Of all the Gallagher kids, Ian is by far the most difficult one to understand. While Cameron Monaghan does a great job at providing a strong presence on screen, the character has had such a spectrum of different motivations and passions that it’s hard to get to the heart of the character. A lot of this the Shameless writers have intended as being integral to his personality and at other times they just don’t seem to understand what this character is about. I want to look at how this character has developed and how his most important relationship with the character Mickey Milkovich defines him.
Ian has always suffered from middle child syndrome, constantly desiring to take charge of his life and frequently being forgotten by his own family. He is the only Gallagher child who is an LGBT person and who is not the biological child of Frank. He did have a lifelong desire to be a soldier for the first three seasons, which provided a stable foundation for his personal motivations and served as a constant visual reminder as Ian was frequently seen in his ROTC outfit. However, when that dream was destroyed in the fourth season so was an important piece of Ian’s character.
As the only bipolar child, the mania so changed his disposition that Ian was basically checked out for that season. And with the reveal of this disorder there came a wave of bewildering emotions that made him question his own identity. During these past two seasons, I have also been struck with how many times the usually confident, self-assured Ian has had uncomfortable and insecure interactions with others. For example, this past season Ian was pressured into two different sexual encounters that he had zero interest in. Ian’s autonomy has seemed to waver of late.
And then we have Mickey. He is one of the only stable and constant elements in Ian’s life. Being involved with Ian for five seasons, Mickey has been the cause, companion, or solution to the vast majority of Ian’s major life events. In addition, Noel Fisher and Cameron have truly found incredible acting partners in each other. Their passionate chemistry brings out the best of each character’s traits. Ian and Mickey understand each other as no one else does. Despite being such an odd couple, they have always balanced each other out and oftentimes have been the only person that could calm the other down.
So that’s why in episode 11 of season 7, “Happily Ever After”, Ian’s farewell parting of “This isn’t me anymore” causes such confusion. What about Ian’s current situation is so perfect, which season Ian is he referring to, and when has Mickey ever not complimented him? He could be referring to the fact that he has become a reformed, law-abiding citizen. But that’s a ridiculous claim to make because in the very next episode Ian agrees to keep and sell $10,000 worth of meth. Ian has never stopped being a Gallagher rebel. Maybe he’s referring to the fact that he already has a boyfriend. However, he and Trevor have long had difficulty relating to each other and often step on each other’s toes. Or could he be talking about his new job as an EMT? I will give the writers credit for finding an apt profession for Ian as the successor to his failed attempt at being a soldier. And yet could he not find an equally meaningful and exciting job in Mexico? Particularly since there are many hazardous parts of Mexico that could really use Ian’s expertise.
One could argue that he does not want to leave his family. But while the Gallagher siblings are the heart and soul of the show, them living together has never been a healthy arrangement. (On a side note, the Gallagher’s frequent choice to date people of the same family could be a sub-textual suggestion that the siblings secretly desire each other and could never actually have a non-incestuous love.) In any case, a particularly striking moment in the episode was Mickey’s vehement disgust and anger at Ian offering him money instead of Ian himself. For someone who has spent his whole life knowing that he is a burden unless he provides financial support, Ian may not even be able to comprehend Mickey having no desire to replace Ian with money.
It’s very possible that Ian meant that he is on meds now and has a firm hold on his mental health. And yet again this makes no sense since Mickey is the only reason that Ian began taking medication and did not go over the edge. He took care of him at his most depressed and was the only one who could calm him during his manic outbursts. Mickey made sure that Ian took his meds, didn’t drink, and bought him all the vitamins he could need. For all his love and caring, Ian punched him in the face. So of course Mickey wouldn’t dare mention Ian’s illness or remind him to take his medication. Ian has made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want Mickey helping to take care of his health.
But does any of that really matter? Even if Ian’s life was perfect, this crossroads should have been meant as the one time that Ian actually sacrificed something for Mickey. To clarify I am not saying that anyone in real life should actually run off with a fugitive but this is a TV show and there should be a suspension of disbelief so as to build character development. To get back to my point, Mickey stayed with Ian through everything even when Ian put his son’s life in danger. Even when being in a relationship with Ian was not in his best interests. To deny the sacrifices Mickey made and the emotional stress he went through because of Ian is to deny the incredible selfless love and patience that Mickey has shown. Noel created a character that so clearly found perfect contentment just from being able to love. Yet being in a relationship with an un-medicated bipolar person is not easy and his loyalty should not be lessened by his other circumstances.
It seems extremely unfair to assume that just because Mickey never really had a prosperous future ahead of him and Ian has picked out a socially-approved path, that Mickey’s sacrifice cannot compete with what Ian would have to give up. Mickey gave all that he had. With Ian’s rejection of him, Ian says that he will not forgo any of his life’s comforts and will not do any hard work to maintain a relationship that has taken years to build.
But when really examined, it seems that Ian’s feelings towards Mickey have always been difficult to understand. The infatuation Ian had with Mickey in the beginning was kind of mystifying. Mickey’s unlikable character could best be described as that of a cowardly asshole. Ian’s affections also took a long time to be reciprocated. It took painful and trying experiences for Mickey to be able to feel and express the unconditional love he had for Ian that would later so define his character. After everything they went through together, the intense loyalty and trust that would come from these events makes perfect sense. The viewer can follow Mickey’s journey moving towards love but Ian’s development regresses. A contrast to the Ian of the earlier seasons who loved freely and intensely, he now has become colder and harsher in a way that makes it hard to believe this transformation betters him.
So, I’m lead to a conclusion that I have no choice but to draw; that Ian is an emotionally abusive partner to Mickey. Up until this point I’ve mostly been able to excuse his actions on bad writing or with the eventual hope that Ian would make it up to Mickey. But I can no longer ignore the fact that Ian’s inherent character is selfish and manipulative. His repulsive action of having to be paid to visit Mickey and then actually telling him of that fact purposely degrades Mickey. His gaslighting of the dynamics of their relationship, particularly when he explains his supposed fight and fuck relationship with Mickey to his new boyfriend Caleb, makes himself the victim and Mickey the bad guy. His constant refrain that Mickey wants to bring instability to Ian’s life clashes with Mickey’s earlier hard work to bring his life to safe domesticity and Ian’s bitter rejection of the offered care.
But the worst thing that Ian does occurs in his manipulation of both his and Mickey’s vow of love. The first time that Mickey tells Ian that he loves him in episode 12 of season 5, “Love Songs (In the Key of Gallagher)”, Ian denies the truth of that and then makes fun of Mickey for pledging his commitment to Ian. This cruel reception effectively emotionally abuses a character that has long suffered a love-depraved existence and who Ian himself spent years trying to get Mickey to reveal his emotions only to then destroy them. When Mickey talked about how love meant looking out for the other person when they needed support, it proved an incredible revelation for a character that never had anyone to teach him about anything other than violence. But instead of being rewarded for his growth, Ian shames him. His insistence that Mickey return to his old self shows that Ian saw him as nothing more than a sexual fetish and not as an actual human being.
All of this takes an extremely hypocritical turn when Ian later tells Mickey he loves him for the first time in the their last scene together. Ian has no problem rebuffing Mickey’s love but does not expect any doubt of his own expressed emotions. However, Mickey spent years proving his love and promised that it meant action. Ian does not back up his declaration with any proof of loyalty and Mickey says it best when he implores Ian to “get in the fucking car.” Mickey knows that to consider someone as important in your life you need to be willing to make sacrifices and be there for the person when they need you. Ian only seems to use his I love you to as a way of not making himself feel bad about his actions. Using someone for your own personal two-day thrill fix demonstrates a person happy to take what he wants and not someone willing to stick it out for the long ride.