What’s remarkable about Shameless — and perhaps a source of frustration for some — is that through nine seasons of the series, things haven’t really gotten much better for most of these characters. But that is also the socioeconomic reality of America, where upward mobility is rare and the “American Dream” is a myth. Rich people stay rich while poor people stay poor, hence the “birth lottery”: The easiest way to success is to be born into a successful family.
The Gallaghers are not that. Lip looked like a possible success story, but he dropped out of college and now he’s a recovering addict working as a mechanic. Ian made it as far as a job as an EMT, but now he’s in prison and off his meds, posing as some sort of Gay Jesus working for better conditions for “prison hos.” Carl straightened up enough to get himself into military school, but I can tell you from the experience in The Rowles family that Carl is most likely to end up in prison for drugs and theft. Likewise, Debbie is a high-school dropout and a single mom, and she has probably achieved her peak: Busting her ass as a welder for $18 an hour (while wearing a diaper). Meanwhile, after Frank survived a liver transplant and went right back to drinking, I gave up any hope that he’d ever evolve into a better person.
And the thing is: I’m OK with that. Shameless will not have a fairy tale ending, and it behooves its viewers to stop holding out for any sort of upward mobility. This is a family that, from season to season, will continue to do what they can to survive, because that is the reality of being poor. Windfalls may occasionally come and go, but they won’t last — for every success, there’s a $50,000 bail that must be paid. Being poor also means having terrible luck, and that luck will follow the Gallaghers around forever.
Fiona may be the exception to the rule, because there is typically an exception in every family, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in it. Emmy Rossum is leaving at the end of the season, and knowing that colors our perception of every decision she makes. Right now, she seems to be on the fence about whether to do The Gallagher thing and bail out her brother or use the $50,000 she gained from refinancing her mortgage to open another business.
Don’t count on Fiona escaping. Fiona buying up a lot of Chicago real estate and becoming a successful property owner is not in the DNA of Shameless. She’s far more likely to die of a drug overdose like her mother, or lose all of her money in a bad real estate deal and retreat to Ireland with her new boyfriend, Ford. (In fact, I believe that the phone calls with Ford’s mother are laying the groundwork for exactly that: Fiona throwing in the towel in America and starting all over in another country, if Ireland will accept her).
This is the lot of the Gallaghers. They were born to lose, and that’s OK, because it re-aligns the stakes. It means that the victories come in small ways, like Kev and Viv finding a way to exhaust their twins so that they can spend a few hours together; or the very sweet family dance at Monica’s funeral; or Debbie standing up to her boss and getting an extra $3 an hour. The Gallaghers do not advance in life — they move from side to side, forever paying bills with couch-cushion change. Lip will relapse, but he will always be a sweet guy with a violent temper and he’s the character most likely to fill the Fiona vacuum after Rossum leaves. Carl will commit crimes. Ian will go on and off his meds until his mental illness eventually kills him. Debbie will work an assortment of odd jobs her entire life while juggling the responsibilities of being a mother. Frank will eventually die face down in a gutter. And Fiona? She has a chance. But I wouldn’t place money on those odds.
But that is also what makes Shameless such a phenomenal show season after season. Once you can resign yourself to the fact that the situation is never going to get appreciably better for the Gallaghers, it becomes much easier to sit back, relax, and enjoy their exploits while taking some satisfaction in the occasional though fleeting moments of victory.
Header Image Source: Showtime