[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Sunday's series finale of Shameless. Read at your own risk!]
After a rocky eleventh and final season, Shamelesssigned off for good on Sunday night, bringing us to the end of the Gallagher family saga once and for all. The episodes that aired this year, as well as many of the ones from over the course of the past six or so years of its run, felt more often than not like the writers spinning their wheels, so it's appropriate that its conclusion felt as flailing as it did. While it's tough not to wonder what it would've been like had Shameless wrapped after its fifth season (arguably the last truly good one) or even its ninth, which saw the departure of Emmy Rossum's Fiona, and with her the remaining semblance of anything holding the show together, we as the audience must accept that this is the ending we got, for better or worse.
Shameless first aired on Showtime back in 2011, and its pilot remains a wonderful hour of television, a solid way of introducing us to the world of the dysfunctional Gallagher family, laying good groundwork for things that would become important to the story later, like Fiona's commitment issues, Ian's (Cameron Monaghan) connection to their mom, and Frank's (William H. Macy) whole deal. I say this because in the finale, Shameless literally took us back to the pilot. As Frank floats in and out of consciousness on a hospital gurney, he mistakes the nurse tending to him for his eldest daughter, and then, suddenly, there she is. No, Rossum sadly didn't return to the show one last time, as many fans hoped she would, appearing instead as she was in that first episode, bustling around the house and looking after her siblings in ways Frank himself never bothered to do. The flashbacks continue while Frank's health declines, hallucinating younger versions of his children as he suffers alone in the COVID-19 ward.
When he dies, the show presents it open-endedly, with no indication of if or when the rest of the Gallagher brood will find out about it: While their father is in the hospital, they're at the Alibi celebrating Ian and Mickey's (Noel Fisher) wedding anniversary, unaware of his status. And, maybe on another show that hadn't already run Frank's character into the ground, it could've been a bittersweet moment, but Frank's passing just left me wondering why killing off this dead end (no pun intended) of a character took so long. But more on that soon.
One of the major themes of the show as a whole, and the final season in particular, was fatherhood. Between Mickey coming to terms with the death of his own dad and the Gallagher siblings' learning of Frank's dementia diagnosis earlier, as well as the reveal in the finale that Tami (Kate Miner) might be pregnant with her and Lip's (Jeremy Allen White) second baby, it makes sense that Shameless tried to make one last statement about the things fathers pass on to their kids, and the very act of becoming a father at all. That would have been all well and good had it not been one of the only attempts the show has made to revisit the past in any sort of meaningful way, to tie the events of the current season to the events of seasons past.
Let's start with the Ian and Mickey of it all: Perhaps no fans of this show have had their patience tested more than Gallavich shippers, and seeing the pair end up together was one of the few moments that actually felt earned. At this point, they've been through so much that to allow them a bit of peace as they move into the next chapter of their lives was nice to see... and yet. Once you spare it more than a cursory thought, it's difficult to feel excited by what Shameless ultimately did with Ian and Mickey. A few episodes ago, Ian stopped Mickey from killing his dad, making the point that Mickey is a better person than the man who raised him. In the finale, the anxieties Terry (Dennis Cockrum) instilled in Mickey come up again when he and Ian revisit the topic of having kids. The problem is that the show approaches their conversation as if Mickey doesn't already have a kid. A kid who was written off a while ago, but a kid nonetheless, one Mickey and Ian once co-parented, one Ian tried to run away with in a fit of mania. The whole reason Ian and Mickey ending up together is so satisfying is because of their history, because of the bumpy road they had to travel to get here, and so when Ian assures Mickey that he'll make a great dad, it should be a way of circling back to something we already know, that Mickey is capable of caring for a kid because we've seen him do it, but that moment never arrives. There's subtlety and there's ignoring, and here, Shameless does the latter, resulting in a scene that lacks the emotional juice to ring as anything but hollow.
That same issue presents itself in Lip's story, as well. All season he's been trying to figure out where in the world he's headed, but only sort of: His relapse at the end of Season 10 was effectively ignored, and his string of poor decision-making came off as acts of pure stupidity. In the finale, he's beaten down as he starts a new job as a food delivery worker, and he finds himself inside the home of a Forex trader having issues with his algorithm, which Lip successfully fixes with just a few clicks. For a second, you hope that the guy will offer Lip a job, but instead Lip is sent on his way, back to deal with another pregnancy he doesn't seem to want, back to wasting his potential. He gets another offer on the house he's been renovating from a conveniently placed neighbor, but is dismayed when it's for much less than he wants. (Whether or not he decides to sell is left unclear.) While I can see the intention in finishing his story like this — drilling home that Lip, a character we know to be a genius, the show's prime example of its thesis that kids are doomed to become their parents, could've had it all — it only reminds us that the complete squandering of Lip's character will go down as one of the most frustrating things about Shameless.
Debbie (Emma Kenney), Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), and Liam's (Christian Isaiah) stories are, if I'm being honest, barely worth dwelling on. Shameless has always struggled with the three youngest Gallaghers, never really knowing what to do with them as they grew up, which unfortunately ensured long ago that their own journeys in this last hour had no chance of hitting home. Take Debbie, who continues her reign as "most irredeemable player" in the finale. For the past few weeks, she's been viciously opposing and even sabotaging Lip's efforts to fix the house up because of her own selfishness, and Shameless decides to wrap that up by presenting her, the Gallagher sibling who most wanted to stay put, with a way out via Heidi (Shakira Barrera), the ex-con she inexplicably shacks up with. We don't know if Debbie accepts. She could have made her peace with Lip instead of running around town with a random woman, but the show had no interest in allowing her any chance to grow, even in the tiniest of ways.
Meanwhile, Carl's cop storyline is still one big shrug after another, like the writers' were saying "why not?" every time they remembered they had to give him something to do. He and his police buddy toy with the idea of turning the Alibi into a cop bar (which, sure), and discuss buying the place from Kev (Steve Howey) and Veronica (Shanola Hampton) as they plan their move from Chicago to Louisville. We never find out what comes of that either, or how Carl could even afford it, but it doesn't seem to matter. As for Liam, he doesn't get the dignity of his own story. He was never really developed in any significant way, leaving him to be the one who goes out looking for his dad, since no one else had any desire to do it.
Which brings us back to Frank, who gets a wildly unwarranted hero's send-off. Macy's an excellent actor, but Frank's natural expiration date passed a while ago, meaning that for a long time he's been only tangentially connected to the rest of the cast when it suited the show to bring him back into the fold. In the end, Frank shows up at the Alibi as a kind of spectral ghost, unseen by the rest but watching them as he drinks from a perpetually full beer mug. He then floats away into the sky, above the Alibi and above the city, as he reads, via voiceover, the suicide note he'd left his family pre-overdose, while everyone else pours out onto the street to watch a rich man's car burn, singing a joyful rendition of Spoon's "The Way We Get By." If this sounds at all familiar, it's because it's more or less a carbon copy of the events of the pilot, down to the song, which initially played over a scene where the Gallagher kids and Justin Chatwin's JimmySteve (remember him?) sat down to have breakfast together.
"I'm not going to ask your forgiveness, because you bunch didn't do s--t for me, so let's just call it a draw," Frank says. "I know some of you think you hate my guts, and truth be told, I never liked any of you much either." And doesn't that just feel like the show addressing fans who have been critical of it these last few years? The decision to revisit the pilot in this way, to make Frank aware of the flack he's gotten not just from his kids but from the audience, doesn't land thanks to years of inconsistent writing that prevents these beats and callbacks from resonating. For a while now, Shameless has been preoccupied with being as audaciously "shameless" as possible, sacrificing everything for the sake of the gag, so when it asks us to forget all of that, to accept that most of the characters are signing off with unresolved stories, to just enjoy Frank for what he is, the only thing it accomplishes is being absolutely maddening.
Series finales are tricky business since it's not often that fans actually agree with where its writers think things should end. Shameless isn't the first show to have a disappointing last episode, nor will it be the last, but after eleven years, it's hard to accept that this was the best they could do. I can't say if it was always the plan to end things this way — surely there were COVID-induced complications and restrictions that had to be worked around — but this finale did feel a bit like watching an old dog being put out of its misery. Much like Frank himself, Shameless hung on to the bitter end, and much like the Gallagher kids, we as viewers are now free of the nonsense. Let's all raise a beer glass to that, I guess.
Shameless Seasons 1-10 are streaming on Netflix.