Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
Although I fell in love with Showtime’s Shameless from the very first episode, the series always had one or two storylines going on at any given point that prevented it from being truly great. Season 1 is the show at its most charming, as all the Gallagher siblings are young and spending time with one another, but it also has that subplot where baby-faced 15-year-old Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is regularly hooking up with a married guy at least twice his age. The show itself acknowledges the relationship is weird, but it’s only in Season 3 that it seems to recognize the relationship as predatory.
Season 2 has a lot of great stuff in it, but it also has that storyline where Lip (Jeremy Allan White) refuses to prioritize school to the point where he’s getting himself expelled and running off to live with Jimmy/Steve (Justin Chatwin). Then, when Monica (Chloe Webb) steals the squirrel fund from the family, he pops back up to lecture Fiona (Emmy Rossum) on how to run the household but leaves her to clean up the mess. Lip’s a great character overall, but boy is he the worst in Season 2.
Really, it’s only in Season 4 that Shameless shows us its full potential. I don’t know what was going on in the writers’ room at the time, but for a full 13 episodes every single main character is going through their most compelling storyline in the entire show so far, all at the same time. It doesn’t always make for the funniest viewing experience (Fiona’s gradual downward spiral is almost unbearable to watch at times), but this is easily the show at its most impactful.
The highlight of that season is the love story between Mickey Milkovich (Noel Fisher) and Ian. The Season 3 finale ended with closeted Mickey being forced by his abusive dad to marry a prostitute he impregnated (said impregnation was also horrifyingly forced by his dad), and with a heartbroken Ian committing some mild identity fraud to run off and join the military. Going into Season 4, it wouldn’t have been too surprising if the show had stopped focusing on the Milkovich family entirely: with neither Mickey nor Mandy (Emma Greenwell) in a relationship with a Gallagher brother anymore, it wasn’t strictly necessary to keep them on the show.
Instead, Season 4 of Shameless does something unprecedented: not only does it keep including Mickey, but it starts telling the Mickey/Ian love story from Mickey’s perspective—not Ian’s. For the first half of the season, we see Mickey trying to make things work in his loveless marriage, clearly still regretting the loss of Ian in his life. When Ian returns to the show, Mickey has to change and grow in order to make their relationship work, culminating in one of the most memorable and cathartic coming out scenes on television. Mickey doesn’t just come out to his father; he comes out in front of everybody, leading to a chaotic bar fight that gets his father thrown back in jail.
Again, what’s notable is the sheer amount of time spent on Mickey’s character over the course of that season. While other Gallagher love interests had scenes focused on them in the past, they would never get more screen-time than the Gallagher they were dating. By the end of Season 4, Mickey doesn’t just feel like an extended member of the family; he almost feels more important to the fabric of the show than Ian.
Although Season 5 is never quite as uniformly good as Season 4, Ian and Mickey’s storyline is a clear highlight for the first 12 episodes. Now that Mickey’s come out of the closet, their relationship has another major hurdle to deal with: Ian’s mental health. As Ian struggles hard with the realization that he has the same kind of bipolar disorder his mother struggled with, Mickey is there for him every step of the way. Not only is he open about his sexuality now, he’s putting in the work for this relationship in a way we’ve never seen from him before. It’s the culmination of nearly five seasons of character development and it’s so satisfying to watch.
Then in the Season 5 finale, Ian dumps him with little build-up or explanation. Immediately afterward, Mickey gets chased off screen by a gun-wielding Sammi (Emily Bergi) as Ian and Fiona have a good laugh at his expense. The guy who’s been Ian’s rock for the past 12 episodes is being shot at with a gun, and Ian laughs.
It only gets more insulting in Season 6, where Mickey gets one brief scene where Ian visits him in prison (Mickey got arrested and thrown in jail off screen), and then is promptly forgotten by everyone, almost as if he never existed. When Mickey is mentioned in Season 6, he’s spoken of as nothing more than some loser ex Ian used to have. When Mickey returns briefly in Season 7, he’s framed as a bad influence that Ian needs to outgrow. Fiona tells Ian she’s proud of how he’s gotten his life together since Mickey left, as if Mickey was the cause of his problems and not one of the only people helping him through them.
It felt like the show was punishing the audience for caring about this character. After five seasons of gradually revealing Mickey to be more than the white trash loser he initially seemed to be in his first appearance, the show told its audience that he actually was, in fact, a white trash loser the whole time. Mickey would later return to the show in Season 9, but by that point it was too little too late. The spark between him and Ian was gone, the quality of the show had long since gone downhill, and very little of their interactions felt authentic anymore.
The treatment of Mickey wasn’t unique to him: after Season 4, the writers’ biggest bad habit would be their tendency to get us invested in the Gallaghers’ love interests, only to rewrite those love interests into caricatures so the Gallaghers could dump them without seeming like bad people.
Season 5 also features the end of Lip’s relationship with Amanda (Nichole Sakura), a girl who started off seeming like a mean, unhinged person, and then gradually proved herself to be pretty cool and caring as Lip got to know her. But since it was time for Lip’s character to move on to a new love interest, she was turned back into a crazy person so that Lip’s horrible treatment of her wouldn’t seem so bad. In one of the show’s grossest scenes, Amanda storms off from him, crying, and all the other students in the room give Lip a round of applause. It’s something straight out of the That Happened subreddit.
This issue really went off the rails after Season 5. Carl’s girlfriend Dominique (Jaylen Barron) suddenly turns into a vapid, remorseless cheater because the show needs Carl to leave for military school. Ian’s boyfriend Caleb (Jeff Pierre) also turns into a remorseless cheater because the show wants to give Ian a new love interest. Instead of ending these relationships in an interesting, organic way, they simply turn the love interests into cartoon villains so the Gallaghers can have an easy out.
The show never stopped doing this, but the character assassination of Mickey was the most egregious, and the one that serves as the clearest marker of the divide between the good Shameless seasons and the bad. It was the moment fans began to lose trust in the show. After all, if they could so callously and lazily drop a character after five seasons of making us care about him, why bother getting invested in anyone else?
Michael Boyle is a TV and film writer for /Film, with words in Paste, Slate, Mic, Digital Spy, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @98MikeB
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