Well my predictions were way off.
Before I write anything else, I have to raise a glass to Shameless for just completing its fifth season finale and still being able to genuinely surprise and supplant audience expectations. Despite my best assumptions, Shameless proved that the most subversive thing it can do is actually show a modicum of shame and consequence (more like a double shot of the stuff, really), finding, hilarity, sex, and also genuinely earned character moments that are unlike anything else on television. As per usual, I am not sure what one would call this annual send-off. Comedy? Drama? Heartbreaking? At the very least, and whatever issues I might suggest later in this review, there is no denying what it truly is: really goddamn good.
The episode opens by making up for lost time from all the lack of nudity lately. Everyone’s having sex. Fiona and a recently returned Gus, Lip and his professor, Frank and Bianca, Mickey and an Alibi girl as a poor Ian substitute—even Debbie (we’ll definitely get to it). Yet right off the bat, something is clearly different from what came before. It’s like the flipside of that famous Rodney Dangerfield Caddyshack quote, “Hey everybody, we’re all going to get laid!” Indeed we are, but nobody seems to be really enjoying it. For the ultimate distraction, there’s little attention paid to the release, whether due to a really uncomfortable presence of a husband in the room, the unspoken ménage à trois partner that is the Grim Reaper, or the fact that two are trying to bang away the pain of an already failed marriage (infidelity two weeks in will do that to you).
Fiona’s plethora of seasonal mistakes were obviously going to come to a head with this episode, but it’s really the mileage we were seeing from the other storylines that brought the pathos to this hour.
Strangely, as terrific as Fiona’s scenes were, and despite how good Emmy Rossum was in all of them, the Gus/Sean love triangle seemed to pull the most punches from the writing room. Everyone finally tells Fiona’s what’s clearly written on the wall: Gus is a good man, and she is not. Besides the fact that she is not actually a man, that bit of cruelty from one of Gus’ bandmates is not unfounded. We spent all of season four establishing Fi’s self-destructive tendencies and her disquieting Frank-isms. Gus might be the nicest, most balanced guy in the world, but if she cheats on him after a few days, it’s not meant to be.
What surprised me, however, is not that Fiona accepts that her marriage is basically done, but that the show hedges its bets after she has the inevitable epiphany. Fi goes to Sean and professes her love for him, which he returns with a kiss and an amusing truism of his own, “happiness is overrated.” It’s interesting that a line that would have sounded perfectly in-character coming out of Frank’s oblivious mouth takes on an aura of wisdom when espoused by Dermot Mulroney’s affable schlub performance, and I sense that is the problem here.
The show may not know for certain whether they want (or can) bring Mulroney back for season six, so neither Gus or Sean is fully resolved. Instead, Fi reaches the inevitable decision, but is then left in limbo until next season. It’s not satisfying, and it’s not what a season of her waffling needed to end on.
However, Rossum’s performance cannot be critiqued here—which is even more impressive with the real meat of tonight’s episode, involving Debbie, a pregnancy test, and some scarily twisted marital expectations by the girl who never really learned from date rape and nursing home kidnapping.
When Rossum and Emmy Kenney square off in a battle that could uncomfortably fall close to MTV programming (which Shameless knowingly name-checks), Rossum is smashing through the screen like cracking sheets of ice, hammering away at Debbs’ childish delusions. This is probably the episode where the penny drops for Fiona about her recent parenting skills with Carl in a correctional facility (an inevitability), Ian running away with Monica (not totally surprising), and Debbie now dreaming about starting a family at the mature age of 14-years-old (okay, pretty fucked up). Some of these mistakes have felt of convenience for plotting—such as the still inexplicable running plot thread that Fiona has forgotten to buy groceries for her siblings who she’s been living with for a week since Sammi “left” and has been acting like a den mother for her whole life—but they mostly felt like the challenges of a 20-something older sister taking on her failed parents’ responsibilities.
You can see Fiona’s one real remaining dream of being the good parent she never had collapsing in every exhausted plea and silent scream at Debbie.
I’ve written before about how this development is painfully believable for the girl that constantly kidnaps Aunt Gingers and gets attention by announcing she lost her virginity. She feels pushed aside and she thinks this will give her life stability. Of course, if she dreams this guy will be happy to settle down over this, methinks she has not even heard the loudest resistance yet.
The show is obviously saving the big throwdown for next season, but unlike the Sean-Gus triangle, this makes sense. There is too much unresolved tension between Fi and Debbie to wrap up as merely one of the many subplots coursing through this hour. Further, Fiona’s recourse is worthy of several hours in itself. When Lip refused to finish high school, Fi kicked his ass to the curb, which in its own backwards way proved to be effective. But Lip was both older and a little wiser of the real world despite his then considerably larger shoulder-chip. Debbie is very much a kid who, besides everything else, is preggers. Fiona is not a monster (I hope). But that gives her also less leverage with Debbie. There is a lot of narrative angst to be wrung from this storyline, so why spend it all now?
Who probably will not be coming back next season is Amanda, the girl Lip totally Mandy’d this year.
I will say it is a bit of an odd note to end Lip’s storyline on for season five, which has been a strong point for me. Far subtler than many of his other Gallaghers’ plights, Lip’s steady drift toward collegiate and middle class stability out of the South Side has been an honest, thoughtful, and unflashy narrative development. Choosing to end it on Lip throwing away one girlfriend for another seems redundant, though he definitely deserved that busted lip by the end of the hour (heh). Not that I think his newfound “love” for a professor will go much farther, but it’s college, and it seems inevitable that we’d see Lip eventually do what he always does: shrug as another heart not named Karen Jackson breaks in his path.
Real heartbreak in the Shameless season five finale did rear itself in two devastating love story wrap-ups: Frank and Bianca, and Mickey and Ian. Both plots I thought we saw season five conclusions for last week, and both came back for one more hour to shakedown viewers of their tears.
Frank and Bianca has been a perplexing ride. Her instant inclusion felt like a curious case study in Frank Gallagher as he had the daughter he always seemed to truly desire—one that would get drunk with him and then grab the bill. When it became romantic, and Frank transformed himself with a shower into Bum Romeo, I could not decide whether I liked this development or recoiled at the prospect of Frank enjoying a sincere romance.
But having Frank stay by Bianca’s side until this week’s bitter, bitter end didn’t feel out of character; it just was a side to the character I couldn’t predict. Granted, I do not think if Bianca looked like Butterface that he’d be in Costa Rica with her (then again there’d still be free booze), but he showed real compassion and acceptance when she pulled a gun on him, something he never would let slide for his own kids. And Bianca’s slide into grief, suicide, and a morning swim was handled with as much grace as a show like Shameless is wont to allow…an ocean’s worth when viewed in the right context.
Bianca’s slow march to oblivion may not have been the best decisions for her character, but they felt like ones made by a fully formed and even soulful person that we only knew for five episodes. It’s a bleak tragedy hidden in a tropical paradise that is smiling about pill addiction even in the face of suicide.
As out of left field as this little opera of pain is for Frank, it gave William H. Macy some of his best material since season three, and it feels perfectly fitting for Frank: a tragedy that no one will ever care about, because it’s Frank. When he comes home to tell his two eldest sons that sheis dead, without even acknowledging they don’t know who she is and could not give fewer shits, the brothers share a laugh that is infectious. Frank’s greatest pain belongs to a drunkard who cried wolf too many times. Our last minute laughter at that suffering is perhaps the saddest part of Frank’s journey, which he’ll never even be able to notice.
The aspect that is sure to bring a noticeable upheaval in the Shameless fan community, and likely cause tumblr to split into an abyss of anguish, is the seeming end of Mickey and Ian.
This storyline began in a way that also surprised since I expected Ian following in Monica’s footsteps was an unpleasant season five denouement for the character. Fortunately, Ian realized what a bad idea trying to set sail into Hurricane Monica might be. She has a point about needing to be loved by folks who accept him for who he is, but Monica is also someone who sells meth and has a teenage boyfriend. Yet, Ian is still not fully changing directions.
When Mickey comes running over like a wee boy in a particularly ham-fisted A Christmas Carol production to greet Ian, he instead gets a break-up. The reason? Mickey has trouble accepting that Ian does not want to take his meds. Well, at the risk of sounding insensitive, Mickey wants to help Ian, and the meds prevent him from doing things like kidnapping babies, stealing half the suitcases out of O’Hare, and swinging baseball bats at his little sister. But even if Ian insists on white-knuckling it, I haven’t seen much in five years that leads me to believe that Mickey would truly abandon Ian over the mental illness.
It feels like more of a moment about Ian reinventing his life, sans the Mickey, than an actual reaction to Mickey’s offense. I still feel like he is taking the wrong interpretation of Monica’s diatribe last week. But before shippers get too teary-eyed, Mickey gets one last great moment when Sammi returns from the dead to stalk him like a zombie fly that will not stop buzzing with premium annoyance around the Gallagher household.
Normally, the sight of Sammi this season has made me suck in a breath of frustration, but she actually for once allows Shameless to recall its comedic roots tonight, even if it involves her trying to put a cap in the Milkovich boy. It also brings Ian and Lip together for some nice brotherly bonding moments.
Ian and Lip used to have all their scenes together in the early years, now it is a moment that must be treasured, and Jeremy Allen White and Cameron Monaghan make the most of it. These moments of levity are so few and far between that fans should grasp onto them. And whether it is as great as the Gallagher brothers sharing a joint, or as awkward and unfulfilling as the final resolution to Kev and V’s shenanigans (he’d rather talk to her than run to his babies! The legion of infidelity is forgiven), the humor is a release after so much damn trauma.
It’s probably why they saved the best note for last as Carl and Chucky go to gang war.
These jarring swings between comedy and drama allow Shameless to coast around a lot of issues one can raise. For instance, why did the show let the thread of gentrification—the crux of season five’s marketing—fall by the wayside after only a few episodes? The supposed encroachment of lesbian realtors blew away along with Sheila Jackson’s home. Quite honestly, it is a missed opportunity. However, it is one that any fan of this series can shrug off after an hour as engrossing as what we just witnessed. A strong ending for one of Shameless’ messier years.
Other than Sammi chasing Mickey with a gun, this hour featured few of the shameless touchstones fans expect. Refreshingly, the series dialed back the antics in favor of messy, ugly lives of its Gallagher protagonists, making any plotting inconsistencies or loose threads matter little when faced with a collapsing Ian-Mickey love story or a desperate Fiona trying to stop Debbie from exploding her life. Or, for that matter, Frank alone on a beach.
Watching a finale like this, we all probably feel as confused and chagrined as that wayward Gallagher patriarch, thunderstruck by the odd beauty (or humor) in this ugly side of life. And like Frank’s tragedy, it can remain Shameless fans’ own little secret.
Most Shameless Quotes of the Week:
“Um, frontal and anal?…They call it the poop loop hole.” – Kev