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When the credits rolled on “Gallavich!,” the tenth and penultimate season finale of Shameless’ run on Showtime, it struck me that this was an emotional climax to a story that started when the show debuted nine years ago. From the moment a fistfight unexpectedly turned into sex in the first season’s seventh episode, Ian Gallagher and Mickey Milkovich’s respective journeys were tied together, and became what stands as one of the most substantial same-sex relationship stories in American television. This is a significant accomplishment, and this finale really is a gift to the fans who’ve followed this couple over the past nine years.

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However, let’s speak truthfully: the most impressive thing about Gallavich is that it managed to persevere through the show’s fundamental mistreatment of the story. It wasn’t always the writers’ fault, mind you, but Gallavich had to go through a whole lot of bullshit to get to becoming the episode title of this finale. In hindsight, it’s possible to frame Ian and Mickey’s relationship as an on-and-off connection that can happen to anyone, but lived experience told a different story of contractual issues and one actor’s desire to seek out greener pastures. But in addition to Mickey’s periodic absences, the real problem was that the writers struggled to tell Ian’s story without him: without the certainty that Mickey would return, the show threw Ian into relationships that felt like dead ends, downplaying Mickey’s importance in the process. Experienced in a binge, these periods may not make as much of an impression, but in the moment it read as the show trying to force fans to move on, and accept that Gallavich meant less to Ian than it did to them.

Screenshot: Showtime
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That was never going to work. From the beginning, Gallavich was built to live outside of the show itself. I remember when the early seasons were airing, and YouTube made it easy for their entire arc to be distilled into a series of clips (now a single longer video that I watched yesterday, with YouTube no longer restricting video length). The internet allowed Shameless to be consumed solely out of investment for this relationship, with time in between seasons for the “shippers” to invest or re-invest in their connection. Even as the show—like any soap—threw roadblocks in their way even when there weren’t contract issues complicating things, it was never going to disrupt the relationship that Gallavich became outside the text, where fan fiction and fan art and head canons grew more than strong enough to survive the show trying to gaslight them with boring Caleb in season six (I’ll defend the Trevor story, which at least had a point to make, but it never gelled romantically).

“Gallavich!” is absolutely intended as a gift to these fans for their perseverance, albeit delivered by the same people who caused much of their pain. We often use “fan service” as a way to describe something that doesn’t work dramatically but pleases a show’s audience, but in this context it isn’t a pejorative: in a TV landscape where same-sex relationships have disproportionately ended in tragedy (often because of contract issues similar to Fisher’s), a fairy tale wedding feels fundamentally right. Given everything that Ian and Mickey went through, and everything fans had to endure, there was never space in this wedding for a cliffhanger, or for anything that doesn’t feel like a short-term obstacle that Gallagher family scrappiness can easily solve. Throughout the season, Gallavich has felt like an immovable endgame, with stories that could have threatened that (the Cartel Mickey informed on, for example) erased in the interest of villains like Terry Milkovich that feel like purely symbolic threats to be easily vanquished. “Gallavich!” frames their marriage as a victory for love over homophobia, as neither Terry’s arson nor the prejudiced owners of the Polish Doll could stop them from becoming husband and husband. And for the sake of the Gallavich fans, I’m glad the episode seems to have delivered on what they’ve been anticipating for nearly nine years.

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Screenshot: Showtime

And yet, I need to be honest: when we take the series as a whole into account, “Gallavich!” is an extension of the gaslighting that defined the dark years of this relationship. The weirdest thing about this season’s story for Ian and Mickey has been how disinterested the show is in their history. Their history is what defines them, but Mickey’s wedding to Svetlana was never part of this conversation, despite its clear relevance to their respective relationships to the institution of marriage. It’s true that fans will naturally read their history into the story, and I am not blaming fans for focusing on the positive, but I can’t help but feel there was a lot of dramatic potential left on the table by refusing to let Ian and Mickey work through the history of their relationship. When I see Noel Fisher handcuffed to a laundry shelf pouring his heart out, his dream of marrying Ian being threatened, I can’t help but wish the show would have channeled this into more scenes that directly confronted the characters’ history. Talk about what their time together and their time apart meant to them in bringing them to this point. You can still create a happy ending while acknowledging the less-than-happy parts along the way.

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This brings me to the rest of the episode, which is a hodgepodge of story developments that mostly reinforce how much of a waste of time the rest of the season was. The only function of Frank’s story in the grand scheme of things was that his misadventures with Faye mean he’s in possession of a classic car for Liam to gift to Ian and Mickey as a honeymoon ride. Kev and Veronica’s tomfoolery entirely dissolves once Kev starts a successful Keg Exercise gym overnight, apparently so he could afford an engagement ring despite the season having mostly no interest in their marital status or relationship up until this point. Julia continues to stick around like a regular Kassidi, inexplicably showing up at the wedding and then pairing off with Carl because it’s not like his garbage story (both a technical description and a subjective evaluation) has anywhere to go. And while the episode ends with Debbie on the run (again, missing multiple toes) from the cops after being charged with statuatory rape, that didn’t feel like a culmination of her story so much as an excuse to create something approaching a cliffhanger in an episode that otherwise seeks resolution (perhaps because it was possible, though unlikely, that an eleventh season might not happen).

And yet, as part of Ian and Mickey’s wedding, these characters all had a meaningful role to play in an episode that brought the entire family together. I loved the scene in the kitchen where Carl kept trying to get a beer out of the fridge, but one by one people kept taking it from him, until he finally managed to exhaust possible recipients and settle in. Debbie is actually a terrible actress, if we’re being honest, but it was still nice to see her going all-in to keep the whole “gay wedding” thing a secret. As much as it was a contrivance that Frank would get tricked by Liam into coming to the wedding, the character is always most interesting when confronted by his complicated relationship with his kids, and it would have been wrong if he was alive and not there (more on that in a bit). And sure, Kev was wrong to propose at someone else’s wedding, but they were there for the Gallaghers, and that’s really the only value of Kev and Vee given the quality of stories (and the lack of commitment to those stories) otherwise. The episode represented the kind of convergent storytelling the season otherwise avoided, which is a much more successful mode for this show even if they refuse to commit to it.

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Photo: Tony Rivetti Jr. (Showtime)

But in truth, my biggest reservations about this final come from Lip’s storyline. All season, I’ve contended that Lip’s story was meaningful but in unremarkable ways, and in ways that (like everything else) struggled to reflect on the character’s history. For this reason, I should perhaps appreciate that the show pivoted to Lip’s alcoholism in the moments after Tami told him she intends to move to Milwaukee without him, but honestly this storyline makes me so angry. The show has never given a clear reason for why Lip wouldn’t communicate his concerns about moving to Milwaukee with Tami, and there has been no effort to frame those concerns in ways that tie into the character’s history. It’s just a generic sense of responsibility, which Lip has been mostly ignorant to for most of the season, and which the show has never had Lip really explain to Tami in a clear way. She loves Ian enough to show up at his wedding, but she doesn’t understand why Lip might want to be nearby to care for him and his other siblings? The show had an opportunity to explore the challenges of starting a new life when you’re tied to the past, but instead of having Lip and Tami work through this rationally they’ve just stopped them from listening to each other, creating enough confusion to foster the kind of drama that would drive Lip to drink.

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And as powerful as the long shot of Lip agreeing to add rum to his coke and gulping it down is, I hate that it was used in this way. I hate that in an episode where the writers made a conscious point to have everyone ask Ian if he had taken his meds (as if the show has ever cared about that before) that no one seemed at all concerned about how Tami’s absence would affect Lip in this kind of setting. I hate that Brad, watching as his wife and sister-in-law try to destroy Lip’s life, doesn’t stop to check to make sure Lip isn’t close to falling off the wagon. And I especially hate that Tami, after seeing Lip show up at Brad’s in search of a meeting, suddenly completely changes her mind about Lip’s (insane) plan to rent(?) and fix up an old house, as though she suddenly remembered that he was an alcoholic and is no longer standing by her decision because of it. His decision to drink creates a fundamentally dramatic moment, but the way it’s positioned as a “shock” rings hollow to the truth of this family’s connection to one another, and the attempt to immediately pivot to a “happy ending” is a significant misjudgement.

Screenshot: Showtime
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Put more simply, “Gallavich!” doesn’t provide any signs that Shameless understands why this season failed to generate meaningful storytelling. I don’t give the writers credit for Gallavich: they understood the story enough to deliver a set of romantic moments for fans, but their overall treatment of the story was spotty at best, and I honestly don’t want to know what the story would have looked like if the fans hadn’t been so actively emphasizing a form of accountability. Everything else, though, reiterated the show’s disinterest in returning to the core of this story. Some of this is out of their hands: Emmy Rossum’s choice to leave the show means that Ian and Mickey got married without Fiona being there, which makes no sense but is a common problem with long-running TV shows. However, the show doesn’t even bother to have her send a card, instead pretending she no longer exists like with Mickey in season six. Ian and Debbie have a conversation about how they wish Monica—drug-addicted, neglectful Monica—was there to see him married, but no discussion about Fiona? A completely random Milkovich cousin the show is pretending was intimately close to Mickey as a child got to walk Mickey down the aisle, but they couldn’t even admit that Fiona is aware this event is happening? It’s disrespectful, but it also undercuts the show’s basic thesis about the family sticking together.

That thesis is going to have to be central to the final season, which is in an incredibly difficult spot narratively. Part of the reason Shameless has struggled to maintain momentum over the course of its run is that it can never “resolve” a character’s journey, always forced to revert them back to their previous state in order for the show to keep functioning. For the first time, with an end in sight, they’re going to be crafting the “end” of each character’s journey, whatever that might mean. An optimistic view is that this will free the writers to think about big picture questions they’ve been ignoring, and dig deeper into the show’s history to reflect on how these characters have evolved over time. However, the more cynical view is that given recent seasons the writers’ memories are so short that we’re really just going to see them using the tools at their immediate disposal to craft the most efficient “end” for the story, which is how you get Sandy walking Mickey down the asiel. That was more or less their approach to the Gallavich wedding, so why would things change?

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Because things have to change. The approach to storytelling that we saw throughout Shameless’ tenth season is not capable of delivering an effective final season. And the fact that they’ll be operating without a foundational story like Gallavich—which, while not over, has been resolved of its most central tension—to offer instant pathos means they’re going to have to look elsewhere. There will be no time to waste on worthless comedy or pointless tangents, also known as Frank. This needs to return to being a show about the Gallagher family, operating as a family, and confronting whatever awaits at the end of this show as a family.

Doing so won’t undo the damage done over the past few seasons, but it will at least help honor those in the audience who have stuck around out of affection for several of these characters even as their frustration with their actions has risked overwhelming that affection. “Gallavich!” felt like a moment when affection won out, but sustaining that for a final season is going to be an entirely different challenge. I sincerely hope they’re up for it.

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Stray observations

  • They’re just not even trying to present a clear timeline anymore, huh? It appears to be at most a day or two after most of the events of the previous episode in Lip and Debbie’s stories, but in that time Kevin has successfully rented the space next door, generated an entire client base, and decorated? And designred a logo? With what money, exactly? It’s like they literally forgot that Kev and Vee’s storyline is intended to be part of the same universe as the other ones. It’s just so unnecessary!
  • Speaking of Kev Ball’s Keg Zone, love when an episode is all about love overcoming homophobia and Kev’s using “Pussy” as a pejorative shaming term for his mostly male clients and never gets called on it.
  • Who in the HELL are the 120 people at this wedding? This is not an uncommon problem on TV, but this is such an own goal, because we know these people don’t have any friends, and so seeing a bunch of random extras (and that gift table) was just insane. Where did these people get money for those gifts?! Why did the wedding have to be that big? Why do that?
  • Shameless’ idea of dealing with our questions about where all the money for this wedding was coming from by suggesting that Mickey is committing armed robbery for it. The show never clarifies if that is Ian’s imagination or an actual cutaway to what took place, but either way that is not a satisfying explanation.
  • I was literally just calling Julia “another Kassidi” in my notes right before she paired up with Carl, so when I’m right, I’m right. I wonder if this one will be murdered offscreen in next season’s premiere and then never mentioned again.
  • Okay, so again: Lip is renting a fixer-upper. Why in the world would you do this? Is he getting paid to do these renovations? He’s increasing the value of a house he has no ownership of, which the owner will surely sell out from under him when he’s done! It’s just...what do you do with this?
  • “You not listenin’? We’re doing a murder thing now!”—I’m glad that they didn’t forget Mickey is funny while they were pivoting to romance. (The scenes in the kitchen were really the best part of this episode for me, even if I know why some fans would prefer others).
  • There is no universe in which the giant box containing the cake actually contained that cake based on the way it was being carried.
  • Did AMEX pay for product placement in this episode?
  • I understand what they were going for by bringing back the Gay Jesus followers but I would have preferred not to have been reminded of that storyline, personally.
  • Where do you think Ian and Mickey were registered?
  • Not a bad wedding playlist, although I’d have gone with “Teenage Dream” over “Firework.” (I will not comment on the sappier songs because they were just a BIT too sappy, and I know that was the point).
  • “Aren’t all homophobes gay?”—on the one hand, I accept the point the show is making here, but I really hate this trope dramatically (it really bugged me on Sex Education), and I’ve always appreciated that this wasn’t really what the show did in Mickey’s coming out. So I’m still going to hope we don’t reduce homophobia down to this in the future, please.
  • Thank you, once more, for joining me on the journey of reviewing another season of Shameless. And speaking of the future, yes: I’ll be back to bring the journey to its end later this year, for better or for worse.
  • In the meantime, I’m curious: what’s the one thing you feel you need out of a final season? For me, it is the return of Sheila: Joan Cusack is great, yes, but it also provides an instant “full circle” moment for the show to build around. I’ll be annoyed if Emmy Rossum—who says she found out about the final season on Twitter, so clearly she’s not in touch—doesn’t at least make a cameo in the finale Michael Scott-style, but I’ll be angry if we go an entire season without “Special guest star Joan Cusack.”
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Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.

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