The Gallagher household is in flux.
Not that it hasn’t always been ever since we first met the First Family of Showtime, perennially down on their luck and just trying to get by since January 2011. But something happened as the little cable show that could chugged along into its ninth season this fall, riding high on a newfound fandom thanks to its streaming on Netflix. That something? Just the story surrounding the show moving away from the events happening on screen and moving firmly into chatter about the goings on behind-the-scenes.
It began when star Emmy Rossum revealed in August that season nine, which has been split in two and just reached its midseason finale on Sunday, would be her last. But the prospect of losing the show’s star and central character—sorry William H. Macy stans, but you know it’s true!—was only the beginning of a turbulent and life-changing few months for the cast and fans alike. And suddenly a show that’s become an institution for a cable network in need of one has a cloudy future ahead.
Days before Shameless returned for its ninth season, what should’ve been a celebration about the show’s impending 100th episode (which aired on September 30) became a conversation about how much longer the show might go on when Rossum delivered the news that she was ready to say goodbye to the character of Fiona, the eldest Gallagher daughter and often the lynchpin of the family, if not the series as a whole.
“The opportunity to play Fiona has been a gift. There are few characters — female or otherwise — as layered and dynamic. She is a mother lion, fierce, flawed and sexually liberated. She is injured, vulnerable, but will never give up. She is living in an economic depression, but refuses to be depressed. She is resourceful. She is loyal. She is brave,” she said in a lengthy Facebook post on August 30, announcing her departure. “I know you will continue on without me, for now. There is much more Gallagher story to be told. I will always be rooting for my family. Try not to think of me as gone, just think of me as moving down the block.”
Immediately, fans began to speculate: Why now? After all, Rossum had publicly weathered a contract dispute with the network back in 2016, demanding pay parity with Macy, and came out the other side with a satisfying enough resolution that she returned to work. If that didn’t drive the actress to want to leave, what would now?
The answer to that question would up being understandable, if not a bit banal. It turned out that Rossum was just ready to move on. As a source told E! News, she wasn’t looking to take a break from acting and was merely ready for new roles that would challenge her as an actress. She never expected the show to last as long as it did, nor did she expect to walk away before the series concluded, but once she made her decision, we were told she was leaving with nothing but positive thoughts. And hey, she lasted much longer than the Fiona of the UK series of the same name that Shameless is based on. (For the record, that actress, Anne-Marie Duff, departed after the show’s second season.)
“We’ve been expecting it. I tell you, when you get to season 9 and you think of [whether] to keep going, it’s daunting,” he continued. “It’s hard not to think of: ‘What would my life be post-Shameless?’ And part of it is very frightening and part of it is very exciting.”
And as it turned out, that sort of thinking was contagious.
On October 8, a month after season nine began airing, another original cast member announced that they, too, were departing the series. Only, unlike Rossum, this one was happening that very week.
In a lengthy Instagram post of his own, Cameron Monaghan, who’d starred as gay middle child Ian since episode one, revealed that it was time for him to move on as well. “I have been a series regular on this show for roughly ten years. I was the tender age of fifteen when we shot the pilot, and I came of age in so many ways, both legally and personally. I was very lucky to mature and grow with this show. Experiencing so many firsts, maturing as an actor, a professional, and a human. In the process gaining friends, family, and the best coworkers a very lucky actor could ask for, and for this I can be nothing but gracious,” he wrote.
“All good things come to an end. An old cliche, but one that rings true with a sincerity and clarity especially in moments like these. Everything ends,” he continued. “The next episode will be my last. I have known since last year, but I didn’t want to give it away too early as I wanted this season to be a surprise for the audience, allowing them to experience Ian’s unsure journey with his character. This role has been a joy to inhabit, a wild and special ride, and I’d like to thank #Shameless as well as you, the viewers, for being there with him. Goodbye, Ian Clayton Gallagher. We’ll meet again?”
In the next episode, Ian went to jail for his role in blowing up a van as part of a protest against conversion therapy, earning a bit of a happy ending by discovering his ex-boyfriend Mickey (Noel Fisher) would be his cell mate, there to protect him and, presumably rekindle their enduring flame.
As with Rossum, Monaghan hinted in his goodbye message that he might be willing to revisit the character down the road, something executive producer John Wells is hoping for, despite understanding the young actor’s need to explore.
“Cameron started on the show when he was 15 years old and this has been his family — as well as our family. He’s now 25 and wanted to get out and see what the world looked like,” the industry vet told The Hollywood Reporter this week. “I’m hopeful that he’ll continue to do more episodes of the show, but I am also sympathetic to the idea that if you start something as a child and it’s been your whole professional life that once you reach your mid- to early 20s, you may want to look around a little bit. This has been like his high school and college and I completely understand his desire to look around a little.”
While Wells tells THR that as long as Macy is committed to the series, they’ll find a way to keep Showtime’s highest-rated show alive, it’s hard not to begin to wonder how long until more original cast members follow in Rossum and Monaghan’s lead and seek new chapters in their career. Already, Emma Kenney, who’s literally grown up before our very eyes on the series as Debbie Gallagher, is a series regular on The Conners, playing Darlene’s (Sara Gilbert) teenage daughter Harris. And then there’s Jeremy Allen White, who plays oldest Gallagher son Lip, who, along with longtime girlfriend Addison Timlin, welcomed baby daughter Ezer Billie White, their first, into the world on Saturday.
The Gallaghers are all grown up. And while that can lead to more fruitful storytelling, especially in the cases of youngest characters Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) and Liam (Christian Isaiah), it’s hard to imagine a world in which everyone wants to stay put much longer and where it won’t feel remarkably contrived to just replace the departing favorites with new characters. Grey’s Anatomy, this is not. When a show’s about a family, you kind of need most of the original parts around to keep the story going.
Though Rossum still has seven episodes left as Fiona to air in January when Shameless returns for its second half—assuming her exit doesn’t come before the finale, that is—the wheels have been set in motion for the seminal character’s departure, with her fall from grace bringing her back into the Gallagher home, only for her to realize her family may have outgrown her. And to that we say: How appropriate.
For now, Wells isn’t too concerned about the thinning of the herd, telling THR, “As people move away and leave, and other people come to fill their places without trying to replace Fiona in some fashion within the family or trying to replace Ian. Our lives fill out in different ways with different people and I think that’s what we’ll be trying to do.”
Though, even he admits that without Macy, who has expressed interest in sticking with the series at least until its 10th season (though one hasn’t been ordered yet), things will certainly come to an end. “I think at this point if the man who plays Frank doesn’t do it anymore, we’re probably looking at having to decide whether [continuing the show] makes sense or not,” he told the trade publication. “We described Frank as the proverbial cockroach who will still be around after the apocalypse, and if Bill were to decide he didn’t want to make the show anymore I think we probably would really be looking at not doing it anymore.”
The bigger question, though, is whether or not Shameless fans hold Rossum in the same regard. Will the show still make sense in their eyes without her? Stay tuned.