Spoilers ahead for the Shameless season-nine finale.
After nine seasons as pseudo-matriach of the Gallagher household, the eldest has flown the coop. Emmy Rossum made her final appearance as a Shameless series regular in Sunday’s season-nine finale, leaving the Chicago Southside behind and taking Fiona Gallagher with her. After spending her twenties caring for her five younger siblings in the absence of functioning parents, Fiona’s story ends with a new beginning: We last see her boarding her first flight, with her main destination set on adulthood. (We don’t actually learn where she’s going — just apparently to warmer weather.)
Writing Fiona out of the Showtime drama wasn’t the initial plan, though. Showrunner John Wells tells Vulture that he foresaw her season-nine arc carrying over into next season, but that all came to an abrupt halt when Rossum announced her decision to exit the show at the end of this season. “I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do,” he says. “I hoped Emmy would stay.” Wells, who’s an expert at major recalibrations, having dealt with the past departures of beloved ER actors like George Clooney, then changed his objective to giving Rossum and Fiona Gallagher their best sendoff possible. Ahead of Sunday’s finale, Wells spoke to Vulture about writing and directing Rossum’s last episode, how the season was supposed to end, and where Shameless goes from here.
How many alternate endings did you write for Fiona’s final episode?
Only one. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, but was hoping I wouldn’t have to do it. I hoped Emmy would stay. But once she said she really wanted to go and explore other things and spend more time writing and directing with her husband [Sam Esmail], that [ending] is what I wanted to do.
I imagine you had to rewrite some of the season. How far into production were you when Emmy informed you she was leaving?
It was a little more than halfway through — I think we were working on episode ten or nine — but it wasn’t a complete surprise. She had been clear that she was really struggling with trying to decide, so we already started thinking what if? and were kind of in denial about having to do it. But by the time she decided, we’d already talked about it a bit.
By episode ten, Fiona’s deep in a downward spiral of alcohol abuse and desperation from having lost all sense of purpose without her real-estate ventures. How did that storyline change once you knew you had to wrap it up much quicker than anticipated?
Well, the full intent was to have what happened at the end of episode 12 happen at the end of the finale, which is where we see her at an AA meeting. She was going to stand up and say, “I’m not sure if I’m an alcoholic, but I know I have to deal with it.” So we moved that up earlier and then spent the last two episodes getting her closer to the other things that we knew we wanted to do with the character. But I think it actually ended up working out because it was hard to watch Fiona struggling that much. My assumption is, because I’ve had a lot of people around me who’ve dealt with recovery, that even wherever she went, she’s gonna have to continue to deal with her recovery. It’s not like it was one and done.
What specifically was the other ending you wrote?
It was more about her final shot. Do we just leave her when she leaves the platform at the L train, or do we leave her when she goes all the way to the airplane? We shot both, and I assumed I’d only need one, but it actually cumulatively worked and we left them both in.
Oh I see. She was always going to leave Chicago.
Because otherwise, we’d spend way too much time explaining why she wasn’t around. “Oh, she had to work.” It’d be silly.
How much say did Emmy have in the way her character wrapped up?
None. [Laughs.] But if she hadn’t liked it, she would’ve let me know. I think she felt it was a great way for her to go. You know, it’s difficult. We’ve been together almost ten years, so it’s very emotional. These are your friends and you’re moving away. It’s not just the work. This was a big choice she made for herself. We didn’t want her to do it, but at the same time, were certainly supportive of whatever decision she was going to make.
It’s interesting that you also chose to write and direct her final episode. Why put yourself through that?
I’ve written and directed a lot of the final episodes of the characters on the various shows we’ve done. You get very close to the characters writing them, and you get close to the actors portraying them. This sounds silly to say, but I’ve personally always needed a bit of closure. I did it when George Clooney, Julianna Margulies, Anthony Edwards, and Noah Wyle left ER. And I wrote the last episode of The West Wing. It’s very emotional. You start to feel like you’re the last person in your hometown. After Clooney left, we thought the show was over. But, whaddya know, we did ten more seasons.
Unlike Cameron Monaghan’s last episode as Ian — or so we thought it was at the time — Fiona doesn’t get a big final moment. There’s no family hug and she skips out on the party that Lip plans. She’s not even in the episode all that much. Why such an unceremonious sendoff?
I think Fiona was afraid that if she allowed the good-byes to happen, she would never leave. She needed to just go. If people started hugging her, her rather slight resolve to go would just disappear. That was a conscious choice to have her walk out and that her final, real good-bye is with Frank, who should owe her everything but is too narcissistic and also wounded by the fact that she’s leaving to say it. In his own world, Monica left him and now Fiona’s leaving and it’s this narcissistic self-pity. It’s a more poignant ending.
Was it always written that he’d be ungrateful to her? Or did you consider a less-bitter ending?
Always. I just didn’t think he could ever admit that anybody else [was the better parent]. I tried to shoot it in a way where we would see how painful it was for him, but that he wasn’t about to let her see.
Shameless has been renewed for another season, but how seriously did you consider not moving forward without Emmy?
We never considered it. I was very sad when she wanted to go. Every time an actor who is central to the show leaves, it’s always felt like the show couldn’t go on because they’re too important. And we have gone on. It creates all different kinds of new alignment with the characters that remain and there’s a lot of story left. People leave. Family members get married and move away, people get jobs, people go off to school. That experience of people leaving us is an emotional component of our lives that it’s valuable to tell stories about. We know it’s a big hole to fill, but we’re excited about it. Families survive.
What does this family look like to you without Fiona in it?
She’s not that much older than her siblings, but Fiona has had to be their mother. There now gets to be this sense of, Wait a second, I did a good job. They’re grown up and they’re ready. That’s interesting dramatic material. Debbie now gets to take on more responsibility and step in for Fiona. Lip’s moving on with his life cause he’s an adult now. They grow up.
Do you have a favorite Emmy Rossum scene?
The scene after the other family members have decided to sell Monica’s meth and it all goes wrong and they come to Fiona to ask her what to do next. She puts them in a military line like a drill sergeant and makes them admit that she was right. She was fabulous in that scene. It was a great performance.
What will you miss most about writing for Fiona?
The intelligience of her character, that fabulous common sense. I have some people in my life like that and they just always seem to have an idea of what to do and can see through problems. That was the pleasure of writing her character. For all of her faults and complexities, her heart was always in the right place. She held everything together for a long time. I hope Emmy will come back and play Fiona for us again when she’s ready.
This interview has been edited and condensed.