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Shameless puts Fiona's exit strategy in motion in the season's penultimate hour

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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Shameless brings attention to its “Previously On” segments more than most shows, having the characters antagonize the audience for needing them. However, it’s also an example of a show that does actually need them, given how often story developments can disappear for extended periods of time before reemerging when the writers decide the time is right.

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It’s why it was obvious the second we were reminded about Kev and Veronica’s absurd “send both twins to preschool to pretend they were one child” plan that the storyline was going to suddenly return. Forget the fact that this legitimately terrible plan allegedly lasted months, and that the twins actually don’t look that much alike, to the point where the idea that this wasn’t discovered before this fire drill is inexplicable. The bigger issue here is that it just never came up between now and the time it was introduced: in all of Kev and Veronica’s stories, the fact they were orchestrating this elaborate fraud was erased entirely, emerging only when they ran out of other stories and decided they needed to put Kev in a Jesus wig to carry a giant cross with his shirt off. The show didn’t forget about the story entirely, no, but it actively chose to ignore it for nearly the entire season, to the point where any value in the story was lost.

“Lost,” the first of two episodes written after Emmy Rossum made her decision to leave the series at the end of this season, is generally pretty good at being aware of what’s been happening over the course of the season. After three episodes in the back half of the season where Liam is inexplicably absent, his absence becomes part of the narrative, as he camps out with his bully-turned-friend and ignores his family for not even realizing he’d been gone for two days. But this sudden acknowledgment of Liam’s disappearing act doesn’t change the fact that the show did nothing to explain it. It doesn’t change the fact that Liam’s absence from those episodes was confusing, and in many ways distracting from the other stories being told. There’s also not a whole lot of story in Liam’s disappearing act: he plays some video games, and watches some movies, but what’s the takeaway here? Was the point of Liam’s absence just so this episode can make a few little quips about it? Is there actually a storyline here, or is it just another throwaway, making the best of a messy scheduling situation without actually saying anything meaningful?

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

Unfortunately, I find myself asking similar questions about Fiona’s exit. Emmy Rossum has a great little speech at her AA meeting, where she’s very upfront about her situation. She doesn’t know if she’s an alcoholic, but she knows the facts about her family, and she knows she hasn’t been dealing with her life well for the past few months. She later tells Lip that she doesn’t know what happened: “it all fell apart so fast,” she says, and her words ring sadly true. The show rushed Fiona’s collapse, piling on and failing to have any other characters offering her support until she had truly hit rock bottom. And the show also really never stopped to take stock of Fiona’s situation, to the point where we all sort of lost track of the details of her situation: I frankly didn’t even remember if she had maintained her investment in the nursing home project, because there was never a moment where Fiona or anyone else sat down to reflect on what was happening.

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This is a difficult thing, I understand: people growing up in an environment like the Gallagher household face distinct challenges, and therefore respond to circumstances differently. As a result, I don’t want to claim that the show didn’t “justify” that either Fiona or Lip before her would ever find themselves in such a dark place, and facing specific hardships, because there are factors operating here that I would not deign to speak to personally. However, my frustration with both of those stories is the way their collapse is pinned to relationships—Lip with Helene, Fiona with Ford—that the show struggled to make work, elevating them into these pivotal breaking points in ways that don’t ring true to the complexity of these situations. I wanted the show to do more to acknowledge in both situations that those relationships were red herrings, but it didn’t really—it just moves onto the chaos, instead of really drilling down into the big picture of their respective lives. I wish those relationships hadn’t been a part of those stories, and they would have been allowed to focus on the loss of their future on their own terms.

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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I say this because it’s been frustrating to see how the aftermath of Lip’s breakdown has led to the show losing track of his long-term narrative arc. Lip’s life was derailed by his collapse, yes, but the show has rehabilitated him without ever returning to his goals (going to school, getting out) or qualities (his genius) that defined his story beforehand. It’s a problem that the show could have possibly corrected for Fiona, but it doesn’t feel like they’re going to get the chance. Fiona spends the episode taking stock of her life: she meets with a public defender to discuss getting her felony assault down to a misdemeanor, and she gets a crappy night shift at the gas station to help facilitate it. But then “Deus Ex Maxina” walks into the gas station, as her old investment partner has news: the nursing home is being built, she still has a $100,000 investment in the project, and he generously offers to buy her out now so that he isn’t delivering her share of the profits to her next of kin a year later. In an instant, Fiona’s life goes from a dead end job to try to avoid prison time to a financial windfall, one that could give her the resources she needs to make a fresh start.

It’s a development that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. He just happened to walk into that gas station? Why hadn’t he been communicating with her about the developments on the building if she was still an investor? Why didn’t this investment come up as Fiona was in her spiral, even if in the context of the investment being worthless until the land issues were resolved? The reason it never came up is because the show arbitrarily isolated Fiona from anyone—Veronica, Lip, her neighbor Vanessa—who she could have spoken to about her situation, and suddenly remembering this investment when it’s convenient only reinforces how much the show didn’t explore the depth of Fiona’s story as it could and should have. Perhaps it was inevitable that the show would have to do something sudden and inorganic to hasten Fiona’s exit given the circumstances, but their choice reinforces how much Fiona’s storyline in the back half of this season has lacked the pathos it deserved, no matter how much work Rossum put into trying to find it.

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Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

It’s difficult for me to imagine where that pathos will come from in the future. The show is doing more work exploring Tami’s situation, as she weighs the risks associated with pregnancy given her mother’s death from cancer, but I still feel the huge gap between Tami’s first appearance and her return has skipped over some key character development to make her relationship with Lip work for me. Lip and Fiona remain the show’s strongest pairing, and their kitchen conversation is the episode’s strongest, but we know we’re losing that connection moving forward, and the comparable scene with Debbie and Carl is a reminder of how much the show has struggled to develop empathy in the next generation of Gallaghers. I’m supposed to feel bad for Debbie because she fell in love with his brother’s girlfriend for like two weeks and was rejected gently? I’m meant to feel the weight of Carl’s near death experience after the show has so casually explored his violence in the past? I feel somewhat bad that Carl didn’t get into West Point, maybe, but it’s reinforcing that outside of Carl’s “scared straight” storyline a few years back, neither character has ever really moved me emotionally, and the attempt to play their scene as heartwarming after a season of mostly empty hijinks shows a clear miscalculation on the part of the writing staff.

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I’m hopeful that despite the too-convenient life raft, next week’s finale will give Rossum and Fiona a fitting conclusion. But as much as Fiona’s exit is important, the bigger question at this point is what will be left in her absence, and the work the show intends to do in order to convince viewers that there’s still a show in the remaining Gallaghers.


Stray observations

  • Frank breaks his leg, a gruesome and random injury that happens because…I don’t really know? They get to confirm he’s old enough to be on Medicare (Macy is 68 so it tracks), and it’s not a bad story as far as Frank stories go, but the long game here is opaque.
  • It’s just wild to me that this episode could happen after Veronica’s big decision to deny Fiona a safe haven and the two characters never speak. I’m happy the guys at the Alibi are getting such consistent paychecks, but why don’t the writers see that this episode would be measurably better if we saw Fiona and Veronica talking about Kev’s weak bedroom performance and discussing her public defender appointment? If next week goes by without a major scene between those two, I’m going to throw a chair.
  • I don’t know what it is, but Frank’s casual racism—like his comments to the Sikh doctor—has felt really off this season. It’s like they’re putting modern talking points in his mouth but without any work to clarify if he really believes these things or if he’s just playing a part, and it’s been a recurring issue. Like, Frank has never been a good person, but something about his comments this season has seemed out of character. Am I the only one who feels this way?
  • No, you Googled the West Point applications timeline to see if the timing of Carl’s rejection makes sense. (I’d say it’s inconclusive, but they got more of the process in the show than I would’ve expected them to based on that PDF).
  • Love how Kevin can’t even lift the cross when he’s at the school, but then for some reason they lug it into the Alibi and then all the way back home, entirely unnecessary steps except for the visual of the giant cross kicking around in the background.
  • Given that Ian is returning next season, my money’s on some kind of time jump in the finale—most of the stories that are in place (Tami’s pregnancy, Carl’s military future, Debbie’s…sexual discovery?) feel like they could be jumped ahead a year or two pretty easily, and it would let them give Fiona a coda while transitioning into a “new” situation in her absence.
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About the author

Myles McNutt

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