There’s an accidental theme running through the eighth season of Shameless (premiering Nov. 5), and it’s proof positive that the Gallagher family, once known for their endlessly shocking schemes to squeeze cash out of both the criminal and the innocent, are finally growing.
“We’re not trying to do it with exactly a theme, but it’s true: As you grow older and you move from childhood into adulthood, you realize that you have responsibilities to more than yourself if you’re going to be successful,” says showrunner John Wells, who has shepherded the bawdy comedy for almost eight years as it’s transformed from an underrated Showtime gem to a surging streaming hit. “In the past, the family has held themselves together and found ways to keep eating by depending upon each other, but your world expands as you grow up and away and out from your family. Not that your family becomes less important, but the definition of what is your family becomes larger.”
In season 8, the Gallaghers have essentially all heeded the advice of older sister Fiona (Emmy Rossum) and inherited her selfless work ethic, taking on helpful roles in their own lanes and showing just how far they’ve come: A doggedly sober Lip (Jeremy Allen White) is now playing babysitter to both his former AA sponsor and old college professor; Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) is leading the charge for a program for neighborhood drug addicts; Ian (Cameron Monaghan) intervenes to stop a local minister’s harmful gay conversion program; and Fiona, now a building owner, is continuing to exercise her maternal instinct by tackling the problems of her disenfranchised tenants.
Some of the more outrageous get-rich-quick shenanigans of early seasons are seemingly gone (emphasis on seemingly — there’s still at least one act of grave robbery that’ll have you clutching your pearls). But if it feels like the Gallagher clan has been experiencing a widespread maturation in recent seasons, perhaps it’s time to answer a question that’s been bubbling up for some time: How do you end a show like Shameless?
If the Gallaghers really are growing into better, steadier versions of themselves, their fates are a conversation worth exploring as the show enters its eighth year. Would it be more satisfying for fans to bid farewell to the series if they saw all the Gallagher kids spread their wings and fly off on their own, thriving in new communities by applying the same survival instinct that once helped them transcend their troubled circumstances? Or do fans actually want the Gallaghers to never leave each other, remaining in that house on the South Side until the series’ final shot, adding layers to their collective lives instead of departing to start entirely independent ones?
Wells admits that the pool of possible endgames has furtively crept into the writers’ minds as later seasons have arrived. With the series’ sudden surge in popularity on streaming, there’s no end on the schedule, but its logic is coming into focus. “As compared to what we did when we were doing China Beach, where their deployment ends and people go home, this show, on the other hand, these fictional characters’ lives will continue for another 60, 70 years,” says the veteran producer. “We can write it forever, because things are going to keep happening to them. I suspect on this show, we’re much more likely to just walk away on a Tuesday and let the audience feel like the Gallaghers are out there and doing okay, rather than some calamitous event — the hospital’s closing! The war is over! The president is leaving office! This is really just a story about a family’s life, and going through whatever struggles they’re going through.”
“More than likely,” Wells continues, “we’ll probably just drop out of it at some point, likely when some of the cast members decide they don’t want to continue anymore. That’ll probably be the end of the show more than anything else.”
On a recent visit to the show’s Los Angeles set, EW met a cast that showed little sign of apathy; they continue to champion the unexpected story lines, unique character growth, and tight-knit interconnectedness that the show’s little-engine-that-could trajectory has afforded its ensemble. But all good shows must come to an end sometime, and William H. Macy, who plays patriarch Frank (another character who, in an uncharacteristic act of maturity, actually gets sober this season), suspects that the show may in fact finish its sleeper-hit run in a not-quite-distant future.
“When we finished season 7, that was supposed to be the end of it, and I started to entertain the notion of life after Shameless for me,” says Macy, who earned his fourth Emmy nomination for the role this year. “I gave some thought to it — a little bit — about how we would end. But I think that’s not upon us. Not yet. I think we’ll do another season, perhaps two more.”
Loyal viewers, herein lies another question of storytelling satisfaction worth debating: Should Shameless depart this earth when Frank Gallagher does?
Rossum told EW last year that “the show, for me, has always ended with Frank dying, because I don’t think there’s any way you treat your body that way. We’ve seen him skirt death so many times… or maybe he’s just that cockroach that will never die.” Macy, meanwhile, hasn’t yet decided whether the fate of the Gallagher family hinges on its most absent member. Perhaps it’s because Frank is far from the type of character you could ever predict, and Macy, who decided several seasons ago to stop receiving tips about Frank’s season arcs, prefers to see what shakes out. “The line has been floated several times that Frank’s a cockroach,” says Macy. “He’ll survive a thermonuclear blast. He should have been dead a long, long time ago. Who knows?” Like Shameless itself, with its wholly unpredictable endgame, underdogs ought never be counted out early.