On the surface, Fiona walking her way through the empty Gallagher home feels like it could have been Shameless’ final scene. That house has been central to the show—some in the comments last week called it a character, but that suggests we need to understand physical spaces as equivalent to humans, when in truth their role in the story is distinct (the “like a character” simile is a pet peeve, forgive my stubbornness on this point). The house exists in a complex relationship with its occupants, and with their histories—I can’t be the only one who thought of Jimmy/Steve when I saw the washing machine being wheeled out onto the curb, and it said a lot about Frank’s lack of emotional connection to his family that he’d be stripping it for copper instead of saying goodbye. To say goodbye to the house is, for Fiona, giving up on what she fought so hard for: keeping her siblings all under one roof, retaining the physical proximity of a family even when that family was crumbling for one reason or another.
It was easily the most emotional Shameless has made me in a long time. It captured the innocence of Fiona Gallagher, who for all of her foibles has never really shed her identity as a teenager forced to grow up too fast and raise her siblings like her children. While this is the house she grew up in, her tour through it is mostly focused on the memories she created raising others—there was no one to mark her height on the wall, because she didn’t have the type of childhood where there was a parent figure. Fiona was the only person who truly made that into a home, and so to see it ripped away from them—earlier than they expected, after the bank proved less sympathetic than the house’s new owners—clearly ends a chapter of her life. And so it’s not a stretch to feel like, in an alternate timeline, this could have also been the final shot of the show.
Now, that wouldn’t have necessarily made sense: the point of this development is the way it forces the Gallaghers to take a step forward, in Fiona’s case exploring who she is independent of taking on complete responsibility for her family. I have some serious ambivalence about this narrative, given there is so much evidence—Debbie getting caught up with Frank’s scheme, Carl falling deeper into a life of crime, Ian still in need of at least minor supervision—that Fiona still has a reason to be worried about her siblings. But the writers are clearly interested in the idea of “What next?” for Fiona, and for all of the Gallaghers at this stage. Frank is basically the only one for whom the loss of the house doesn’t coincide with some kind of turning point, and so the idea of using the loss of the house as a catalyst for additional storytelling tracks.
The problem is that it felt wrong to jump from Fiona’s last moments in the house to the rest of those stories. Whereas that moment felt pure and true, connecting on an emotional level, the rest of the stories right now aren’t on that wavelength, and raise questions about how long the show can go on before it loses the ability to create moments like the one in question. For many reasons, this season of Shameless has reminded me of Weeds, which reached a similar turning point in its sixth season: after a few strong early years and some growing pains in subsequent seasons, Weeds went into its sixth year in a self-reflective mode, eventually bringing Nancy to an important and meaningful realization about her role in her family. The final episode of the sixth season was incredibly satisfying, but in retrospect it was also the last time the show ever felt like it could tap into that particular feeling—by the time two more seasons had gone by, the time for reflection seemed like a distant memory, replaced with the diminished returns of attempts to refresh the show and keep the story going.
There’s just a limit to how many times you can manage that particular act, depending on the character. With Ian, I think the reinvention is easier: he’s younger, and so it makes sense that in his search for a post-medicated identity he’d be faced with what precisely he wants that identity to be. His efforts to hook up with Caleb the Artistic Firefighter are not complex, but the story becomes about a group of adult males who expect Ian to act like an adult: Caleb expects him to ask him on a date, and the firefighters presume he’s interested in becoming a firefighter even though it seems like the idea never even crossed Ian’s mind. I’m not sure I completely accept that Ian had no clue they might expect him to actually play softball (the show couldn’t resist the pitcher/catcher jokes), but it serves to highlight that as powerful as his connection with Mickey might have been, it did not condition him to date in traditional terms.
However, I wonder if the show might have lost the plot with Lip. Not to drag out the Weeds comparison further, but it’s remarkably similar to what happened with Silas, who the show started seeing as an adult capable of carrying his own storylines right around the time the character lost all momentum. The way Lip’s relationship with Helene dissolves here highlights how pointless the whole thing was: Amanda shows up as a one-dimensional revenge figure (I hate the way they’ve flattened her to this part of her personality), Chekhov’s nude photo re-emerges exactly as you’d presume it would, and Helene retreats into hiding while Lip pines for the woman he loved but who was never a realistic romantic partner. The scene with his other professor boils it down so well: “Boy,” he says to Lip, “You’re going to remember this glorious affair with this experienced woman for the rest of your life. Cherish this moment. Let’s go get drunk.” While I appreciate the story rightly holds Helene responsible and suggests serious consequences for her decision to sleep with one of her students, the idea that this was just a harmless romantic adventure for Lip robs the character of the identity struggle that used to define the character.
As far as Debbie and Carl are concerned, I remain concerned. This concern is not unproductive for the show, as I appreciated the way Debbie chose to channel Fiona’s straight talk rather than Frank’s suggested seduction when talking her way into a more permanent nanny gig, and I was glad Carl’s attempts to strike out on his own ran into unexpected roadblocks. But I was left aghast when Carl, after V rightfully calls out his minstrel act, proceeds to co-opt her language about slavery for personal gain, an act so vile I’m not sure I can ever view the character sympathetically again, teenager or not. And while Frank’s hangout time with Erica (a game Ever Carradine) is the most interesting his story has been all season, the Melissa Etheridge callback as she crawls into Debbie’s bed fell flat, the kind of sting that undercuts a story instead of highlighting its strengths. Similarly, I have my reservations about what kind of role the young refugees—who give the episode title its double meaning—are going to play: the sweet moment where V realizes one of them is a girl was nice, but the idea of them becoming Carl’s posse makes me profoundly uncomfortable, and not necessarily in a good way.
The final scene here may not be as resonant as Fiona walking through the empty house, but I think it reaffirms there is still story to be told for Fiona. We learn that she has rescheduled her abortion, which wasn’t a guarantee when this crisis landed in her lap, and we see her and Liam “playing house” with Sean and his son, albeit with tension in the air. The episode sets up a clear choice for Fiona: she can accept that Carl and Debbie and Ian are all making their own way and bring Liam with her into Sean’s life, or she can hold onto the Gallagher family unit. It’s a meaningful crossroads, but “Refugees” does make me ponder how meaningful a similar crossroads will be a year from now.
- TV characters going through empty houses was probably always going to make me feel a little emotional, but my parents also recently moved out of the house I grew up in—for decidedly middle class reasons, mind you—and so there’s an extra layer of emotions there.
- Just last week we were talking about Tony (because the house next door was brought up as a potential place to live, and we remembered he allegedly owned it last we heard), and now he magically appears to inform us that Fiona turned him gay? Okay? That a “Hey, why not?” writer’s choice if I’ve ever seen one.
- I know we aren’t seeing a lot of Ian’s life at this point, but it’s weird to me that—given his past forms of sexual encounters—we wouldn’t have gotten some kind of Grindr story here. I get that they want to contrast that with the community feel of the fire station, but it seems more in tune with his understanding of “relationships” and his age, sociologically speaking.
- I do have questions about the financial burden Frank created with his funeral planning, but I will say that he actually seemed to be helping Erica? Making her able to match Frank in past debauchery made for an even playing field, and it seemed like she is someone who actually needed a corrupt, completely unqualified cancer concierge as support.
- Did Chuckie return just so that he could get hilariously forgotten and show up at the house to find it locked? Was that the whole point? Isn’t he just going to go to Kev and V’s?
- University Verisimilitude Corner: While I’m highly unconvinced that the photo would spread around school that quickly (is Amanda some type of campus celebrity?), the quick action on the faculty side makes sense even if I wanted Helene to be punished more swiftly and for someone to emerge to tell Lip that he had been taken advantage of and that Helene was a terrible person, and then that person would turn to the camera and inform us that no amount of television glamorization of this very wrong abuse of power should ever convince you this is in any way an acceptable practice. But, beggars can’t be choosers.