Remember when an entire episode of “How I Met Your Mother” centered on a quest to piece together the events of Ted’s blackout, and to figure out how a pineapple ended up on his nightstand? Or when Barney set Ted up on a blind date with a paralegal, strongly implying that “paralegal” was a euphemism for “prostitute,” and the date went well until Ted asked if she was a prostitute? Or when Ted and Barney licked the Liberty Bell?
“How I Met Your Mother” has come a long way from Season 1, when Ted was still so enthusiastic and the show had a strong “everyone here was in college in the last decade” vibe. As it went on, everyone, especially Ted, experienced failures and setbacks. The show got more plot-driven as Barney and Robin got together and Ted learned to cope with that fact. Ted fell into the background toward the end there, too—at one point, he was content to sit in his apartment naked. The characters’ aging (and the show’s) coincided with a dip in quality, and consequently the viewers’ waiting for the mother. By the finale, the show had gone a lot of places. Unfortunately, the finale was true to none of them.
“How I Met Your Mother” was, as far as sitcoms go, a serious one. Unlike shows like “It’s Always Sunny,” “The League,” or “Seinfeld,” “HIMYM” was invested in its characters’ outcomes. In this sense, it was very much a network TV heir to “Friends.” Even more than “Friends,” though, “HIMYM” sold itself as a show with an ending that mattered—it was in the title, after all—which is why its fans stuck around through the less-than-funny parts and, ultimately, why the finale was so offensive.
A lot of what “HIMYM” had going for it had to do with its realism. As many people suggested in support of the series finale, it depicted a series of failures that led to moments of happiness. So much of what happened throughout the show—losing jobs, breakups, and other bumps in the road—reappeared in the finale. Robin and Barney get divorced. Barney returns to womanizing. Robin wishes she had said yes to Ted, one of those many, many times in the previous several seasons. Barney has a child out of wedlock. Marshall returns to a corporate job before becoming a Justice of the state of New York. And so on. It’s not new for the show. All of the characters struggled with various personal and professional challenges of varying degrees, and not all of them turned out pretty. As the argument for the finale goes, the material in the finale was just more condensed.
For me, it’s less a question of whether the ending should be happy and more one of whether we can consider the one that happened happy. Of the five major characters, three of their story arcs ended in twists that were presented as positive—namely, Ted and Robin end up together, and Barney has a child. I don’t buy them as happy events even a little bit. First of all, the lead-up to these endings destroyed about four years’ worth of character development. We’ve been slowly acclimating for years to the Barney-Robin marriage; it’s been pieced out in season premieres and finales since season six. Barney learned how not to be a pickup artist, a funny but also disturbingly underexamined theme in the show. Robin became less of a commitment-phobe too. Meanwhile, Ted didn’t end up with Robin, but that was okay because his love for her was getting, well, a little pathetic. That was six years ago, Ted. Get over it, buddy.
For some reason—presumably the Master Plan—the writers shot the whole thing to shit 14 minutes into the finale. Literally one episode after they got married, Barney and Robin got divorced, for no apparent reason besides Barney’s inability to post the Boner Joke of the Day. Okay, okay, there was a little more than that. Barney loves Robin, but she works a lot, and he told her he’d never lie to her in their wedding vows. So, due to some not-clearly-explained lie, they should get divorced. That’s what love is, I guess. Then Barney goes for the perfect month—31 girls in 31 days. The perfect month is just who adult Barney is: a middle-aged man who needs to lie to women in order to seek physical intimacy. In Lily’s words, “You’re in your forties and you have a playbook. That is the sad part.” He’s frighteningly close to Charlie Sheen from “Two and a Half Men” and/or the old-man version of himself from earlier in the show.
Luckily or unluckily for Barney, he blows it by impregnating “No. 31,” the last woman in his perfect month. Up until the moment he sees his daughter, he still holds out hope he’s not the father, even tossing faux-celebratory “Not a Father’s Day” cigars in the waiting room. His change of heart is supposed to be comic, the realization of a commitment that he could never achieve with a sexual partner. But let’s be real—Barney did achieve that level of commitment with Robin. It took four years to happen, but it did, and then he threw it away. Given the shortness of time in which Barney came to love his daughter—not to mention the lack of storytelling effort that went into it—how can we believe that it’ll last? That’s not even mentioning the fact that Barney’s child’s mother has neither a name nor a face. The conclusion of Barney’s story is pretty implausible, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the last four or so years of the show.
Ted and Robin’s getting together, though, is even worse. In large part, the brilliance of Cristin Milioti as Tracy contributed to this feeling. When the show elected to go for a ninth season and introduce the mother in more detail, lots of people worried that she wouldn’t measure up to the role. What if we preferred Ted with Zoe, or Victoria, or Stella? (Just kidding, no one would prefer Stella.) But she measured up, and Ted’s and her relationship was great, for the few scenes it was on-screen. Which is what made killing her off so messed up.
Just as the show made it clear—up until the end—that Barney and Robin went together, it made it clear that Ted and Robin didn’t. Ted pathetically tried several times over the last few seasons to make it work, and she said no every time. After her divorce, though, and Barney’s childish, manipulative behavior returns, Robin wonders whether she married the wrong person. As a storytelling device, it opens up the ending, but in reality, it felt more like the wrong kind of regret. Robin didn’t make a mistake in saying no, but she did regret not succeeding with the choice she did make.
If this ending is ironic for Robin, then it’s certainly ironic for Ted. For one thing, Bob Saget has been telling a nine-year story to his children whose actual point centered around Robin, not the purported point of Tracy, their mother. In light of this news, his story becomes, rather than an endearing narrative about how he became the man who could marry their mother, a story about what he wants in the present. His kids’, ah, enthusiasm for his getting with Robin is also a little beyond my comfort zone. There may have been some ways for Ted and Robin to reconnect that were somewhat tasteful, but this was not one of them. Beyond the story itself, Ted goes back to the woman who rejected him over and over again. In the beginning of the finale, he jokes, “She only shot me down three times, she’s still very much in play.” When does she go out of play, Ted? The answer, apparently, was never. That’s not love; I’m not sure what that is. Obsession, maybe? In any case, once the woman he loves died, Ted has no pride or agency to try again, or to be steadfast in his solitude. He regresses back to the version of himself that stole the Blue French Horn and walked up to Robin’s apartment, only with dozens more rejections. I know this show loves to incorporate failure, but the ending hit a level I’m not comfortable with. When I was 16 watching this show, I never imagined it would end that way. Ted ends up with Robin, love does not exist, and there is no God.
The “HIMYM” writers fell prey to a truth that they’ve interspersed throughout the show: you can’t have it both ways. Ted experiences this lesson often enough, particularly with the women he dates seriously. He can’t have Zoe and his building. He can’t have Stella and his friendship with Robin. Most painfully (in my opinion, anyway), he can’t have Robin and Victoria. The writers tried to pull the trick they planned from the beginning of him and Robin together with a different mother, but it just played out like a bad joke. Tracy’s ex-fiance’s death is supposed to justify this plot choice, I think, but there’s a key difference. Tracy begins new with Ted, but Ted doesn’t begin new with Robin. He still has all that baggage.
I don’t want to say that everything about the finale was bad, though. In particular, the parts involving Tracy were fantastic. The actual meeting of the mother—the event we’ve been waiting for the entire show—was brilliant. I appreciated Ted’s reluctance to talk to her, and the exuberance (reminiscent of a younger Ted) of the old woman next to him at the train stop. Season nine Ted doesn’t really believe in destiny, nor is he willing to jump out and get hurt like he was nine years ago. He tells the old woman, “Just be cool, lady, damn.” But there Tracy is, with the yellow umbrella that belonged to both of them at various points—and destiny comes together. Beyond that, life just happens for the couple. Ted has a kid out of wedlock, which preempts his big wedding—okay because “big weddings are a young man’s game.” Their actual wedding is small and spontaneous, and almost happens in McLaren’s. I liked all of these details, if only because Ted’s big plans from the pilot got derailed and shit on and life took over. And life, for a bit, was good to him.
I’m still not sure what the legacy of this show is for me, particularly given where it fell in my life. My sister and I grew up watching this show—it’s been something we’ve bonded over for a long time. It was one of the first TV shows I loved. In high school, it became a vehicle at times through which I imagined what life—particularly in terms of friends, relationships, and place—might be like after college. When I went to college and had a better view of what those things might be like, and when the show dipped in quality, it became less significant in that sense. I began to see the limitations and the truths of what the show portrayed. I wonder if any of these experiences are true for anyone else of my generation with respect to “HIMYM”. In retrospect, one thing’s for sure: no finale has so violated the terms of the rest of the show. Whether that ruins the rest of the show or not, I don’t know. In any case, we’ll always have those memories of the gang in McLaren’s. Cheers to that. υ