Emmy Rossum announced her exit from Shameless after nine seasons on Thursday, but in the wake of her emotional and rather vague statement, the immediate question becomes: What is Shameless without Fiona Gallagher?
While the timing, not to mention wording, of Rossum's message is questionable -- Season 9 kicks off on Sunday, Sept. 9 -- the decision actually makes sense. Rossum has spent the past decade portraying the dysfunctional family's caretaker and unofficial matriarch. She's grown up on the show, become a director on the show, and successfully fought to earn equal pay with her co-star William H. Macy -- something that was a long time coming considering how much of the show rests on Rossum's shoulders. It's understandable that she would be ready for a change.
That being said, can Shameless continue on without Rossum? The short answer is yes. While Fiona is currently still at the heart of the show, she has distanced herself from her family over the past few seasons as she's developed into an entrepreneur. A major storyline in Season 7 focused on Fiona telling her siblings, three of whom she still has legal guardianship over, that they have to start paying their way and that she's no longer available to be their emergency contact because she needs to get her own life together. And while that was a good move for Fiona personally, it segregated her from the family and its issues in a noticeable way. Her adventures in becoming a landlord intersected with Ian's (Cameron Monaghan) path to becoming Gay Jesus in Season 8, but Fiona has otherwise been moving into her own world and away from her siblings in a way that would have been impossible in earlier years. Fiona's separate existence from the rest of the action means it wouldn't be too difficult for the Shameless writers to craft an exit for the character that makes sense.
Furthermore, Rossum isn't the only one who has grown up on the show. Her costars -- Monaghan, Jeremy Allen White, Emma Kenney, and Ethan Cutkosky -- have also developed into mature, talented actors over the years. Each has already proven they can handle dramatic heavy lifting. Meanwhile, Macy's Frank has been sober for an entire season now and could potentially gravitate toward being the center of the family instead of living on the outskirts where he's been working his own side schemes since Season 4. This is a large, talented cast that could absolutely step up to the plate in the wake of Rossum's exit.
But should they? Fiona's departure creates a ripple effect throughout the cast. Yes, she's been distant, but she's still the main connection between Vee (Shanola Hampton) and Kevin (Steve Howey) and the Gallagher family. If Frank and Lip are sober, Ian is busy as an EMT, and Debbie and Carl are still too young to drink, how will the owners of the Alibi still fit into the Gallagher family purview? Would it be another storyline happening that has no real connection to the people the show is focused on? Kevin and Vee are a thread that's too valuable to lose, but it will take some serious reconfiguring to ensure that it maintains a place in the fabric of the show in the wake of Rossum's exit.
When it comes to the Gallaghers themselves and the leadership position Fiona holds within the clan, it makes the most sense for Lip (White) to become the show's emotional center. He's the next oldest Gallagher sibling, and Season 8 put him in a reasonable place to take over handling the family shenanigans. However, the dream has always been for Lip to escape the South Side and use his incredible intelligence to make a better life. If he becomes the Gallaghers' leader, it almost certainly seals his fate to be stuck in the ghetto for the rest of his years, which might make White happy, but ultimately does a disservice to the character who has worked the hardest and has the best chance of getting out. Is it really worth it?
Both Rossum and Wells have expressed their desire for the show to go on after her departure, promising there are many more Gallagher stories to tell. We believe them, and while Rossum may be ready to leave, many fans aren't ready to say goodbye to the Gallaghers entirely. The longtime series, which will air its 100th episode next month, is still Showtime's highest-rated show, so a renewal is far from out of the question. The writers are currently crafting a Season 9 finale to say goodbye to Fiona, and it will undoubtedly service the character and respect the work that Rossum has put into this show. The reason Shameless has lasted so long is because of those same writers' abilities to create smart, compelling storylines for these characters year after year, but after they've written her goodbye there needs to be a serious discussion of how this show evolves without its central character -- and if that evolution is actually good for the show or just necessary to fill Rossum's void.
Other shows have certainly crossed this territory before. Game of Thrones made a hobby out of killing off its leads. Nina Dobrev famously left The Vampire Diaries. Shameless is more than capable of filling the void left by Rossum's departure. But if stopping the vacuum it creates compromises the journey of the rest of the characters in irreversible ways, do we need it? Sticking the landing isn't as fulfilling if it's not your best routine.
Shameless returns for Season 9 on Sunday, Sept. 9 at 9/8c on Showtime.
(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS, Showtime's parent company)