“Shameless” doesn’t shy away from darkness. In fact, it embraces it. The Gallagher family’s misfortune, and their ability to bear it in some of the most unimaginable ways, is central to the series. The season finale is no exception to this theme. However, the execution falls flat.
With each finale comes time to reflect on the trajectory the lives of each character have taken. And this season, their stories have diverged quite a bit from one another, furthering the narrative from what holds it all together — the family’s relationship. Lip (Jeremy Allen White, “Afterschool”) works his way down a self-destructive path at college. Frank (William H. Macy, “Fargo”) is preoccupied with his old flame Queenie (Sherilyn Fenn, “Twin Peaks”). Ian pursues a career as an E.M.T. alongside his new, surprisingly normal boyfriend Caleb (Jeff Pierre, “Drumline: A New Beat”). Debbie (Emma Kenney, “Epic”) veers out on her own to look after her baby. The family has become a decentralized unit with Fiona (Emmy Rossum, “The Phantom of the Opera”) left desperately trying to anchor it down in time for her wedding.
Every once in a while, Fiona catches a break — an opportunity to be happy without having to consider anyone else’s needs but her own. Sean (Dermot Mulroney, “The Grey”) serves as not only her break, but as a source of comfort to guide Fiona through the aftermath of her imprisonment, arguably her lowest point in the series. Though his presence provides a sense of stability in the constant flux that is the lives of the series’s characters, he brings his own set of problems to the table. A former drug addict, Sean must deal with the consequences of his harrowing past while building a relationship with Fiona.
Though Sean hired Ian (Cameron Monaghan, “The Giver”) when no one else would and helped Carl (Ethan Cutkosky, “The Unborn”) cut his ties with a neighborhood gang, Fiona’s fear that he’ll fall off the wagon lurks in the part of her mind that tells her she can’t have a happy, stable relationship. This anxiety is understandable, given her pattern of falling into doomed relationships. When the two hastily decide to get married, we can’t help but feel that Fiona is headed towards yet another letdown.
This feeling pervades the prenuptial bliss that Fiona and Sean artificially act out — buying wedding bands, taking dance lessons and discussing their future lives together. Her eager wedding preparations seem stilted, almost too happy — as if we’re being strung along to believe their wedding will go as planned even though (given the show’s history), we know it likely won’t. This feeling defines the show’s appeal. Its ability to draw us into its story, forge our attachment to its characters, then snatch it all out from under us just often enough to instill a nagging sense that at any moment anything can take a turn for the worse.
And then it does.
Frank comes barreling in to the ceremony with the news that Sean is still using. Fiona’s devastated, Sean’s relationship with his son is irreparably strained and Frank is once again happily the root of all this. The subtle poignancy of this tragic moment for the show’s protagonist contrasts with the building tension leading up to it — as we’re led to believe Frank is going to kill Sean when he buys a gun earlier in the episode. Even the beginning of the episode conveys a drastically different tone through its slow camera movements, which slowly pan through the Gallagher house as Frank urinates in Sean’s shoes and steals his money.
Frank’s irrational longing to destroy Sean after a showdown between the two in Fiona’s home is like nothing we’ve ever seen of his character. His motivation, usually a greedy, alcohol-fueled lust for some self-serving outcome, is unclear. Whether he’s stung that his family is finally refusing to put up with his egotistical antics or has his daughter’s interests at heart is blurry. Regardless, his actions carry the impact they always do — a muddled trail of heartbreak and devastation. And just like that, a relationship we’ve been rooting for all season is curtly put to an end. The most disappointing part of it is that Sean doesn’t even try to explain himself or win her back. He simply subsides into the long list of disappointments that characterize Fiona’s love life.
The finale ends with one of the most pivotal questions in the story: what’s Lip going to do? His slow decline down Frank’s alcoholic path culminates in a meltdown that’s been a long time coming. In each episode, we only glimpse a small misstep on Lip’s way to completely screwing up his life. The impending feeling that Lip is going to end up back where he worked so hard to get away from creeps up on us throughout the season. Though it isn’t surprising that Lip is the root of his own undoing, it raises the question: “why now?” His self destructive behavior has always been one of his most salient traits, one that is put to the test when his professor pays for him to go to rehab. However, we are left with him standing outside — whether he goes in or not is question to be answered by the next season.
The season finale is a disappointing end to an even more disappointing season. The series seems to have run Frank’s course. The dramatic tension he provides is arbitrary, and at times even frustrating. By leading Frank through the motions of preparing to kill Sean, then destroying his relationship with Fiona in one fell swoop instead, the show points to its own desperate attempt to produce a compelling ending that leaves the characters reeling yet again. Rather than sharply honing in on a dramatic plot point with the greatest potential to develop into the next season, the show lazily repeats past narratives and kicks down its protagonist once again — this time, with seemingly nowhere to move forward.