Character Analysis: Shameless‘ Ian Gallagher

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Shameless is a TV series that is more driven by individual character storylines than by an overall storyline. Every character is worthy of a full-length analysis, but we have decided to go with Ian Gallagher for several reasons. Not only is he one of the characters that has changed the most throughout the seasons, but he’s also currently a hot topic in the fandom due to his arguably out of character actions in Season 6 so far.

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Shameless


Ian’s journey through the series could be defined by three plot points: his homosexuality and relationship with Mickey, his goal to join the army and his bipolar disorder. Before that, I would like to throw a question that has been on my mind ever since I caught up with the series: who is Ian Gallagher, really? Since Ian left for the army in the end of Season 3, in all the scenes we got from him he was either high on drugs, having a psychotic break or heavily sedated/medicated. That is why to understand Ian’s personality better we should take a look at his portrayal during the first three seasons.

The very first thing we learned about Ian is that he is gay. In fact, his first episodes in the series are all about his relationship with Kash, Mickey and, later on, Lloyd. However, Ian is never limited to just his sexual orientation, his homosexuality is hardly ever brought up (Mickey is the one who carries issues like coming out or homophobia) and his family is nothing but accepting of his sexuality. From his relationships with his siblings, Ian is shown to be ambitious, loving and responsible, but also very tough (he’s a Gallagher, after all). Most of these aspects are shown in the scenes he shares with Lip, his older brother. Lip and Ian have a very strong relationship in the first seasons, being the two eldest brothers besides Fiona. Sadly, a big part of this relationship is lost when Lip leaves for college, coinciding with the beginning of Ian’s emotional and mental downfall.

Speaking now about his parents (and I could write a whole paper on this family’s relationship, that’s what Shameless is about after all), Ian is different from his siblings. In the first season, it is revealed that Frank is not Ian’s biological father, but rather his uncle. Before this was revealed, though, we had already seen Frank being aggressive with Ian (I feel like Frank’s character was way more darker in the first seasons). Frank has had his moments with all of his children, but I think the only time he’s interacted directly with Ian was when he caught him having sex with Mickey and Ian tried to warn him that they would come after him. I have seen many fanfics speculating about Frank never really liking Ian, but I don’t think there’s enough canon material to support that statement so I’ll just call it a headcanon. I actually don’t think Frank dislikes Ian, I think he just doesn’t care. On the other hand, we have Monica, his mother. Ian’s relationship with Monica is another one that could be explored in in depth. We know they have their bipolar disorder in common, but Ian had previously already shown more attachment to her in Season 2 (going to a gay bar together, trying to feed her when she was depressed in bed, worrying about her before she tried to kill herself during Thanksgiving…). Those scenes were added as foreshadowing for Ian inheriting her illness, but I’m sure it was also to show that Ian cared more about her because, unlike Frank, she’s his biological parent. Let it be said – Monica is not good for Ian, but the scene they shared together while Ian was arrested in military prison was one of the most emotional scenes in the entire series.

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Ian feels more comfortable around Monica

Outside of the family, besides Mandy, it’s clear that the most important relationship he has is with Mickey. Actually, talking about Gallavich (Gallagher/Milkovich in case you’re new to the fandom) is the same as talking about Mickey’s character development. Ian and Mickey’s love for each other was genuine, raw, but very influenced by external factors. The beginning of their relationship is constantly put in stand by due to Mickey’s fear of coming out (can’t really blame him considering his father) and his own emotional constipation. Just as Mickey had finally come out, put his father and prison and started being more comfortable with showing his love for Ian in public, Ian started to lose himself. Ironically, as inconsistent and toxic this relationship could be, the more inconveniences they faced, the stronger their love grew.

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Seasons 4 and 5 are the most defining for this relationship. Gallavich was one of the major attractions in the audience and a big portion of the fandom started watching the show only because it included gay romance. However, Gallavich breaking up in the end of Season 5 is not the reason why many of these viewers are complaining, it’s the fact that Ian has seemed to have forgotten who Mickey was and what he was willing to do for him. I used to believe that Gallavich would be endgame, but I started losing hope when Fiona/Jimmy was over for good. We should not forget that Shameless is a drama, so the fact that these two couples could end up separated by the end of the series is entirely possible. Shameless is no stranger to getting rid of characters (Sheila, Mandy, Karen, Little Hank…), but the problem comes when they made the entire relationship disappear as if it never happened. The elephant of the room now is Caleb, but I feel like first I need to talk about Ian’s bipolar disorder.

It’s rare to see bipolar disorder being represented in media. I personally knew very little about this disorder and learned a lot thanks to Shameless and, reading commentaries by bipolar viewers, it seems like the show has done an excellent job with it. The beginning of this storyline also marks Cameron Monaghan‘s best work in the series. Ian returned to Season 4 completely changed, both physically and mentally. In a way, Ian regained the spotlight he had previously lost. Ian is one of my favourite characters and I remember being frustrated that he wasn’t given a lot of attention during the first seasons and got even more upset when he was MIA in the first episodes of the fourth season and no one seemed to care too much. In only 2 seasons, Ian had dropped out of highschool, illegally joined (and left) the army, started working in a gay bar as a stripper and had problems with drugs. For the most part of the season, we saw a very hyper and motivated Ian, and it wasn’t until he refused to get out of bed for an entire day that Fiona suggested that he could probably have inherited Monica’s bipolar disorder. Season 5 dealed with the consequences of not getting treatment, like having Ian steal Mickey’s baby to later sign up in a psych ward in one of the most stressful and devastating episodes in the entire series.

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How is Ian feeling now? That’s the million-dollar question. Ian broke up with Mickey because he didn’t want him to be worrying about him all the time. At the time, Ian was at his lowest. He had just returned from his trip with Monica and he was lost trying to figure out his disorder and, basically, his new life as a bipolar person. I understand Ian’s argument of wanting to stay away from Mickey for a while so that Mickey could catch a break and stop worrying, and so that Ian could be alone and figure out who he is first. But I honestly believe that if Sammy hadn’t shown up, they would have been able to work it out.

In Season 6, Ian is supposed to be taking his meds. When being asked how he was feeling by Debbie last season, Ian answered “not feeling”. As a matter of fact, this medication is known for making the patient feel numb, which is why Monica stopped taking them. Judging by Ian’s behaviour in this season, I’m assuming that he hasn’t changed his medication: Ian is apathetic, and basically a shell of the person he used to be. The bipolar storyline already took two seasons and I understand that the writers want to focus on other things (otherwise they would be giving the message that bipolar people are defined and limited by their disorder). However, if we thought that Ian taking his medication would take us back to the character he was in the first three seasons, we couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Ian seems like a complete different person, which brings us back to the original question in this article. Who are you, Ian? 

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I am not going to go on ‘Review Mode’ here, but I do believe the writers should have had Ian focusing on himself this season. It would be interesting to see him going back to highschool (why did he drop out, again?) or becoming a firefighter. Caleb seems like an excuse to throw in an unnecessary love interest. And no, I’m not a bitter Gallavich shipper. I do like the couple, but I’m fine with them dating other people. The problem comes when Ian acts as if Mickey never existed, or what is worse, as if Mickey was the worst thing that has ever happened to him. Or when Caleb laughs at Mickey being raped. Mickey is deeply in love with Ian, to the point of tattooing his name on his chest and being willing to wait 15 years for him. Ian, on the other hand, claims to have moved on. That’s not all, though. Ian also seems to have forgotten how to do relationships. Sure, his relationship with Mickey wasn’t very conventional, but have we forgotten Ian going for a kiss after they first had sex? Or that he was the one who put the hand on the glass when Mickey was in juvie? Wasn’t he the one who wanted Mickey to kiss him, wanted to be out in public with him and wanted to go on a date with him? Now, Ian acts as if he didn’t even know what a date is and Caleb treats him as if he didn’t even know how to kiss without being rough.

At the moment, it’s becoming harder and harder to understand this character’s actions. Ian used to be sweet and passionate, but now he’s just moody, angsty and unrecognizable. But hey, Season 6 is not over yet and the writers could actually be misleading us with Caleb and Ian’s overall behaviour. If that’s the case, I will gladly update this article accordingly.

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24-year-old TV journalist. I especialize in fangirling over TV shows and anime. Currently fighting for fan studies to be recognized as a valid academic field.

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3 Comments on "Character Analysis: Shameless‘ Ian Gallagher"

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Guest
Jes
March 2, 2016 4:11 am
I just feel like they’re picking and choosing when to show Ian “experiencing symptoms” depending on when it suits them. He was completely 100% apathetic toward Mickey when he visited him in prison and he was a little zombie-like for the first couple episodes, but I can’t think of any other situation in which he’s reacted to another character like that so far season. Maybe Fiona, but I don’t think that really counts considering he was really annoyed with her and made it known. He had a pretty passionate outburst directed at Lip when he was working at his school,… Read more »
Guest
Tasha
November 18, 2016 2:01 am

This needs to be updated. Ian has made a 360 degree turn around.

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