The comment section of my post on Sunday night’s sixth season finale of Shameless was as intelligent and lively as you beautiful people make most comment sections, but it did feature a recurring theme: how badly Fiona is fucking up.
And I get it. She is, unfortunately, not doing a great job by average parenting standards. But the issue is that this is not a show about average standards in any form. When a show has wedding plans that include the father of the bride trying to take a hit out on the groom, I think we’ve moved past “average.” So while I acknowledge that Fiona isn’t doing a good job at being her siblings’ mother, I’m not at all angry with her about that. Part of that is personal. I really like Fiona. I like her character, I like how hard she tries, I like the stubborn way she refuses to give up even if I know that it’s not always the right move, I understand why she does what she does even if I don’t agree with it.
But part of this is just objective. Shameless develops characters so well and so honestly that even the most worthless, selfish, garbage people (Frank), at times, are revealed to be deserving of a little compassion. The mitigating factors in Fiona’s life?
1) She’s Still Really Young
I noted in an early post that Fiona’s exact age is difficult to pin down. Wikipedia says she’s 23 at the end of season 5 (which means they finally started reading my letters!) so as of the end of season 6 she’s probably 24. Meaning all of the terrible things she’s done as a mother over the past couple of seasons? She was 21 or 22 when those happened. And of course, even a 22-year-old should know not to leave cocaine where her baby brother could find it. But a 22-year-old fucking up is significantly different from a 30-year-old fucking up. If she were a college student who was drinking too much and getting into drugs too hard, we’d still be concerned but there would be a “well, this is what kids do” element to it. Developmentally she’s doing what you’re supposed to do when you’re in your early 20s, it’s only her situation that makes her behavior unacceptable. And I’m sure you’ll argue that she took on that situation when she wanted to become her brothers and sister’s guardian. The thing about that is …
2) She Didn’t Actually Sign Up To Be A Mother
I know, I know. She went to court and fought to become their guardian. I’m not arguing that she didn’t do that. I’m arguing that she had a much different idea about what being her sibling’s guardian would mean. Simply Fiona believed that it would be more of a team effort than her younger siblings do. In the first episode of the series, the family discusses how Carl would need to start pulling his weight around the house and help pay the bills. Because everyone in the family needed to do as much as they could for everyone else in the family. Carl was 8. But that was what the Gallaghers did.
And I have to imagine that that’s what Fiona believed they would continuing doing. She would take the bulk of the responsibility, but her younger siblings would help pay the bills, watch each other, and keep the house from falling apart. Because in order to survive, everyone in the family would need to pitch in as much as possible. The older siblings understood that, and at times it nearly broke them (seriously, where are all of the very many Emmys that this show should have?!).
But there is a rift between what Fiona, Lip and possibly Ian feel their responsibilities are, and what Debbie and Carl believe they are. Debbie and Carl aren’t wrong either. They do deserve a mother who watched them, cared for them, was there anytime they needed her. That mother was Monica. Fiona, as a 16-year-old kid dropping out of high school to raise her family, was never going to be the mother that anyone deserves. She was just the best mother available. And since we’re talking about Monica …
3) She’s Still Frank and Monica’s Kid
I’ve often heard, and occasionally witnessed, the truism that parenting is the hardest job there is. For those of you that are parents, I’d like you to stop and really consider a few things: do you have a spouse/ partner? Do you have a stable job? Did you graduate from high school? Did you wait to have children until you felt prepared to handle them? Did you have only as many children as you felt comfortable having? Do you feel that you currently have the sufficient resources to constitute a safety net if something terrible should happen? Do you have a support system? And if all/some are true for you, how would you rate your performance as a parent? Did you say shitty?
Because in my experience even people in the best possible situations often believe they’re doing a terrible job at parenting. Fiona not only has none of the things listed above, she also had Monica and Frank as parents. Frank provides Fiona with a continued source of abuse, stress and betrayal. But both of her parents made sure that she had no idea what a good parent looks or acts like let alone how to accomplish that. They didn’t just not give her the stuff she needed to be a good parent, they broke her in ways that will most like prevent her from ever being a really good mom. Which actually doesn’t matter that much because …
4) This Was Never Going To Turn Out Well
After the end of the even-more-so-than-usual heartbreaking fourth season, I was discussing the show with an acquaintance, and they said something about how they’re more and more concerned that the kids “won’t make it out.” And hey, buddy? Yeah, they super won’t. These kids were never going to make it out. If they, and we, are very lucky, maybe Lip will make it out, although that will still be torture in a lot of ways. And given his performance this past year, it’s more likely he won’t. Maybe Ian will. If Carl is lucky, he’ll get a just-above-minimum-wage job as a security guard that won’t pay him enough but will make him feel like a sort-of cop. Debbie will continue having babies, Fiona will continue making bad decisions when it comes to men and love. Because in real life, that’s what most people do.
There’s a weird truth that people who grew up poor and abused need to reconcile at some point in their lives: we are not as good. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that poor people are inherently bad. I’m saying that being poor in this country is fucking terrible. And that growing up in a terrible situation means we are at a severe disadvantage. The people around us, those who are supposed to care for us, are at best totally stressed out and at worst abusive/negligent. Which makes people mean. Being raised in a stressful, dire environment by mean people makes you mean. When you are raised poor and abused you can’t afford to focus on thriving, you can only focus on surviving. And those terrible coping mechanisms and habits will follow us until we can afford to spend the time and effort to break them. You know how likely people are to actually reach a stage where they get to do that? Not fucking very.
Which I think is why Shameless on the whole is so frustrating for some while it rings so true for others. These characters will most likely never get better, and that’s depressing as shit but it’s honest. This is not a show about a group of underprivileged kids beating the system. This is a show about the system. This isn’t just about poor people, it’s about the ways in which people get stuck being poor and fucked up. And given the fact that that means Fiona is up against an entire society that’s unconcerned with how badly she’s fucking up, I’m going to cut her a little slack.