13 March 2019
Sunday’s night’s season nine finale was the final episode of Shameless starring Emmy Rossum. Fiona’s open-ended exit leaves room for a return- for a holiday episode a few seasons away, maybe even a longer arc if the show runs long enough without her (Cameron Monaghan will be rejoining the cast for season ten after taking a break; anything can happen)- but it’s the end of an era for sure as the heart and soul of Showtime’s longest running hit boards a plane for the first time in her life and flies away from Chicago’s South Side.
To say Emmy Rossum was the star of Shameless is somehow both a bold claim and the most obvious thing anyone could say about the show. No matter how many press releases Showtime circulated touting their “William H Macy-led cast”, anyone who watched Shameless knew that Fiona was everything. She was the character with the most lines, the most scenes, the most agency in pushing the plot along. She was the Olivia Pope, or at least the Jack Shephard with an amazing ensemble cast at her back. Viewers knew it; Rossum knew it; Macy knew it; even Showtime figured it out eventually when, after seven seasons, Rossum challenged the pay disparity between her and her famous male co-star and, with Macy’s full support, won. Emmy Rossum was indisputably the star of Shameless, though if you asked anyone who doesn’t watch the show (especially, it seems, an Emmy voter), they would tell you she wasn’t.
Executive Producer John Wells seemed to make that infuriating dichotomy a jumping off point in writing Fiona’s final two episodes. The story became about Fiona’s contribution to the story thus far. Rossum was actually onscreen less in these final two episodes than she usually was, but the subtext of every scene could be boiled down to “look what Fiona did”. The lives of the younger Gallagher siblings continue to spin forward and, with the exception of Liam who is the oldest nine-year-old in the world, they’re all grown up now. Fiona did that. The final two episodes of season nine treat, specifically, Debbie and Carl like characters who can lead the show. They won’t have to do it on their own- their big brothers will be there (both, especially Lip, a more than worthy leading man), and of course there’s always Frank, hovering just off to the side, rarely the A-plot but almost never the C-plot, either a comic relief gnat or the ghost of trauma past- but the point is that they’re ready now. Debbie’s story this season was mostly about running the household- collecting money from her brothers, paying the bills, taking up Fiona’s mantle because Fiona showed her how.
On her way out of the house that served as the centrepiece of the show, Fiona has one last conversation with a family member. Finales like this always do that, a sort of tour through the departing character’s major relationships (my personal favourite is how Spin City wrote off Michael with a series of similar one-on-ones). She confided in V, she visited Ian in prison, she appropriately shared the longest and more heartfelt conversation with Lip, the one character who ever felt like Fiona’s true equal. But on her way out, she talks to Frank. He’s getting a sponge bath after breaking his leg, because Shameless doesn’t do sentimentality and sometimes you’ve gotta cut the emotion with the image of William H Macy getting a sponge bath. It seemed as though Fiona would leave on something as simple as a deep breath and “well…”, an anticlimax I would have loved, but then Frank spoke and, though I’m never a fan of putting too fine a point on things, what he said resonates so much more complexly when you view it through the meta lens of the recognition Rossum never quite got for her truly extraordinary work leading this show. He tells her she did a good job “helping” when her mother wasn’t able to. She responds that she didn’t just help, she “did it all”. Wells (who also directed the final episode) has Macy in the foreground, facing away from Rossum who stands over his shoulder, smaller in the upper third of the frame. Frank dismisses Fiona’s contribution and doesn’t even look back as she leaves, turning back to his own story where he considers himself the star of every show.
It’s always bothered me that Emmy Rossum was never nominated for any awards for her work on Shameless. Not that TV awards matter- it’s always so obvious that the voting bodies just couldn’t possibly watch enough TV to really consider everything- but it’s the symbolism of the thing. No Gallagher other than Macy has ever been nominated for a major acting award- not Ethan Cutkosky for his sublime work in season six, not Cameron Monaghan for deftly navigating Ian’s struggle with mental illness, not Jeremy Allen White for any of the hundreds of scenes he’s played as Lip that scream award-worthy. But those are all subjective picks competing for recognition against each other in an impossibly competitive field for Best Supporting Actor. Leading Actress in a Drama is a whole different thing (the idea that Shameless is a comedy is another disaster that results directly in its actors being overlooked- you can’t win a comedy award for the deeply human way you wept during a strip search after being sent to jail because your baby brother overdosed on the cocaine you accidentally left on the counter, and yet in season four Emmy Rossum really should have). Leading Actress in a Drama is usually, for all sorts of society-is-trash reasons, a pathetic category that just lists the five female-led TV shows that Emmy voters have heard of. Then they give it to Viola Davis because they like her in movies even though her show is bad and she’s bad in it. Emmy Rossum was never in that category- maybe because the right people didn’t watch Shameless, maybe because its complex approach to genre-less storytelling confused voters, but I think it’s because they didn’t think she was the lead.
She was absolutely the lead and the work she did in the last nine seasons is some of the most remarkable character storytelling I’ve ever seen in any medium. Emmy Rossum is no longer the star of Shameless, and the show absolutely has the bench depth and plot creativity to live on for years in her absence, but her influence will always be there; Fiona will always be a Gallagher.