Ethan Cutkosky as Carl Gallagher in Shameless Photo: Patrick Wymore/SHOWTIME
And so Shameless plays up a dichotomy that echoes the internal conflict many of us experience: honor your family, or honor your own potential? The writers of the show might argue that, if Lip were to become some rich scientist — and how many of those exist, really? — he could support his family. But the writers have also created such an absurdly crestfallen backstory for the Gallagher clan that, if somehow the series were to end with the lot of them in high-paying jobs, big houses, and happy marriages, just wouldn’t be believable. It wouldn’t be believable because it’s not realistic, but it also wouldn’t be believable because, well, the Gallaghers don’t seem to really want that.
The story of the Gallaghers has, all along, been a subtle stab at the American Dream, and the lengths we’ll go to pursue it. Through a kind of societal mind-meld/brainwashing, we’ve all mostly been taught to pursue higher education and better jobs within an established system and hierarchy. But, as the show goes on, this doesn’t seem possible for the Gallaghers, because it doesn’t work for them, just as it doesn’t work for most Americans. Logic denies universal success, and once you realize that, why not just try to be happy? It’s what Carl’s doing, and it’s why he can’t really be blamed for his quick dive into dealing. It’s nice to have Lip shining as a beacon of success, but it’s also nice to have Carl giving in to what might be his best possible life. And meanwhile there’s Fiona, existing between the two. She sums up the Gallagher ethos with her own preamble, which begins, “Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and hating the fucking asshole you have to work for.” That might not be what we want for ourselves, but it might be all the Gallaghers want for themselves. And that’s fine.