This ninth season of Shameless has been its most difficult. Sure, some significant characters have come and gone before – Joan Cusack and Justin Chatwin come to mind, but how do you replace the heart of the show?
Which is exactly what Emmy Rossum has been since Shameless debuted in 2011. The Americanized version of the shaggy Brit dramedy that launched – among others – James McAvoy, got off to a bit of a shaky start when it premiered. Shameless has always been a mixture of absurdist humor (mostly evinced by William H. Macy) and blue-collar drama.
The story of the struggling Gallagher’s on Chicago’s south side would often swing wildly from the outlandish to the painfully realistic. Every time the show’s more extreme impulses were verging on the overfed, one character would pull it back to ground. That character was Emmy Rossum’s Fiona.
As the oldest sibling and reluctant matriarch of a family born of an alcoholic father and a mentally ill and oft-missing in action mother, Rossum had what should have been a thankless role. She had to be the glue. It’s not always sexy to be that which holds things together.
Rossum, with her remarkable good looks and classical training – might have seemed an odd choice to lead up the cast of a barely getting buy family in a hardscrabble Midwestern neighborhood, but she was more than up to the task.
In her hands, the role has not been thankless – even if the Emmys have yet to thank her with even a single nomination – while honoring William H. Macy’s much broader performance as her ne’er do well father multiple times. It’s a rare thing for any actor to score a part as rich as Fiona Gallagher. For nine seasons her performance has run the gamut from hilarious to heartbreaking. Rossum has done brave, even astonishing work. Fiona has made terrible mistakes. Discovered that she is capable of more than she would have ever believed, and then crashed upon the rocks.
Which is how this – Rossum’s final season on the show – began. After making herself into a mini-mogul by rehabbing a laundromat, taking over a restaurant, buying a rental property, and investing in another building, the weight of her own ambition and worst instincts have wiped all her gains away. Over-leveraged, spread too thin, and descending into substance abuse, Fiona loses everything.
With that as a backdrop, Shameless had multiple heavy lifts to manage this season. With Rossum’s announced departure, the showrunners had to navigate both her storyline and her exit while still maintaining the rollicking to realistic tone changes that have made the show so unique in the first place.
At times – particularly in the early going – the show struggled to find that balance. Fiona has been the core of the show since its infancy and making sure her descent and recovery were given the appropriate amount of story arc while also preparing for a world without her, stretched at the seams.
I could have done without Carl’s humane dispatch of sick and elderly dogs. Frank’s hobo contest was one of those “less is more” kind of subplots involving Macy’s character that I have sometimes found tedious over the years. More than anything though, the show had to create more space for the characters who will be remaining to fill that which Fiona has held with such significance all these years.
It’s a difficult task. I’m not entirely convinced that the character of Debbie taking over that family’s management is going to work. I just don’t know if she’s compelling enough. More successfully, the always terrific and far too unsung, Jeremy Allen White’s “Lip” has stepped forward (although he’s always felt like the show’s stealthy third lead) and showed signs that his reformed alcoholic, trying to straighten himself out, could become the engine that drives the show.
All these threads had to be sewn together last Sunday night during the season finale. After a shaky start to the season, I can happily report that the show managed Fiona’s exit with a lovely muted grace, while also pointing to a future that may just survive her departure.
It’s not going to be easy going forward without Fiona, but there are some signs that the show can do more than just survive without her. Especially, if as I implied before, the show centers itself around “Lip”, whose ups and downs have at times mirrored Fiona’s.
As for Fiona’s swan song, it was handled in atypically muted fashion. A windfall from a former business partner nets Fiona $100,000 and a chance to start over. This time somewhere else. There are several nice touches in that regard. Fiona tells “Lip” who promises a party that Fiona quietly skips out on. Not because she doesn’t love her family, but because she knows if she stays any longer, she may yet lose her nerve. If she’s going to go, it has to be now.
As the show closes, we see Fiona on an airplane to an uncertain (to the audience) destination. She charmingly reveals that it’s her first time on a plane. Debbie discovers a check from Fiona attached to the refrigerator for $50,000. “Lip” finds Fiona’s room empty. He smiles and returns to her going away party which she’s already gone away from.
Once again, the Gallagher’s lift their voices and (some of them) their beers, eat their pizza, and most importantly, keep on keeping on. Even as the family’s ballast leaves town.
When I first learned that Rossum would be departing the show, I thought the best course of action would be for Shameless’s ninth season to be its last. I still think a promised season ten is going to be difficult to manage without her. However, thanks to a strong finish to this season, I do think there’s a genuine chance the show could move forward and remain effective.
It won’t be easy, but one thing the Gallaghe’s know how to do is survive. Let’s see if their show can too.