When the series finale of How I Met Your Mother ended, I felt as if I’d just watched someone do the trick where they pull the tablecloth out from under a complete table setting. I wasn’t awestruck, but more impressed that they were able to pull it off at all.
The more I think about it, though, the more I think it was bonafide magic.
This was a finale of a series that has “the ending is a surprise” built into the entire premise, so of course everything that follows is a big spoiler.
How I Met My Sponsor
If there’s a single episode that sums up the entire series, it’s… well, of course it’d be the one where Marshall picks up Lily at the airport during a snowstorm. But for the point I’m trying to make, the definitive episode is the one that was a shameless ad for Microsoft.
The reason it’s definitive is that the series regularly took stuff that absolutely, positively should not have been able to work, and then somehow pulled it off. It was corny, gimmicky, and prone to stunt-casting. It often seemed inordinately pleased with itself. It took each of its characters and gave each of them a flaw that made them genuinely unlikable. It took running gags and ran them deep, deep into the ground. And it constantly vacillated between raunchy and unabashedly sentimental.
But then it somehow absorbed it all, commented on it, and used it to its advantage. Starting out, it was kind of insufferable; it assumed the cast was way more charming than it actually was. (One episode in the first season had Ted & Marshall staging elaborate sword fights in their apartment, which is a big part of why I didn’t start watching regularly until the second season). Then as they got more confidence to do running jokes (like the slap bet), it made the sentimental stuff hit harder because it seemed like such a surprising contrast, and not just unearned melodrama. Over time, the characters’ quirks became genuine annoyances, if not outright sociopathic behavior. But then “Spoiler Alert” based an entire episode around that, then resumed course. And “Three Days of Snow” ended on a completely contrived bit of made-for-TV romance between two characters who call each other “Marshmallow” and “Lilypad,” but the last scene still makes me cry every single time.
As for the Microsoft episode: How I Met Your Mother was never at all interested in subtlety, but this was completely over the top. Windows logos all over the place, Maury Povich picking up an Xbox 360, all of it taking place in an alternate universe where anyone referred to Bing as the default search engine, and that’s without even mentioning how the characters had explicitly been shown using iPhones in previous episodes.
But it actually worked. It was another gimmick episode, but it was still pretty funny. And not just in spite of, but in defiance of the product placement. The show had been around for over 100 episodes by that point; it was pretty ludicrous to believe that a bit of network-driven brand promotion was going to destroy its integrity, at least any more than the years of aggressive marketing that CBS had been inflicting on the series in the form of Barney Stinson “bro”-themed books and Robin Sparkles merchandise. They ended up just using the advertising as part of the absurdity, but also using it to make an otherwise unremarkable episode memorable. Now it’s “the one with all the product placement.” On a series that’d been running for that long, being forgettable was a much greater danger than selling out. Plus it made this guy from Cult of Mac absolutely livid, which is of course a huge part of what makes it so delightful.
And more than that, it seemed to be in defiance of the idea that “selling out” was even relevant. The idea that genuine artistic integrity is actually based on anything that shallow.
Recognizing that is genuinely subversive. I always got the impression that I was at least 10 years older than the target audience for the series — but then, it’s hard to tell, because the show has guys ostensibly born in the 80s who are absolutely obsessed with Star Wars the way that only sitcom show-runners born in the 70s could be. And I grew up in an era where everyone was still getting an idea of how counter-culture worked after nobody was sincere about anything any longer. An era in which David Letterman mocking GE on his long-running NBC series was considered “subversive,” as was going on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a T-shirt that said “Corporate Rock Still Sucks.” It didn’t take long for it to became clear that all of that was just posturing, and it ended up feeling all the more artificial because of its impotence.
How I Met Your Mother side-stepped that by acknowledging that its running gags, stunt casting, corporate marketing tie-ins, its formulaic sitcom format, even its deliberately post-modern premise, were all just window dressing that would never make or break the series on its own. They set themselves up with the problem of how to tell an earnest, unabashedly sentimental and hopelessly romantic story to an audience that was so self-aware and jaded that it had already spent a decade getting tired of being jaded.
How I Fixed Your TV Show
At least, that’s the show that I’ve been watching for years (and recording-and-meaning-to-watch for the past few years). It’s probably a mistake to assume too much self-awareness of an audience, though; some people just want to be calmed by the colors and moving shapes of insipid non-challenging network television and jump up on their sofa and clap whenever the funny gay man says “Legendary.”
Okay sure, it’s generally bad form to start insulting people who have a different opinion of a TV show. But I’ve got little patience for the kind of arrogance that makes somebody on the internet say, “Uh, yeah, we fixed your show for you. You’re welcome.” Even less when the “fixed” version is so, so much stupider.
To save everybody the trouble of watching it: the “fixed” version is just a few minutes of the last half of the finale episode, helpfully sanded down to remove anything at all surprising, challenging, unconventional, or that could be mistaken for a sign of actual story development or any kind of purpose to the preceding nine years of television.
It actually ends with Ted saying “and that’s how I met your mother,” cut to credits. I imagine the bright yellow umbrella was a big help as well, since anyone who thinks that that’s the “kind of sappy that totally jives with everything HIMYM viewers should have come to know and love” is someone who’s still amazed by object permanence.
Elsewhere on The AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff concedes that the finale didn’t retroactively invalidate the entire series, but that the show-runners were “shitty long-term planners” who painted themselves into a corner early on and were just too incompetent to pull themselves out of it. Which is not just colossally incorrect, but baffling and arrogant. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of the people who complained that the movie A.I. turned to shit as soon as the “aliens” showed up. It says “because my assumption turned out to be incorrect, you failed.”
Here’s the point where VanDerWerff’s take goes completely off the rails:
This is all well and good if the story the series is telling is that of the show’s title. But it’s not. The story the series ultimately settled on was that of not just how Ted met Tracy (and told his kids all about not just that but also several seemingly unconnected adventures) but also how his kids told him to get out of his own head and start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time. And this isn’t something Bays and Thomas pulled out of their ass to give a series that ran too long a happy ending!
Can you see the problem? It’s a word that starts with “f” and ends with the assumption that Bays & Thomas had less understanding of how American episodic television than the average message board poster. It assumes that the series was never anything more than a raunchy mainstream comedic soap opera; Friends for millennials. That there was never any “message” to it apart from “Who gets to fuck Robin now?” Which itself ignores the immature and misogynist attitude that people take for granted as acceptable in romantic comedies, and assumes that this long-running and popular sitcom couldn’t possibly have been commenting on that.
It assumes that How I Met Your Mother was ever really about how Ted Mosby met his kids’ mother. Worse, it keeps assuming that even after the series suggested several times over, and the finale definitively proved, that that could never have been the case.
How I Met Your Mary-Ann
I’m absolutely not claiming that I saw the ending coming. In fact, a few years ago I read that interview with Jason Segel, where he mentioned the idea of the entire story being told after the mother’s death, and I promptly forgot about it. It just seemed like tone-deaf, hipster posturing: Screw you, viewers, she was dead the whole time! Boom, edgy! That’s what you get for getting emotionally invested in a dumb old sitcom!
A couple of episodes ago, when they all-but-explicitly said that the mother was dying, I was extremely pissed off. If they did that, it would retroactively destroy any love I ever had for this series. The reason was that I didn’t see any way they could possibly make it work. It would only ever be a manipulative attempt at pathos instead of the genuine sentimentality the series has always excelled at. And worse, it would’ve violated the entire premise of the series. “Kids, as we sit in honor and remembrance of your mother and the one true love of my life, let me first spend hours telling you about the years I spent having sex with other women.”
But that’s the only way the series ever could’ve ended. I’ve read a few people say that the show-runners painted themselves into a corner when they recorded the kids’ final scenes for the finale, sometime at the end of the first season. That’s not true. They painted themselves into a corner the moment they said, “Let’s make an American ongoing television series called How I Met Your Mother.”
It has what’s probably the most contrived premise for a television series since Gilligan’s Island. The thing that the show’s ostensibly “about,” the thing that all the characters are striving for, is the one thing that can never be shown without the series ending. In fact, if you wanted to reveal the title character at all, you’d have to significantly change up the format of the entire series. Like, for instance, making the entire last season a compressed-time version of a single weekend that was pivotal for all the characters’ relationships.
The format of the show has always carried with it an implicit joke: Ted Mosby’s the world’s worst storyteller. Not only has it taken him years to get to the point with all his various distractions, but he’s spent a year telling his children about all the sex he had before he met their mother. But as meta-observations go, that’s about as insightful as pointing out that Mystery Incorporated are never chasing actual ghosts, or everything in Three’s Company was based on a simple misunderstanding. Not only did the HIMYM team make the above video for Comic-Con in preparation for the final season; they’ve made the joke in the series itself. As soon as it was revealed Stella wasn’t the mother, an episode had her walking in on the story with two blonde-headed kids, asking, “Is your dad still telling that story?!”
They did a lighter-touch, sincere version of it this season with the aforementioned saddest episode, when we learn that Ted and Tracy have learned all of each other’s stories, and she warns him not to get lost in his stories. The finale says it outright: Ted insists that he kept the story short and to the point, after his daughter points out that the story was hardly about Mom at all.
The credits sequence hasn’t changed since the second episode of the series. It’s always been a bunch of snapshots of Ted and his best friends hanging out at the bar. As if to suggest that those memories were the entire focus of the series all along. Finding his wife was the framing story for those memories, not vice-versa.
Throughout the season, they establish Ted as an unreliable narrator, for instance with a character named “Blahblah” and the running gag of using sandwiches as a stand-in for pot. Which could’ve been nothing more than a stylistic flourish or television gimmick. Or more likely: a constant reminder that Ted was telling these stories, and there was a reason he was choosing to tell these stories in this way.
And there are all the finale’s callbacks to the show’s pilot episode: showing the cast in their first appearances, and ending on the iconic scene with the blue french horn. VanDerWerff (whom I usually agree with to an uncanny degree) spends several paragraphs missing the point — and again, that in itself isn’t the problem, since I already confessed to getting the same clues and freaking out at the idea that there wasn’t going to be a purely happy ending with The Mother. The problem is seeing an artist pretty much explicitly tell you what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, and still insisting that it was clumsily or poorly planned. He writes:
But think back to the wonderful ending of the show’s pilot, to the moment when Ted’s kids realize the woman he met was their Aunt Robin, not their mother, and think about all that has been lost in the quest by Bays and Thomas to write themselves out of that moment, even when several viable alternatives presented themselves. The series finale of How I Met Your Mother insists that life happens to you, like it or not, that the bad things can’t be swept away in a single moment. It’s a pity that the men writing it tried so hard to stick to those guns once it became evident how far the show had trended away from their original plans.
He describes it as a desperate attempt to “write themselves out of that moment,” when the entire series has been five good seasons and four meandering ones attempting to deliver on that moment. I just re-watched the pilot, and the ending, which is indeed wonderful, is essentially a line-for-line prediction of the knee-jerk reactions to the series finale. The daughter’s upset that Ted promised to tell them the story of how he met their mother, but instead went into detail about how he first met Aunt Robin. And then when he’s asked how long it’s going to take to tell this story, he says, “long.” They might not have known it was going to be ten years long, and it frankly shouldn’t have been ten years long, but they were fully aware that episodic television means you’re not going to get a straight line from A to B.
More than that, it sets up the theme from the beginning; it’s not some retcon that came out of left field for the finale. At 27, Ted was already a hopeless romantic, so impatient to find The One that he described his perfect wedding to one first date and said “I love you” on another first date. He was contrasted with his two best friends who’d each already found their one true love in college, and his other horndog friend who was vehemently against the idea of “one true love.”
How I Met Your Step-Mother
A lot of viewers — myself included — believed that meant we were watching a romantic comedy series about a man’s mis-steps and false starts on the way towards finding the love of his life. What we got instead were several seasons with the story arc of incurable romantic Ted believing he’d found The One, having his hopes dashed, giving up on the idea, and then being encouraged to find the next The One.
All the while seeing his commitment-phobic friend lecturing him on the arcane rules of dating and manipulating women for sex (the kind of attitude that says stuff like “start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time”), but gradually growing into the kind of man who could have a mature honest relationship with a woman as an equal.
And simultaneously, Ted was seeing his other friends start at the end of any romantic comedy, the “and they lived happily ever after” part of their lives. Over time, they went through adversity, questioning their ideals, balancing their dreams with reality, and learning not to take their love for each other for granted and doing the actual “work” of being a married couple.
Which is why the shallow interpretations of the finale have me annoyed enough to go off on a tirade. There’s something defeatist if not outright elitist about it, an assumption that because the story takes the format of a formulaic sitcom, that’s all it can ever be. It’s all stunts and catch phrases and running gags and gimmicks and sex jokes, with the occasional sappy moment we all know and love. And all of those other stories are just killing time until Ted gets his happily ever after.
But this was, from the start, a sitcom that wanted to do more. It wanted to show that Ted was growing up and learning from these experiences too. That being an “incurable romantic” actually means having a juvenile idea about what relationships are actually about. VanDerWerff says that by spinning everything back to Robin, that both Ted and the show are guilty of “oneitis,” being so focused on one person at the expense of someone else who’s a better fit. That’s a complete mis-read; Ted’s story, from the pilot to the finale, is a rejection of the idea that you only get one.
(There’s even a foreshadowing of that in a running gag, deliberate or not: Barney’s constant insistence that Ted call him his best friend instead of Marshall, when nobody else cared to make the distinction).
Ted did find the love of his life. If my math is right, he and Tracy were together for as many years after their first meeting as the entire length of the series. And one of the many brilliantly-handled aspects of the last season was that we only ever saw that their relationship was perfect. She blended perfectly into the group. She wasn’t just “Ted’s girlfriend” but someone who genuinely changed all their lives. Their meeting was genuinely charming, as if the writers had saved up all the wit and romance caught in the drip pan of nine seasons and put it into one scene. We never saw their fights, only the years of happy memories that Ted had. Even during “the worst times,” we didn’t see ay of the suffering, just the acknowledgement that they were completely in love. One of the most perfect details was that they didn’t get married for years, not until after they’d had two children, and it was in small ceremony with their best friends. Ted’s perfect, fairytale wedding never happened, because all his abstract plans for his perfect romance stopped mattering as soon as he found the real thing.
Contrast that with the “fixed” ending up above, and you can get an idea why it’s annoying that anyone would call that superior. It’s not just that it’s an insipid, juvenile “happily ever after;” it undermines the entire series. It says that Ted was right all along, and he just needed to kiss enough frogs before he found his princess. It trivializes this relationship by setting up that she’s essentially just “the one after Victoria, and Zoe, and Stella, and Robin…” and also trivializes those relationships by setting them up as essentially practice runs from which he learned nothing. It ends with all the characters essentially unchanged from the pilot episode. And it just ignores the most obvious problem: we’ve been spending all this time hearing about everyone except the mother.
The ending that we got, however, owns that and puts the entire series in context. It doesn’t matter that the story barely has the mother in it, because we got everything we need to know: she was perfect, and she’ll be forever perfect in his memories.
And Ted’s story doesn’t stop the moment he meets Tracy, either. The thing that broke he and Robin up the first time was that they wanted different things from their lives: he saw himself having a fantasy wedding and settling down to a life in the suburbs with a perfect wife and two kids; she saw herself traveling around the world at a moment’s notice and had no interest in settling down. And in the seasons that followed, they both learned that it’s worse than futile to try and form a plan for the rest of your life while in your 20s, since you end up comparing everything that actually happens to that unrealistic plan.
Ted discovered — in what, in retrospect, seems like one of the most poignant storylines — that the house was just a shell, and he was still impatiently putting together aspects of his ideal life instead of letting life happen to him.
Robin discovered that the things she’d always assumed weren’t important turned out to be hugely important to her — in her most poignant storyline, she discovered she couldn’t have children and had to figure out why that was so devastating to her. And while the will-they-or-won’t-they back-and-forth with Barney was most likely an attempt to squeeze a few more seasons out of the series, it ends up fitting in with her story just as well. Barney was a cartoon version of the kind of no-strings-attached, whiskey-and-strip-clubs, complete freedom of being able to drop everything and do something completely reckless that she’d always believed she wanted. The wedding wasn’t a distraction; it was a process of the both of them growing up and learning what real commitment and selflessness was. And importantly: they were genuinely in love, and they continued to be in love after the divorce.
It’s fitting that she broke up with Ted because of their “expiration date,” her fear that she’d be tied down to one place and lose what she thought was her freedom, but then found herself thirty years later in the same apartment in the same city, still surrounded by her dogs. Both she and Ted got what they wanted, at least for a few years, but then the complication is that their story kept going.
There’s a reason Ted’s story — and therefore, the series — started with his meeting Robin. It wasn’t to set her up as the first in a line of failed relationships until he found the successful one. It wasn’t to say that the kids’ mother was fine but it was always Robin that he truly loved. It was to show that Ted at the beginning of the story is a different person than he is at the end, even if he doesn’t realize it until his kids point it out. (Yet another example of why the “fixed” version is so lousy: the framing story just becomes inert, an acknowledgement that everything interesting that happened is in the past). It’s because that relationship is one of the most important relationships of his life, even though it wasn’t — or maybe because it wasn’t — a romantic one. It’s because telling the story makes him realize everything he got from the relationship, while at the time he was always comparing the relationship to what it could be.
There was an excellent episode in the last season called “Sunrise,” in which Ted finally gives up on his one big final romantic gesture and symbolically steps down as an obstacle between Robin and Barney. Robin finds out, and she and Ted spend the night on the beach, talking about their relationship up to this point. In one of the simultaneously corny and beautiful scenes that HIMYM always did so well, Ted finally lets go of Robin and sees her floating away, like a child’s balloon. It’s one of the scenes that the finale puts in a new context, making the obvious interpretation seem shallow. Even if they both thought so at the time, Ted wasn’t really letting go of Robin, so that she could go on to marry Barney and he could go on to meet Tracy. Ted was finally letting go of his childish version of Perfect Robin. The version that was keeping him forever focused on what he thought he could have instead of appreciating what he had.
After the finale, that blue french horn stops being just a prop for the big Say Anything moment in a shallow, “One big gesture and my quest to win the girl is complete” romantic comedy. It becomes an acknowledgement that they’ve had a long history together. Everything has an expiration date, the worst thing you can do is let worries about the future stand in the way of enjoying the present.
And of course, it solves the problem they set for themselves in the pilot episode. If you want to tell a love story for adults that still builds to a climactic moment when one runs to the other and delivers a big, sweeping romantic gesture, you want it to be with a character we love and have gotten to know for longer than a season. There’s no one perfect story. You don’t have to choose between love at first sight and the depth of understanding that comes from knowing another person for a long time. You can have both.
How We Blew Your Rambaldi-Device-Finding, Cylon-Discovering, Island-Escaping Mind
I’ve spent years poring over the details of Lost, trying to put all the pieces together and predict what was going to happen. For a long time, I believed Battlestar Galactica was going somewhere and that the opera house dream would make sense. It seems weird to me now, but I even put a good bit of effort into trying to figure out Alias.
When I started reading people’s responses to the How I Met Your Mother finale, my first thought was that they were treating it as if it were just some kind of mystery story, or a puzzle to be solved, instead of letting themselves get genuinely invested in it. But really, it was a pretty neat mystery story. It used flashbacks and flash-forwards better than a conventional sitcom really needed to. It was exciting to get clues like the Econ class or the yellow umbrella doled out, like the episodes of X-Files that unpredictably dipped in and out of the larger continuity.
And just thinking about the finale in the context of the other episodes, and how it re-contextualizes the other episodes, has been interesting. Obviously, not all of it is deliberate, and a lot of it really was nothing more than a half hour of goofy television. But I’m impressed by how much of it fits. It really does seem as if they announced their intentions with an unconventional pilot, and then spent the next decade carrying it out. Of course, when your theme is “unexpected stuff happens,” it’s a little easier to say after the fact that nothing was a tangent.
I’ve been interested in long-form episodic television storytelling since the first time they showed The Smoking Man. I never would’ve expected that the first series to pull it off successfully would be a silly little formulaic sitcom that often could made me cry. If they’d gone for about three seasons shorter, and if the gang had ever made any black or Asian friends, it would’ve been about perfect.