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The Ending Of Shameless Explained

Contains major spoilers for Shameless season 11, episode 12, "Father Frank, Full of Grace"

This might just go down as one of the most controversial TV endings of all time.

Shameless ended its eleven-season run on Showtime on April 11th, and fan reaction has been understandably mixed. For a show that always concentrated on the bare-bones reality of living below the poverty line on the bad side of town — and the pluck and ingenuity of a large family struggling against the odds to survive — "Father Frank, Full of Grace" decided to lean on the metaphysical in the end, using its last 10 minutes to give audiences sad-eyed ghosts and family singalongs. There was a hint of plot movement, and yet some of the characters settled into an odd sense of stasis, their futures wide open (apparently via executive order). 

The most important change, though, finally brought to a close the longest pas de deux between a fictional character and death since Joe Gideon danced with Angelique. Yes, after years of dodging the Grim Reaper by any means necessary, an all-too-common foe took down Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy). But his family — too used to the endless hurricane force trauma that Frank brought into their lives on an unpredictable basis — barely took notice, as they dealt with their own drama.

In the Shameless finale, Frank finally planked

The majority of the episode follows Frank's slow march toward death. After surviving an attempted suicide via heroin overdose, he wanders the streets in a dementia-induced haze. We get fleeting glimpses of how the world the show inhabited has changed — Patsy's Pies has been shuttered, for instance. Frank ends up contracting and dying of COVID-19 with no family members at his side. A lonely, fitting conclusion for a character who always put his own wants and needs above his family.

But Shameless doesn't satisfy itself with poetic justice, choosing to give in to sentiment. In Frank's dying moments, he flashes back to a family breakfast table tableau from the first season, then appears at the Alibi in his hospital gown as a spirit, sipping from a perpetually refilling mug of beer while watching his family. As everyone in the Alibi leaves to taunt a rich person whose car has been set aflame outside (an awkward metaphor for the class division that drove the show), Frank and his stool are lifted heavenward into a wide shot over the Chicago skyline in what is definitely the show's most bizarre visual, and the audience hears his suicide note in voiceover.

Frankly speaking, if any television patriarch has ever deserved to spend eternity in hell, it's Frank Gallagher. Ending his arc by having him float away to heaven on a barstool is both too out there for a show like Shameless, and far too sentimental a conclusion for a man whose presence generally meant nonstop misery to his family. The less said about him being so soaked in alcohol that the hospital's attempt at cremating him resulting in a percussive explosion that blows the oven's doors open, the better.

The Fiona factor

This brings us to the most glaring issue with Shameless' series finale — the fact that eldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum), around whom the show revolved for nine seasons, was nearly totally absent from its final bow. 

The specter of Fiona has hovered over everything during the show's eleventh season longer than Frank did above the skies of Chicago, her absence inexplicable via the plot's choices. Her father is dying, her siblings are selling the family home (which is in her name), they're shuffling Liam's custodial home (and Liam is still technically her ward), but there's no dialogue to suggest she has been consulted. Aside from a non-canonical "Shameless Hall of Shame" episode dedicated to the family taping segments for Fiona's appearance on a reality dating competition (tweaking the character's notoriously messy love life), her name has barely come up, not even when V (Shanola Hampton) and Kev (Steve Howey) tied the knot a couple of episodes ago and cemented their plans to sell the Alibi (perhaps to Carl, or perhaps to a developer who wants to turn it into a tanning salon) and move to Louisville.

And indeed, in "Father Frank, Full of Grace", Fiona appears only once — and that's in a flashback to the pilot, as experienced by a dying Frank. Frank, on the other hand — in a move that only Howard Cunningham from Happy Days would approve of — completely erases his eldest daughter in his climactic suicide note, leaving no salutation for her at all. Since her character arc generally ended all the way back in season nine, this is both enormously disappointing and yet not unsatisfying. It wouldn't have killed the show to mention her.

The Shameless finale paid 'Lip' service

The other Gallagher kids — still stuck in Chicago at the moment, for better or for worse — each have to grapple with big changes of their own, as Lip (Jeremy Allen White) finally gets an offer for the family home. We don't learn if he takes it. We don't learn if his girlfriend Tami (Kate Miner) is actually pregnant again, though the show floats the very John Irving-esque idea of Ian (Cameron Monaghan) and Mickey (Noel Fisher) adopting the hypothetical second baby. 

What we do learn is that he's stuck delivering food for Uber while struggling to get the family house sold. On his route he meets up with various overstressed tech startup geniuses who treat him dismissively — shades and echoes of possible futures Lip himself might have had. Defiantly, he scrawls an obscene message on the bumper of one of the men's fancy cars before leaving, but the possibility of there being more for him in this industry lingers. 

Yet, this moment reads as a sort of ultimate rejection of his original dreams of upward mobility through his genius-level IQ and college: instead, he has found happiness with Tami and Fred and Liam in his own neighborhood, even though the offer he contemplates accepting is a quarter of the offer he got a few episodes ago. He has become the opposite of his pie-in-the-sky money chasing father, though Frank's suicide-note statement that Lip "needs to get out of his own way" ultimately proves poignantly true.

What happened to the rest of the Shameless crew?

Ian arguably received the most fan-pleasing conclusion to his story: he and Mickey finally agree to settle into their new apartment and consider the possibility of parenthood. If the last couple seasons have basically been written as catnip for Gallavich shippers, the idea of them angstily battling through Mickey's daddy issues on their way to parenting will likely do nothing but please those fans. After a series-long battle to be together, they have more than earned it.

Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) finally comes to an epiphany about his job as a cop after a season-long struggle between the force's blatant corruption, and his desire to serve the people. He then considers buying the Alibi and turning it into a cop bar, successfully blending his reprobate past and fondness for authority.

The most frustrating character arc belongs to Debbie (Emma Kenney). Her series-long battle for a stable, established home life — which led her to do many terrible and impulsive things, from trying to trap a man into marriage by getting pregnant to trying to live her frustrated childhood dreams through little Franny — ended with her contemplating going on the run with a woman who held her and Franny at gunpoint less than 24 hours earlier. The fact that Debbie is willing to follow this woman to Texas after fighting Lip tooth and nail to keep the Gallagher house is ... an odd choice, to say the least. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse and mental health, please contact SAMHSA's 24-hour National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.