Roleplay is not an uncommon human action: even beyond how it could manifest in a sexual context, there are always points in our lives where we take on particular roles, contorting ourselves into other selves in our (or others’) best interest. Usually, if we know someone really well, we’ll know when they’re playing a role. But what if we’ve never met someone before? If we’re meeting someone for the first time, how would we be able to distinguish between the role and the “truth?”

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I believe I know Fiona Gallagher. I know she is hardworking and cares about her family. I know that she is strong-willed and sometimes foul-tempered and always stubborn. And when it comes to relationships, I know that she has never been one for “normal” or “traditional”—not because she is undeserving of those ideals, but rather because she has never needed them in order to find a source of comfort or support (which shouldn’t require a boyfriend or husband, but the show has never explored that particular potential to its detriment).

And so I feel like I can see when she’s playing a role. Even before she literally takes on the identity of Lillian, the former owner of her rose gold wedding ring, Fiona is doing things that she never would have cared about before. She’s insisting that they take dance lessons, and she’s sitting at her table making place cards, and she’s buying into the fiction of her relationship with Sean. If you stop and think about it, the answer to what’s motivating Fiona to marry Sean is entirely absent: what does she love about him? What is he offering that she couldn’t supply herself? What has Sean done that would support the bridal role she has taken on in the days leading up to their wedding?

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And so it’s fitting that Fiona would come to discover (via Frank) that it was Sean who was playing a role all along—and it wasn’t Clyde. Fiona never knew Sean when he was a user. She had no way of knowing the difference between the role of the sober supporter and the junkie who’s just gotten good at hiding it. She didn’t have the ability to look through him because she never knew what she was looking at: she only saw what she wanted herself to see in order to keep up her own role.

Although a decent man in his work with Carl and someone who clearly cared for Fiona, Sean was never a well-rounded character. Dermot Mulroney brought nuance to the role, but Sean was always an arbitrary presence in the Gallaghers’ life. This is not a show where it’s easy to build new characters, as they will always pale in comparison to the core group (as has been demonstrated with Caleb this season). When a soap opera wants to introduce a new character, they often tie them to the show’s history, as we saw with Sammi and Queenie - it’s never elegant, but there’s an easy to make them feel like part of the show’s world. Sean never had that. He emerged awkwardly, with Mulroney suddenly replacing Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who had a big night elsewhere), and then through two seasons slowly revealed facts about the character more than his history. I wasn’t surprised when Mulroney never evolved to a series regular, because why would he? What would justify Sean becoming part of this show; or, put another way, what would justify Fiona agreeing to marry Sean?

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It’s not an inherently bad thing when we question a character’s action, as it speaks to how invested we are in these characters. The scene with Lip at the Alibi after being bailed out by Youens reframes Kevin, Veronica, and even the barflies as audience surrogates. How could Lip be so stupid as to fail to understand that his South Side Defeatist identity was the role he’s choosing to play, as opposed to who he really is? How could he fall down a path so similar to his father’s when he should know (because they and we know) that he is worth so much more than that? How is it that he never once looked in the mirror and thought “this isn’t me” as he threw away his shot at a better life?

There is no easy answer to this question, and that is a dramatically unsatisfying if viscerally compelling situation. I don’t accept that Lip would do this, and that’s a problem in terms of the show failing to show its work, but I acknowledge the resulting moments resonate. Watching Lip return to the college drunk, as though testing out which of his roles would win out should he do so, is a dramatically powerful moment, well-acted by Jeremy Allen White. However, it would be an even more effective moment if I understood why Lip would play that role beyond some suddenly activated Daddy issues in the wake of some repressed Mommy issues with Helene. You can’t end the season—at least other than the mid-credits scene—on the moment of Lip going to rehab when it feels like Lip’s alcoholism happened three weeks ago, and was motivated more by the writing than by any believable human action.

All of the Gallaghers have taken on roles this season, and not always in ways that are inherently negative. Carl tried to be a gangster, before eventually trading it for the role of the upstanding young citizen (and discovering, in his youthful stage of natural identity play, that it was the latter Dominique connected with). But Debbie tricked her boyfriend into getting her pregnant to try to artificially create a family, a role that never materialized and left her struggling to redefine herself in the wake of Frannie’s birth. Although I still don’t entirely buy Debbie’s new identity, I at least acknowledge that as teenagers these two don’t have as defined a sense of self. They will change, and have this season, and Debbie’s arc reaches a point here where I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The moment where Fiona touches Debbie’s face after she comes to her wedding—as though to embrace the Debbie she knows beneath the “role” of the independent woman who won’t accept her help—is beautiful, and makes the tumult with these characters a productive if at times trying exercise.

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However, Ian is a bigger problem. The roleplay is clear: after Mickey’s departure, Ian’s story this season has seen him trying out a normal relationship, and eventually the notion of a normal career. The show leapfrogged a whole handful of steps to tell this story, chief among them Ian’s completion of his GED, allowing us to presume certain steps must have happened off-screen. But too much is happening off-screen for me to celebrate Ian convincing a private ambulance company to let him work as an EMT with bipolar disorder. Ian claims he is managing his disorder, but how? In their rush to have Ian test out a normal life, and for him to make an impassioned speech about what it means to be discriminated against for having a mental illness, the writers never stopped to show enough to make me believe that Ian has completely managed such a complex condition. I am more likely to believe that Ian is, like Sean, playing the role of the healthy and stable member of society, which appears positive until you realize its inherent precarity. And while that demonstrates my connection to the show and the character, this finale wants me to cheer Ian getting his job back, and that’s a role I resent and will continue to resist even as Caleb and Ian share quiet moments of support and Caleb is part of the “gang” who dumps Frank into the river.

Roleplay doesn’t have to be serious, as demonstrated when everyone is reacting to the intimacy between Kevin, Veronica, and Svetlana, but it’s a storyline that reveals the real function of roleplay. Six seasons into the show, they’ve done more or less every story they could with these characters: they had babies, they bought a bar, and then they would appear to have been settling into a “normal” life. But this season was a series of false starts, a terrible neighbor storyline followed by a hipster idea that was more about the show’s itinerant gentrification storyline than about the characters. And so roleplay is the easiest theme to refresh the characters: Struggling to find stories for Kevin and Veronica after a garbage neighbor story went up in flames? Have Veronica play the role of wife to Svetlana and let the sexual hijinks begin. The three-way marriage is not a bad storyline, but it also feels arbitrary, with Veronica’s bisexual awakening coming with too little warning.

But while there are certainly ways in which this focus on roleplay feels like a last ditch effort to give this season meaning and pull its disparate stories together, it’s not exactly a new idea. Frank Gallagher is a con man, always taking on new roles to the point where it’s hard to know if we really know who Frank is. Was he ever the loving father that he claims to be, or that we’ve seen in glimpses this season through his (admittedly often destructive) attention paid to Debbie? He admits as he’s outing Sean as an addict that he’s an asshole, but given he had initially intended to murder him (or potentially plant the gun he acquired to get his parole revoked?) isn’t this technically Frank looking out for his daughter? Or is that not even possible given the messenger at hand?

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Frank is a polarizing and destabilizing character because we have never been able to trust him, and because we’ve defined out trust in the other characters based on their ability to see through his bullshit. The reason I struggle to understand Lip’s transformation is because he always saw through Frank, and I can’t believe he wouldn’t be able to see himself going down Frank’s path after so many years, even accepting that self-reflection is often harder. The turn toward roleplay pushes us back to Frank’s long con, asking us whether or not his petty revenge on Sean might actually be motivated deep down by something approaching concern for his eldest daughter. But yet the end of the episode robs us of any reflection on this point, focusing on the dissolution of Sean and Fiona’s relationship and reducing Frank to a mid-credits coda as his family dumps him in the river.

The thematic cohesion of this finale is valuable and often compelling, but it can’t fully hide how inconsistently drawn these stories were throughout the season. Although rarely outright terrible, the sixth season of Shameless was underwhelming because of the way it moved from point to point. Moments in this season that really resonated—Fiona walking through the empty house—were undercut by what came after; character motivations were lost in the shuffle, leaving characters acting irrationally based on what we’d seen before but without the work necessary to make that transformation legible (and thus effective) onscreen. Although characters ostensibly faced challenges and changed in the process, the whole season feels light in retrospect, failing to generate enough meaning for characters like Lip or relationships like Sean and Fiona’s for the climax to land as you’d expect.

Life doesn’t have carefully bounded seasons: it’s one of the reasons soap operas just keep running, never having to acknowledge that there is no way to parcel out a pure three-act narrative from a slice of these characters’ existences. But even if we accept that there’s no clean way to pull a season’s arc together, Shameless season six nonetheless points to the basic problem: without a clear sense of where they intended to end our glimpse into the Gallagher’s lives, we’re going to get seasons like this one that hit intermittent beats without making much in the way of music in between.

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Stray observations

  • So after all our discussion last week about Lip and Ian’s ages, apparently Lip is 22, which…I mean, that’s just ridiculous, right? We skipped his 21st birthday? He’s become a senior, meaning he’s paid for something approaching four years of school with combinations of loans and grants and yet never struggled to afford textbooks or food or anything else? I don’t have the time to go back and piece together how much time has reasonably passed onscreen, but I have serious questions.
  • Credit to Isidora Goreshter, who has successfully made Svetlana a “new” character on the show that feels part of its world. Despite my sense the Kev/Veronica story came too late in the season to fully gel, it demonstrates how Svetlana’s consistent and caustic presence has gradually made her a key recurring player. Curious to see if she gets bumped to series regular.
  • Although I watched the finale—and wrote most of this review—on my phone while traveling earlier this evening, I still appreciated the lighting in Frank’s infiltration of the house. Some evocative shots throughout the episode, but the opening really stood out to me (even if, as noted, cutting the meat out of Frank’s story with the comic ending means the sinister performance from Macy says nothing).
  • I can never say enough good things about Emmy Rossum, but even a heartbreaking performance couldn’t shake the “Sean had to go back to his home planet” feeling of that ending. And I didn’t even dislike Sean that much.
  • For the Gallavich fans, or for anyone who’s been paying attention to the situation surrounding Noel Fisher’s exit, I’ve got a For Your Consideration up today considering the way Showtime’s active acknowledgment of the ‘ship on social media has complicated the show’s path forward following the end of Ian and Mickey. It compares/contrast with the recent situation with The 100 (so some spoilers if you’re not caught up with that show), but consider it the byproduct of some good conversations we’ve had about the topic in the comments.
  • Speaking of which, thanks to everyone for reading and commenting throughout the season—it is challenging to confront a show this late in its run, where it is both highly familiar and also disoriented from its original purpose by the simple passage of time and the challenges that come with it. While part of me hoped that this finale would do something drastic to kickstart the show next year, at the same time there’s something comforting about knowing that it won’t change too much, a tension they’ll have to address next season.

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