I’ve written about Shameless in the past and still consider it one of my favorite shows. I was somewhat ambiguous about last season, but after tonight’s episode, “Where’s my Meth?” (Season 8 episode 2) I have one request: can someone please redeem Debbie Gallagher?
Debbie has slowly transitioned from a smart, earnest do-gooder to television’s most misguided brat, and it’s officially gone too far. Actress Emma Kenney has proven herself a worthy screen presence and, judging by her social media, honestly sounds like a delightful girl who deserves better than to portray an insufferable, idiotic flake for another season.
What irritates me about Debbie is that she didn’t start out this way. When we were first introduced to Debbie in season 1, she was characterized as a precocious 10-year-old wise beyond her years; even Frank describes her as an angel.
She’s responsible, mature, and almost rigidly moral, shown worrying about bills and chores in a way only a child forced to grow up too fast can. In the pilot, she notices Jimmy/Steve’s watch and says “that must have set you back what, about six bills?” and tells Carl that he’s almost 9, and needs to start “pulling his weight” around the house. She is the only Gallagher to investigate Jimmy/Steve’s erratic behavior, which she quietly solves completely unaided. In the second season, Debbie is in charge of the family’s summer home daycare, and refuses to relinquish the responsibility even when she develops a stress rash. She is scrupulous and uptight and struggles to relate to children her own age; Fiona remarks that “even [Debbie’s] taste in food is that of a 40-year-old.”
Debs is also implied to be academically gifted, but unlike Lip, she doesn’t cut corners or try to beat the system- she seems to be a genuinely hard worker.
The third season sees Debbie dealing with more typical adolescent problems: putting socks in her bathing suit to combat body image issues, dealing with peer pressure, and failing romantically. She’s not the shiny-haired, “adorkable” tween queen we often see onscreen, and it’s refreshing. By the fourth season, she is considerably more impulsive, but still arguably the most stable member of the family. Putting a snake in her romantic rival’s car was a bit much, but it’s par for the course when you consider what other characters have done.
The problem is, earnestness and morality don’t get you very far in the Gallagher’s neck of the woods. By season 5, Debbie is utterly unrecognizable. She date-rapes an older man and lies to her boyfriend about being on the pill to get purposely pregnant at the ripe old age of 15. It’s clear from the start of her pregnancy that she didn’t think it through, and she’s adamant to continue it even after her child’s father abandons her and Fiona kicks her out. Her first appearance in E1 of season 7 depicts her attempting to leave baby Franny in front of a fire station and, not 5 minutes later, she’s shoplifting and stealing strollers from parks. Debbie Gallagher, who once single-handedly ran an entire daycare out of her living room, suddenly can’t handle the responsibility of a child.
The hatred Debbie receives within the fandom is sad because it’s such an utter regression from her initial maturity. The selfless middle-schooler who took a day off from school to cheer up Sheila Jackson is now a high school dropout who dumps her baby on her paraplegic boyfriend and runs out to cheat on him. Maybe it isn’t Ian who most resembles their late mother, “Hurricane” Monica, after all. Maybe it’s Debbie.
I don’t often implore showrunners to do anything with their own craft, but please, find some sort of redemption arc for Debbie Gallagher. Make her back into the slightest shadow of her former nurturing, grounded self. Allow her to be anything other than this lying, stealing, utterly reckless teen mother who makes one awful decision after another. The show deserves better, and so does Emma Kenney.