I usually don't worry about spoilers when it comes to Showtime's Shameless. Not because nothing happens in the episodes (actually quite the opposite; that show is on par with Scandal for amount of crazy crap these characters endure each week!) but because the network usually takes the term summary to heart with each episode description, going story by story and explaining exactly what's about to go down. And the best part is that even when you know exactly what's coming, you still get so much out of watching the episodes because it is how what happens (not the "what" itself) affects the characters that matters the most. You see it on their faces and you see it in their actions. But for season four, Showtime is being a bit more conservative with what they are putting out there pre-episode airing, so I, too, want to be careful about the details I give you before you watch. Because some things really are just extra juicy when you don't know they're coming (even if you suspect they might).
It is no secret that Fiona (Emmy Rossum) is the rock of the Gallagher family and in many ways the center of the show. Sure, there are a lot of them running around, and yes, they wouldn't be where they are-- or worthy of their stories being told-- without Frank (William H. Macy) being who he is. But Fiona has always been the most interesting enigma simply for the fact that she pulled herself up by her bootstraps and kept everyone together and alive-- and this season, even a bit thriving. She so easily could have just followed in her father's footsteps (it is literally in her blood after all) and dropped out of school to sit at a bar all day, leaving her little brothers and sister to fend for themselves. But she didn't. She stepped up as head of the household, as sole breadwinner, and as a maternal figure. And now, that is finally paying off for her.
Fiona is excelling at her new job at the cup company, on track for promotion, about to receiving full employee status, and yes, still dating her boss. But where she is doing well professionally, providing better food and clothes for the kids, she is still struggling personally. It isn't because she is still waiting for Jimmy/Steve (Justin Chatwin) to come back but because she doesn't really know what happened to him. She thinks he just left, which is just another tear in her fabric that's eating away on a subconscious level. Meanwhile, her new boyfriend is providing stability in ways she is not used to and therefore with which she is not quite comfortable. He doesn't know nearly as much about her as Jimmy/Steve did, and that's not just because the relationship is new but because they come from different worlds. Jimmy/Steve understood the Gallaghers because he was choosing to be a hoodrat in their world, rebelling from his upper middle class upbringing. If Fiona confides in Mike (Jake McDorman), his response is bound to be uncomfortable laughter when he thinks she's just messing with him and then silent judgement where he's weighing how much he likes her versus the red flags his own upper middle class upbringing has taught him she should be. Their relationship is still too new to be testing the waters with what she can get away, though (she wants to keep this one around for now after all), so instead of sharing, Fiona is just struggling alone. And her silence, even when she's in protector role (though who she is really protecting is herself), upsets Mike. Conflict and chaos are very different things, though, and normal people problems are a bore for Fiona, so she's just trudging along alone, not even sure at first what is wrong within her. But it is that lack of self-awareness that often later causes a spiral.
Fiona isn't completely alone physically (how could she be in that house, right?), but with the exception of Liam, the kids are all old enough that they don't need her the same way. Lip (Jeremy Allen White) stepped up last season to actually help her with money and Frank when things got tough, but now he's off at college and learning he's now a small fish in a big pond who has to actually work to get the things that used to come so easily. Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is gone, too, off in military training, though his family doesn't know that; they think he has just run away (another tear for Fiona, riiip). Kev (Steve Howey) and Veronica (Shanola Hampton) are dealing with their ever-expanding family and an additional financial burden they thought was going to be a blessing. Debbie (Emma Kenney), who just wants to grow up already, has a new group of friends from the neighborhood who have her dressing differently and doing everything to meet boys. Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) has always puttered around the neighborhood getting into trouble but now his focus is on Frank, who is dying but who doesn't want to give up his lifestyle just for a few extra months. More than ever, everyone has their own thing going on, and what is most interesting is that now we're getting a clearer sense of not whether nature or nurture is winning but who is letting one win over the other, even if they don't realize it.
Fiona railed so hard away from Frank's lifestyle a few years ago not necessarily for herself but because there were little mouths to feed, but was she just fighting her own true nature and what may be inevitable? And without a similar burden, will Debbie go the other way? She's at that age where kids start experimenting, and though she should be more careful than most because of the addiction that runs in her family, it is doubtful anyone has explained such things to her. And if she (and Carl) are free to make their teenage mistakes when Fiona didn't, will that cause resentment? Or just a later in life rebellion for Fiona herself, who now sees the kids all grown enough that they may not need her the way they once did and now she wants to regain some of the youth (and therefore youthful mistakes) she missed?
So much of what the premiere of season four sets up is tragic for these young Gallaghers, but after three years of being with them through similar insanity, it is impossible not to want to give them all hugs and assure them they deserve to succeed, even if you're not quite sure they will. Personally I have this fear that they'll pull the whole soldier at the door "sorry for your loss, ma'am" thing with Fiona where they say Phillip Gallagher died in combat, and the family thinks it's some crazy mistake because they know Lip is at college-- while the audience knows it was Ian's fate. Fewer things more tragic than that, right? Season four really lays it on the line so that you're not sure any of them will succeed anymore, even though just an episode ago, you thought things were looking up. That is the beauty of this show, though: it can warm and break your heart so quickly, just like a real family.
Everyone has their own storyline this season, and they're all meant to be humbling for the Gallaghers who really did manage to do the impossible for "just kids" with the hand they were dealt in life. But it is Fiona who is delivered a blow from Frank at the end of the second episode of the fourth season who will have the farthest to go. What he drops on her will, perhaps for the first time ever, make her start to think of the "what ifs?" that could have been for her life had she not had to step up to be the matriarch. And for a character who already feels lost without the usual brand of Gallagher-infused chaos, it might just be the thing that sets her off down a very Gallagher-like path.