking a lot about “Goodbye, Michael” watching “Found,” the ninth season finale of Shameless. This is in part because it borrows a device from the episode, as Fiona leaves while her siblings are out buying supplies for her goodbye party, much as Michael lies to the office and tells them he’s leaving a day after he’s scheduled to fly to Colorado. But I was primarily thinking about how it’s not nearly as easy for Shameless to write out Fiona Gallagher. Some of this is circumstantial: from what we know, when Emmy Rossum made her final decision to leave the show there was only time to rewrite the last two episodes of the season. However, on a basic level it’s hard to imagine Fiona Gallagher leaving the South Side of Chicago—even as she’s created distance between her life and her family, the show has consistently argued that she remained rooted to her neighborhood, and to the values it represents. In addition, she is still technically the guardian of her two youngest siblings (Carl and Liam), and regardless of her recent spiral holds that sense of responsibility over the Gallagher family in a way that can’t just disappear overnight.

As a result, I spent much of the season trying to imagine what scenario could be developed that would allow Fiona to just no longer be part of this show. And while early on you wondered if she might be following Ian to prison, or perhaps tempted by another visited by JimmySteve (to the point where someone added a credit to Justin Chatwin’s IMDB page), last week’s episode made clear that there were no such plans in place. John Wells, who wrote both “Lost” and “Found,” drops a check for $100,000 into Fiona’s lap, returning her original investment in the nursing home property. It becomes a bookend of sorts to the check she had when the season began, and considered using for Ian’s bail, but this time something is different. When she gets the check in her hands, she takes stock of her life and realizes that she doesn’t see her future in Chicago anymore. Instead of looking for another investment or some other local option, Fiona pays her fine for the misdemeanor assault, cuts Debbie a check for $50,000, and books herself a plane ticket to somewhere new. The argument is that everything that happened in Fiona Gallagher’s life this season made her realize that for her to truly take the next step in her life, she needs to do it on her own, and leave her roots behind.

And reader, it’s some bullshit.

“Found” is a frustrating hour of television. There are two things the episode needs to sell us on, and it fails on both counts. The first is that Fiona’s perspective on her life has changed enough to justify her choice to leave Chicago entirely, which works if we don’t think about it too much: Fiona hit rock bottom, and reflecting on why this happened might make her think a change of scenery could be the jump start she needs. But because Rossum’s decision came so late, the season didn’t lay the groundwork for this, and so Fiona’s sudden “flight” response doesn’t track. The episode could have shown us a full Al-Anon meeting where Fiona comes to terms with the idea that she needs a change of scenery to avoid entering the same cycle as her parents, but that work isn’t here. The episode jumps right from Fiona receiving the check to Fiona packing her bags, and no one ever acts shocked or concerned by her choice. No one tries to convince her that she could rebuild her life in Chicago, and that she might stand a better chance with some kind of support structure instead of literally nothing. It’s as if Wells is concerned that if anyone actually voices an objection—or even a question—that the complete lack of any logical thinking behind Fiona’s decision will be revealed. And so instead, everyone’s just briefly surprised and then completely understanding, so that you don’t dwell on the left field development.

Illustration for article titled Fiona Gallagher deserved better than this, Shameless
Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

But, honestly, selling us on Fiona thinking her life might be better if she leaves Chicago isn’t the episode’s biggest challenge: people do reckless and impulsive things all the time, and I sort of agree with the show that it’s more true to the series’ ethos if Fiona leaves with an uncertain future ahead of her wherever that plane lands. No, the episode’s biggest hurdle is convincing us that Fiona’s desire to get out of Chicago would outweigh her sense of responsibility for her siblings, and the work Wells does here is just straight up malpractice. Fiona wakes up $100,000 richer and all of a sudden her siblings have their shit in order: as Fiona sits in the kitchen, she watches as Debbie makes plans to find someone to take care of Frank, and then tries to cook breakfast but discovers that her siblings no longer need her to be there for them. Then Debbie tells Fiona that Franny needs her own bed, and that she wants Fiona’s room, and then later Liam—who briefly moves out of the house in protest of their disregard of his blackness, speaking of left field developments—makes a demand for his own bedroom. Everywhere Fiona looks, she’s force-fed absurdly convenient signs that her family no longer needs her, and it is actually in their best interest if she moves on with her life, as they have everything under control. And when she goes and visits Ian, he doesn’t hesitate: she should go.

Did any of you buy any of this? I wondered at one point if what we were watching was Fiona, bleeding out after getting shot at her gas station job, hallucinating a scenario that would assuage her guilt for leaving her family behind. Yet after a while I had to accept that Wells was moving to erase any and all guilt, to the point where the episode never actually brings up the fact that Fiona is abandoning her responsibility to her two minor siblings. No, Carl doesn’t need Fiona to make breakfast anymore, but she is still his legal guardian even if the show forgot to mention it, and even if Liam decides he’s going to live with a black family that respects his heritage it doesn’t change the fact that Fiona—who never even speaks to her youngest sibling to tell him she’s abandoning him—is supposed to be the one at parent-teacher conferences. But instead of confronting these consequences of Fiona’s decision, the episode elides them, lest we stop and realize the show hasn’t laid the groundwork for Fiona ignoring those responsibilities.

It’s important to acknowledge that Rossum’s timing (as reported anyway) put Wells and the writing staff in the position to have to rush this story, and therefore they didn’t have the luxury that The Office had, which was putting Carell’s exit a few episodes before the finale to give them a moment to focus on the weight of Michael’s departure without needing to simultaneously lay the groundwork for the future. But that doesn’t justify the idea that, hours after Fiona Gallagher left her family and friends without saying goodbye, they would all be partying the night away as if their lives haven’t changed forever. Wells is sending the message that “the show must go on,” but how in the world is Veronica just dancing up a storm instead of reflecting on the fact her best friend just left without so much as a note? Why isn’t the weight of responsibility that Fiona has placed on Debbie starting to sink in for someone whose competence has been wildly uncertain right up until the episode had to pretend it wasn’t to convince Fiona to leave? Why isn’t Lip—perhaps about to become a father and further tied to his neighborhood—reflecting on his own failure to escape as Fiona is, perhaps resentful of the life he lost during his own self-destructive period? The ending is working so hard to convince us there’s still a show in Fiona’s absence that it makes the characters look either ignorant or unfeeling, divorced from their relationships with the show’s reality.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that it’s Ian’s advice that lets Fiona make this decision. I had known that Fiona would be visiting Ian in prison, but I had expected the scene to deal with the fact that Fiona had been absent from his previous goodbye. Instead, there’s no animus between the two siblings: Fiona is there to test out the idea of leaving, perhaps expecting Ian to talk her out of it, but instead he tells her to do it. Why does he do this? That’s a great question, and I don’t think there’s an answer to it. I rolled my eyes when the mid-credits scene cuts to Ian watching a plane fly overhead while playing basketball in the yard with his fellow inmates, but then I just got angry that the episode did no work to try to explain why Ian felt that way. His speech to Fiona is devoid of any meaning or perspective: Wells just uses his separation from the rest of the show to serve as an omniscient voice of reason, a permission slip for Fiona to ignore her responsibilities. There’s not even an attempt to explain how his experience in prison has made him realize Fiona’s sacrifice—he’s just completely onboard with her leaving because that’s the most convenient way to convince us that this isn’t a slapdash exit unworthy of the character’s contribution to the series.

Illustration for article titled Fiona Gallagher deserved better than this, Shameless
Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

“Found” doesn’t give Emmy Rossum enough to do, honestly, but what we get makes me wish we had gotten a farewell episode that reckoned with Fiona Gallagher’s place within this collection of characters. Outside of her treacly moment with Ian, an immobile Frank is Fiona’s only true goodbye, and it’s a great little scene that would have been better if they hadn’t had Frank say more or less the same thing while he was moderating Fiona and Lip’s fight a few episodes ago. It reminds us that Fiona inherited her father’s sense of pride: he’s unwilling to acknowledge that she did far more than “help” raising her siblings, but he knows that he can’t let her leave without properly thanking her for what she did. And while Fiona certainly did more than “help,” the idea that she “did it all” glosses over the times when she fell short, and her other siblings (or Kev and Veronica) had to step in. None of the Gallaghers are particularly good at understanding others’ perspectives, which is what makes the fact that everyone so quickly accepts Fiona’s departure so fundamentally at odds with what we know about them. And the fact that everyone is so casual about it means we don’t get to explore the fraught emotions between Fiona and Lip, or see Fiona and Veronica think about how much their lives have changed since their friendship began, or see Debbie reckon with Fiona’s passing of the torch. Emmy Rossum sells Fiona’s calm determination of her decision as best as you could, but the underlying story is just too empty to give us the exit both character and actress truly deserved.

It’s also hard to ignore the fact that “Fiona rebooting her life” is a far more compelling show than the one she leaves behind. The unwillingness to give Fiona a reason to think she needs to stay means that everything is hunky dory on the South Side: Kelly whips Carl into shape when he threatens to quit military school after not getting into West Point, and while Tami isn’t sure if she wants a baby or wants Lip to be in that baby’s life, there’s no attempt at a real cliffhanger. The show doesn’t even bother to show us Kevin’s big Jesus moment, or provide any resolution to Liam’s list of demands: they’re just both partying at the house, frozen in amber as part of this motley crew of South Side rapscallions. And while I’ve long ago accepted that John Wells’ “Shameless is a comedy” nonsense has placed him and I at odds over what lies at the core of this show, the idea that Fiona’s exit would strengthen rather than weaken the core bonds of the series is just insane to me. Rather than using Fiona’s exit as an opportunity to challenge the show’s status quo and force the characters to reckon with their situation, the ending suggests that the real message here is that the Gallagher family bond is stronger than ever, and more than able to weather her exit.

This could all change next season. We could pick things up after a time jump—it seems necessary if they’re going to keep ignoring summer and to get Ian out of jail in time for his return—and discover that Fiona’s absence has taken them to a dark place. But the message being sent by this finale is that while Wells and the writers have respect for Fiona’s character and work overtime to give her a hopeful if uncertain future somewhere closer to the equator, they do not fully comprehend how important Fiona and Emmy Rossum have been to the show. But what could we expect from a season that seemed like it had no idea what to do with Fiona before it had to rush to write her off? And despite the finale revealing that plot holes like Liam’s absence were building to something, others—like Fiona just forgetting about her investment in the midst of her spiral—bear the hallmark of a show that has lost sight of how its own seriality. Its characters are no longer a product of their histories, but rather a reaction to their current circumstances, which is why it was perhaps unreasonable to expect that Shameless would ever give Fiona Gallagher the exit she deserves. Even if Rossum had given more notice, what evidence do we have that the writers’ current storytelling philosophy would dig deep enough to say something truly meaningful about this character’s journey?

Illustration for article titled Fiona Gallagher deserved better than this, Shameless
Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

Let’s reflect on that journey for a minute. When the public defender walks Fiona through what’s about to happen at her hearing, she tells her that it’s time to “leave this South Side hood rat crap behind you and get on with being an adult.” It sounds great if you don’t think about it, but it’s fundamentally at odds with Fiona’s story. Fiona has been an adult since she was a teenager, forced to take responsibility for her siblings due to her mother’s absence and her father’s alcoholism. What Rossum’s performance—the series’ best throughout its run—captured so well early on was the insecurity that comes from feeling like your life depends on being able to function as an adult, but doubting under the surface that you’re up for the job. Over and over again, Fiona works her way into adult situations—a good job, a positive relationship, smart investments—and through a combination of her own insecurities and some bad luck the situations fall apart. The idea that Fiona’s problem was her magnetic attraction to “hood rat crap” flattens a life of complicated emotional struggle, and risks creating the impression that the only thing keeping her from succeeding were her surroundings.

I can understand how Fiona might see leaving as a solution to her problem: she’s tried so much, and this is something she can do that has the chance to keep her from falling into the same patterns with what Veronica acknowledges is not her first second chance. But her sense of calm about this opportunity feels at odds with the weight of the character’s journey. As much as it might be a “happier” ending for the character to get onto a plane and settle in next to a young girl who’s also on a plane for the first time, it would be more honest to the character’s journey if she was on that plane feeling the terror of her decision. She’s about to test whether she’s the root cause of all of her problems: not the fact her parents left her responsible for her siblings, not the fact she keeps having to deal with Frank, and not the fact that the rest of Chicago looks down on the South Side. Fiona is about to take a little under $50,000 and restart her entire life, and the idea that this is just a fresh start instead of a potentially demoralizing confirmation that everything that’s ever gone wrong in her life is actually her own fault is pure fantasy, and robs us of a final moment worthy of Rossum’s performance throughout the series.

It’s possible we’ll get a sobering glimpse into Fiona’s future at some point before the show comes to an end: Wells has insisted that the door is open for Rossum to return, and I would expect (unless there’s more acrimony behind the scenes than we’re aware of) that the show won’t conclude without at least some kind of cameo to give insight into Fiona’s fate. But as the show continues, will we get updates? Can the show really keep up the fiction that her siblings wouldn’t check in on her progress, and that she wouldn’t wonder what was going on back at home? Probably not, but Fiona’s life is too complicated for a “Did you hear from Fiona? She’s bartending in Barbados” throwaway. The idea that the show is just going to go on without her, ignoring what is a complex and emotional journey ahead of her, is a tough pill to swallow, which is why the show obscures the depth of Fiona’s story in favor of framing it as a new and exciting adventure.

Illustration for article titled Fiona Gallagher deserved better than this, Shameless
Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

Wells also downplays the importance of Fiona’s story because he has to pretend there’s still a reason for Shameless to keep going. There’s no creative argument for Shameless continuing. There’s still a business argument for a tenth season, although ratings are down this year after the initial Netflix boost wore off, but nothing about this season has suggested they have a firm grasp on how to tap into the show’s soap opera DNA to keep this engine running indefinitely. Wells has talked about how E.R. continued for a decade after George Clooney’s exit, but a hospital is not a family, and the show’s attempt to use the Alibi as a vessel for topical storytelling has revealed the limited returns of treating its cast of characters as equivalent to a medical procedural.

And perhaps it’s that mindset that led to Fiona Gallagher’s exit being treated like just another day: despite the fact that she was a sister and guardian, Wells treats her exit like an employee leaving the office, just a reality of life instead of a turning point that would change an entire family and the show about them. It’s the latest in a series of decisions that make it difficult to imagine a scenario where Shameless escapes its own downward spiral and finds a path toward the kind of resonant storytelling it was once known for—and it’s going to be a heck of a lot harder without its best character, who deserved a better send-off.

Stray observations

  • Like his older siblings when they were his age, Liam’s story suffers because they don’t trust the young actor with more emotional material. His desire to connect with his blackness just springs out of nowhere, and while it does justify the character’s unexplained absence in recent weeks, there’s not even any attempt to connect it to the lemonade stand incident, where I would note that Fiona committed a misdemeanor in his defense and the neighborhood rallied around him. It’s not illogical that Liam might get “woke,” as it were, but not seeing that develop over time robs the story of any real meaning, and makes demands like “Right to choose my own non-slave name” come out of nowhere.
  • Along similar lines, I legitimately feel bad for Ethan Cutkosky, who does what he can with Carl’s big emotional moment announcing his plan to quit school—as child actors grow up on a show like this, you start to realize that some of them just don’t have a whole lot of range, and yet the show keeps asking more of them. It’s a solid effort for someone who’s shown little interest in expanding his acting beyond the series, but there’s a reason why soap operas recast actors when a younger character’s emotional depth increases.
  • I honestly have no idea where Tami and Lip’s situation left off: Tami seems set on having the baby, but not set on keeping it, but the party at the end sort of erases any tension about that decision.
  • Kelly deciding she’s actually in love with Carl is... sure? It didn’t really make a whole lot of sense when she broke up with him, but the idea that she’s his one true love doesn’t really track either. Don’t get me wrong, I prefer this kind of relationship to the one Carl had with the girlfriend who his fellow cadet murdered—remember that?—but I don’t know if there’s a lot of story there, and the show doesn’t feel like it would be much different if we came back from a time jump and Kelly just wasn’t there.
  • Since when is Carl a graffiti artist? Did I miss something? Did Shameless just forget to tell the professional graffiti artist they hired that Carl has no discernible creative skills and then realize they didn’t have time to fix it to make it something he would actually create?
  • No clear resolution on the Xan situation here, which may or may not be a part of the show’s future storytelling. It would sort of be an indictment if they never revisit it and just brought it back to be a temporary thematic counterpart to Tami’s pregnancy, but I suppose a time jump (at least six months to when Frank is recovered) will give them wiggle room.
  • And thus ends our coverage of season nine of Shameless. It’s been.. .a bit trying, as you have no doubt witnessed, and there’s no question that this coverage has fully shifted toward a detailed accounting of the show’s creative struggles. This does mean that those looking for a less critical view of the show have likely been disappointed, but at this point it feels like people sticking around until the bitter end despite growing frustration is the primary audience for weekly reviews of the series. Regardless of your perspective, though, I thank you for reading, and just want to make very clear that as much as I don’t blame anyone for bailing on the show along with Fiona, I’m sticking it out to see just what exactly John Wells thinks Shameless without Fiona looks like. It’s certainly going to be an adventure.

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.

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