Parting thoughts on “How I Met Your Mother”

himym

WARNING: Massive spoilers ahoy. Tread lightly.

How I Met Your Mother closed its remarkable nine-season run last night with a breathless and expansive double episode, titled “Last Forever”, that saw its creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, attempting to have their cake and eat it too, unsuccessfully in my view. It was a fairly dizzying display of rug-pulling disguised as fan service that moved me intermittently – far less, unfortunately, than this show has in the past, including this season, which I generally approve of – gave me a few smiles, left me shrugging at times, scratching my head at others, and actively disappointed as the curtain finally fell.

For better and worse, HIMYM, which compressed a 3-day wedding weekend into a 22-episode television season, spent its last hour cementing the show’s central relationship and spelling out absolutely everything that happened to the MacLaren’s gang in the hours, months and years following that wedding, with their underlying friendship as the focus. For some fans, this approach was doubtless exactly what they wanted, though I found it lacking. Your mileage will vary.

At its best, How I Met Your Mother was pure spun gold, the story of a five-way friendship that spanned not just the nine years in which its main action occurred but closer to fifty if you count flashbacks to college and before, and the surprisingly durable framing device of a man, in the year 2030, telling his kids how he met their mother, as its endpoint. Ridiculously creative at its height, HIMYM flashed back, forward and into parallel dimensions powered by flights of fancy. It piled in-joke on top of in-joke and made viewers effortlessly feel like a part of this group – Ted, Marshall, Lily, Robin, Barney…even the names don’t instantly evoke other characters for me, outside of “Rubble”, say, or maybe “Hood” – in a way that not even Friends, the Holy Grail of post-Cheers hang out comedies, ever really did for me.

It helped that I identified on some level with protagonist Ted Mosby. Perhaps I saw my own frustrating quest for storybook true love mirrored in his own, saw the happiness of his married friends Marshall and Lily mirrored in the lives of some of my friends. I never really knew a Robin (Sherbatsky, an ambitious reporter, Barney’s future wife, and Ted’s everlasting, occasionally requited, love), or, for that matter, a Barney, as in Stinson, the perpetually suited hedonist and uber-player whose catch phrases and gleeful pursuit of sexual conquest helped turn the show from a candidate for cancellation in its first season to a rising star in its mid-period golden years to CBS’ entrenched second in comedic command by the end. This crew worked as a group, and with a fair amount of magic. They were goofy and clever and hopeful, fearless practitioners of grand gestures both romantic and otherwise. They loved each other, and we loved them.

Nevertheless, several factors worked against HIMYM as it stretched past what many would term its expiration date (season six or so). First: exhaustion. Creatively, Carter and Bays always tried to cram as many comedic bits into a given episode as possible, be they clever, groan-inducing, dumb, whatever. In addition to these egalitarian comedic guidelines, HIMYM also sought to foster and strengthen the emotional connection not just among its characters but between the group and the audience. As a result, so many story lines and angles had been introduced and played out by the later years that the strain of inventing new ones showed. A front-to-back viewing of How I Met Your Mother would never be less than entertaining, but it would also have its pockets of frustration.

This was a show that seemed to split its time equally between breaking new ground and treading water. Nothing introduced in the show’s second half could compete with the lunacy of Marshall and Barney’s infamous “Slap Bet”, or the cringe-worthy fun of discovering “Robin Sparkles”, Robin’s pop singing alter-ego, who haunted Toronto shopping malls throughout the late ‘80s like the Canadian Tiffany, except with better songs. Second factor: mythology. HIMYM is ostensibly the story of Ted Mosby’s search for the love of his life. It mythologized “The Mother”, who remained unseen until the final shot of season eight and unnamed until the final reel of season nine, to a ridiculous, often detrimental degree, and dropped what it thought were tantalizing hints along the way to her identity and the circumstances under which she and Ted would meet.

This in a way reminds me of the stories, often referenced by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, of how in the early days of iconic ABC drama Lost the creators would throw almost everything possible at the wall in hopes of obsessing fans and helping keep them interested in the show, not pausing to think that the story of a band of castaways stranded on a mysterious island might already have its own juice and dramatic possibilities built in. Instead, here’s a metal hatch leading to heaven knows where, and, just for fun, a polar bear roaming the jungle. It proved irresistible to fans, but the more the island grew in stature over time, the more its various mysteries (who lives in that ghost cabin, what about that guy who doesn’t age, what are these numbers about) started to draw attention away from its inhabitants.

Lost’s series finale, in which the “flash sideways” alternate universe explored throughout season six was revealed to be a sort of purgatory for the already dead cast that existed side by side with their living exploits on the island, carved sharp divisions in the fanbase. It tied up a veritable mountain of loose ends in what many thought were unsatisfying ways. I enjoyed the finale because I had become engrossed in the human element of Lost, and thought the “flash sideways” conceit an elegant and moving way to explore these characters and give them a last moment in the sun, away from the increasingly impenetrable logic of the island itself. I no longer cared about Jacob and The Man in Black, if I ever did (and I didn’t). I cared about Sawyer and Juliette reuniting, and Jack dying peacefully after sacrificing himself to save his friends, Walt’s dog by his side.

HIMYM doesn’t hold a candle to Lost in the mythology department, of course, but I still enjoy the comparison. Perhaps the island the MacLaren’s gang is stranded on is Manhattan? Carter and Bays set up lots of pins with The Mother that they had to knock down or at least acknowledge (the yellow umbrella, the far off wedding, the reception band’s bass player, the train platform at Farhampton). From those origins sprang the tightly compressed and often convoluted season nine, set entirely on the weekend of Robin and Barney’s wedding, with plenty of highs (often involving The Mother) and lows (Marshall’s road trip arc, anyone?).

This leads me to the third factor: character change. Carter and Bays based much of HIMYM on their relationship as friends in and after college, and from the beginning were much more open to having real life intrude on their merry band than other, comparable shows would have had the stomach for. Ted and Robin were a couple almost immediately, then broke up (for a while) but remained friends, their relationship casting a prominent shadow on the rest of the series (how long a shadow we discovered in the finale). Marshall and Lily also split up, reconciled, were married, had a child, and were pregnant again by the end. Marshall both became a father and lost his father, accepted a judgeship then declined it so he and Lily could follow her dreams to a life in Italy. Ted was left at the altar by a single mother fiancée, then aided and abetted his post-Robin girlfriend Victoria in her own Runaway Bride scenario. It seems that half of Manhattan’s population of pretty, eligible twenty-somethings at one point either dated Ted or slept with Barney, who, himself, was engaged to a stripper with a heart of gold and then performed a personal 180 to become not just Robin’s husband but a man worthy of her hand. On a show where change is already fairly constant, how does one solve the final puzzle in a way that is satisfying to fans yet still in line with the integrity of the world that’s been established?

“Last Forever” takes place in the immediate aftermath of the wedding, as Ted notices The Mother on stage during the reception, drinks her in, then decides to leave anyway instead of approaching her. He has an impending move to Chicago the next day, and can’t bring himself to either believe in or tempt fate this one last time. Later, as he waits on the rainy (and fabled) train platform at Farhampton, he notices the (fabled) yellow umbrella, and beneath it, his intended, Tracy McConnell. Though The Mother has already been an active part tangentially throughout season nine, including starring in one of its strongest episodes, “How Your Mother Met Me”, the finale saves their actual titular meeting for almost the end. First, Carter and Bays take fans on a whirlwind tour of what happened to the gang over the course of the intervening years, leading up to the basement in 2030 as Ted finishes his story.

Barney and Robin, frustrated by the strain of distance that accompanies her job, divorce. Lily takes the news especially hard and has everybody vow that, no matter where life takes them, the gang will always be together for the “big moments”. Barney recovers and revels in his old horn dog ways with frightening speed and commitment while Robin pulls away from the group in earnest, telling Lily that despite their core of love, they’ve simply outgrown the hanging out at the bar phase. Marshall, after grudgingly returning to corporate law and eating dirt for years, is finally offered another judgeship, and he and Lily let slip that they’re expecting again. Barney announces he’s accidentally fathered a child and treats the earthshaking news flippantly, until he holds his new daughter in his arms and, enchanted and perhaps hypnotized, pledges his life to her. Ted and Robin bump into each other awkwardly on the street, and reminisce briefly. We witness Ted and Tracy finally marrying, after several years together and two children. Robin makes the ceremony after being conspicuously absent for those “big moments” in recent years. It’s a nice enough moment that flew by. So much of the rest barely registered to me.

The Mother, Tracy, is present during this full contact flashback, but is never particularly prominent in it. This is par for the course. Part of what added spark to season nine was the sense of possibility she added, and Cristin Miloti, when onscreen, made the most of The Mother’s potential without ever fitting comfortably into the ensemble. Miloti is an appealing presence, and she tried her best to own The Mother and make her a distinctive character. It’s easy enough to see why Ted, who had the ingrained programming and belief in true love that made him a candidate to fall for almost any winning smile that passed his way, would fall hard for Tracy. At moments in season nine, HIMYM flashed forward to milestones in Ted and Tracy’s relationship and hinted at a true bond and killer chemistry between them. These were easily among the season’s best moments.

HIMYM has, of course, throughout its long and winding journey, used The Mother variously as a totem and an ideal, a Scooby Doo mystery and, eventually, a prophecy fulfilled, but almost never as a real person. Because Carter and Bays keep their focus firmly on the gang of five, and not Ted and Tracy, she remains as she ever was, mostly in a series of clips and photographs – a rock, a friend, a caregiver, a loving ideal, in romantic coupled life, in contented married life, and in death. Sharp viewers deciphered the clues that Tracy might die long before I started seeing the theory show up in reviews. Like any fan, I have my own rooting interests. In the early days of HIMYM, I was invested in Ted’s journey. In the golden years, I thought him increasingly foolish and desperate and just enjoyed the gang’s shenanigans. From the moment The Mother bought her ticket to Farhampton, I basically went all in on a proper sendoff and a magical ending.

Having Ted and Tracy marry late, already parents, and then having her succumb to a properly unnamed illness is in keeping with the established dramatic rules of this otherwise comedic world. So is practically everything else that occurred in the finale’s cavalcade of flashbacks, though a lot of it, particularly Barney’s light speed twin regression and redemption, was jarring and distracting. When Ted’s daughter calls B.S. on her father at the end of his tale and both children assert that the entire story has been a none-too-veiled ode to his abiding love for Robin, and that he should “go for it” with her right now, it just rang hollow to me. Like all that I had been set up for had just been yanked out from under me for the sake of nothing more than a happy ending. You know what else is a happy ending? The happy ending I envisioned, the ending I felt the show was building toward, and that on some level I felt owed me.

I recognize how stupid that sounds, but nine seasons of investment is what it is. That the relationship Carter and Bays cared about more was not Ted + The Mother but Ted + Robin was a pretty deft switcheroo, and in my eyes a tonal, if not total, mistake. Carter and Bays know their audience presumably, or at least are writing with a specific one in mind. Some of them were no doubt thrilled as a gray-haired Ted stood outside Robin’s window and held aloft the (also fabled) blue French horn from season one as a Lloyd Dobler-like token of his undying affection. Your mileage will vary. A series finale is a tricky thing by nature. Any creator whose show has retained its prestige and/or popularity long enough for him/her to be able to craft its end must recognize the luck involved and take care to do the best work possible. How do you balance comfort with revelation? Do you tell every bit of the story, or tell it to the end of your story and no further? Do you throw in a twist?

“Last Forever” follows HIMYM’s well-established tropes into one last celebration of hanging out with these people, and fulfills the prophecy that it, and Ted, never fully let go of from the beginning. We knew early on that Robin was not the mother of Ted’s children. Despite periodic references and moments of doubt, it still rarely occurred to me that she was the de facto love of his life. What I saw on the screen in later years just didn’t lend credence to the thought. It was a handful of non-sequitur call backs spilling from the lips of confused and hopeless romantics, one just before her wedding day, prone, as we know so well by now, to grand gestures. The introduction of Tracy injected a fun and hopeful note into the proceedings. Maybe someday, someday soon, Ted will stop pining and get on with his life. The audience wanted to love her, indeed, was given ample reason to do so, and to love them as a couple. We’d heard so much about her. Then she and Ted were together, for a hot minute. Then she was gone, Ted finished his story, and his kids chided him, then prodded him out the door. Where did he find the blue French horn, by the way? Did he just paint a new one?

How I Met Your Mother was never a show afraid to take chances. It was crazy and inventive and heartfelt. It just didn’t stick the landing. Though it spun its wheels famously in later years, it never abandoned the relationships at its core, and strove to always develop them. It makes sense in hindsight that this story of the abiding five-way friendship would only ever make a slight detour to make good on the promise (and premise) of its title, and then it would snap back reflexively to the relationship at its core. I think it reneged on an understood agreement between artist and audience, and left the latter in a lurch. But I can’t really fault it, even now. I’m just disappointed. I wanted something legendary.

Though the moment where Ted and Tracy finally meet, under the yellow umbrella, was quite lovely. I watched it twice. Almost, by itself, worth waiting for.

2 thoughts on “Parting thoughts on “How I Met Your Mother”

    1. Thank you, Ellen! This was about as unfriendly to a first time viewer as I could imagine a series finale possibly being. Pretty great series though. I’ll miss it.

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