Sunday night on Shameless, while most of America was watching the Super Bowl, William H. Macy's Frank Gallagher went on a Dude, Where's My Disability Check tour of Chicago's South Side, trying to piece together the details of a blacked-out night where he apparently blew $121,000 on drugs. It was a typical move for a series that often puts its best characters in the back seat in order to focus on Frank's more outrageous antics. In particular, this tendency shortchanges Emmy Rossum's Fiona, Frank's daughter, and the series' best and most complicated character.
A diner waitress who spent half the previous season in jail (she endangered the welfare of her toddler brother when he got into the bag of cocaine she left out on the kitchen table), Fiona fits perfectly into one of the dominant television traditions of the past ten years: the morally/ethically ambiguous protagonists who are in many ways their own worst enemy. These so-called "Difficult Men" (a term coined by writer Brett Morgan in his book of the same name) have been among TV's most respected and dissected characters. It's a shame nobody ever seems to include Fiona Gallagher among their numbers.
Some might say that we're in the waning days of the era of Difficult Men on television. Breaking Bad is over. Mad Men, despite its best efforts to linger, is awaiting its final episodes. Where prestige TV used to be positively overrun with shows about men with dark sides and questionable (even nonexistent) moral compasses, today for every Ray Donovan we have a show like Fargo or The Good Wife, which allow women with their souls intact a seat at the table—as well as series like Masters of Sex and The Americans, which show men and women navigating tricky ethical waters together. But old tropes die hard, and between Frank Underwood, Tyrion Lannister, and Rust Cohle, TV is still plenty enamored with the Difficult Man.
So why doesn't Fiona Gallagher get credit for being one of TV's most difficult men? The easy answer is that she's not a man, but simple gender bias doesn't fully explain it—not with Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder as cultural hot-buttons and The Honorable Woman winning critical support and Golden Globes. Still, there's a classiness and a respectability to the women in those shows: Their characters may make incredibly thorny choices, or even be outright villainous at times, but they do so with a veneer of respectability that Shameless has never aspired to.
The whole point of the Gallaghers is that they're unapologetically white-trash Chicagoans scrounging their way through life without regard for law or impropriety, and that there's a kind of charm in the way in which the family doesn't bother to differentiate between moral and immoral means to get by. Pre-teen Carl sells drugs, sweet Debbie operates an off-the-books daycare service, Fiona slings hash, Ian go-go dances at a gay bar. The show rarely asks for much sympathy for its characters, but it's impossible to elude the heartbreak of it all, particularly with characters like Lip and Fiona, who shoulder the burdens of their family while their youth, beauty, and talents threaten to fall victim to lives spent evading disaster.
During the past season-and-a-half, Fiona came as close as she ever had to a way out, with a burgeoning sales career and a clean-cut boyfriend. Her subsequent squandering of all that—through drugs, through infidelity—was played as the character reverting to a hereditary Gallagher appetite for self-destruction. She went to prison for endangering her brother and almost lost her family for good. For anyone whose investment in the show goes beyond laughing at Frank's drunken antics, it was a devastating storyline, and one handled with the hard gaze of TV's best antihero series. This season, even though Fiona's out of jail, the danger of backsliding lurks everywhere. It's there as she flirts with her boss at the diner (played by Dermot Mulroney), a recovering addict who seems ready-made to pull Fiona back into the abyss. It's there as she gets caught up in a euphoric new romance with Gus (Steve Kazee), who by all indications is a sweet, kind, gorgeous guy with a beard and a guitar and a conscience. But it's not enough just to spend a hazy week in bed with a new beau. Mulroney's character recently pinpointed Fiona's addiction, not to drugs or booze, but rather to chaos. So an uncomplicated new boyfriend becomes, by the end of last night's episode, an impulsive quickie marriage that will almost surely end in disaster. Particularly when the audience knows (if she doesn't) that ex-beau and con artist Jimmy/Steve is back in Chicago and waiting to drop in on her at the most inopportune moment.
Fiona isn't the only good thing in Shameless—Jeremy Allen White and Cameron Monaghan are going some great work as middle siblings Lip and Ian—but she's the most undervalued character in the greater TV universe. With a blend of contrasting impulses (she hates her father, loves her siblings, works very hard to provide for them, works almost just as hard to sabotage herself), Fiona's the often frustrating, just as often heartbreaking soul of the show, and Rossum's performance has grown so far beyond the flower-in-a-pot-of-dirt than she might have done in a lesser actress's hands. Macy took home a Screen Actors Guild Award last week for scenes like the one where he chases child amputees in order to recover a prosthetic leg. Here's hoping one day that recognition can filter down to the performances, and characters, who also deserve it.