How I Chose a Weird Hill to Die On

I was surprised by my own defensiveness about How I Met Your Mother, which has become my favorite sitcom. Includes my list of “essential” episodes, from my bad memory.

So What Happened Was

Because I’ve been watching a lot of the Barbie promotional material — which is a little like a drowning man saying “I’ve been drinking a lot of water” — YouTube decided that I must be a huge fan of Greta Gerwig1In fact, I’m unfamiliar with her work, but based on her list of influences it sounds like we have similar taste in movies!. It offered me a video about How I Met Your Dad, the first attempt at a How I Met Your Mother spin-off, which starred Gerwig but never went past the pilot.

That led to a bunch of suggested videos about How I Met Your Mother, most of which seemed designed to irritate me. They had titles like “Why the series finale was such a huge disappointment” or “How this one scene would have saved the finale of HIMYM” or “HIMYM’s disappointing ending explained.”

For some bizarre reason, I’ve appointed myself defender of the How I Met Your Mother finale, and it pains me to see people continuing to criticize it years later. Not only was the finale not a disappointment, It fits perfectly with the style and tone of the rest of the series, and it turns the entire thing — including all the tangents and filler mandated by the networks and real-world production concerns — into a single work about changing perspective, nostalgia, and unreliable narrators.

Also, I still love how you can go back and re-watch the episodes from the beginning, and it becomes clear that the finale we got was the only ending that could’ve made any sense. It feels like a batter pointing into the stands before the pitch, the ball spends the better part of a decade doing loop-de-loops around the stadium, getting more and more weighed down as the years go on, and then, somehow, it still lands exactly where they pointed. I’m not even putting a spoiler warning on any of this, both because the finale became public knowledge years ago, and because it’s even better going back after you know how it ends.

People can absolutely be disappointed in or frustrated by the pacing of the finale: having the entire last season take place over a single weekend was ambitious, but I don’t think it worked as well as they’d hoped. And of course, it’s jarring (deliberately) that we got to see years of a man trying to find the love of his life, and then we (deliberately) didn’t get to see much of them together.

But honestly, objecting to the content of the finale is just insipid. It’s as if audiences were given a major-network sitcom that actually tried to be meaningful, and then the audiences threw a tantrum because they just wanted another conventional sitcom about a bunch of twenty-to-thirty-something white people dating in New York City. The “alternate ending” I’ve seen on YouTube is a huge disappointment, in my opinion, since it takes everything unconventional and inventive about the series, and turns it into nothing more than a stylistic flourish.

(I should mention that I’ve already complained about this once, after the finale aired. But I’m not even going to link to that blog post, since it’s garbage. I was in my peak angry-and-insufferable-internet-nerd phase. I’m hoping my second attempt here can be both shorter and less obnoxious).

Why I Love This Series (or, How I Met Your Rasho-mom)

If you want my opinions in video form, there’s a video with the click-baity title “How ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Should Have Ended” on the YouTube channel “never nothing,” which I watched expecting to be angry, but ended up agreeing with it 99.99%.

There are two reasons I love How I Met Your Mother: it was constantly experimenting with unconventional storytelling, and it was all over the place in tone.

It frequently told its story out of order, with unreliable narrators, flashbacks and flash-forwards, extended fantasy sequences, scenes told from multiple perspectives, and clues that were set up at the beginning of a season, only to be paid off months or even years later.

At the same time, it was using all of these stylistic flourishes in a story that was corny, clever, optimistic, pessimistic, raunchy, painfully earnest, dark, goofy, charming, obnoxious, and romantic, often all combined in the same episode, and sometimes in the same scene.

So the finale is tonally accurate, at a minimum. One of the recurring themes that carries across all of the episodes is that people are constantly changing, learning more about ourselves, rediscovering and re-assessing what we want, reacting to all of the ways our lives don’t go as we planned. It would have been disappointing and weird for a show that’s been about break-ups, and arguments, and personal tragedies, to just end it with “And they lived happily ever after” as soon as our main character meets the “right” woman.

More than that, it turns all of the unconventional storytelling from a stylistic flourish into something meaningful. The story was told the way it was for a reason — including all the “filler” episodes that had nothing to do with Ted meeting the kids’ mother. The series was nine years of subtext. It’s about a character who’s notorious for overthinking everything, trying to convince himself of something. He’s going back through one of the most meaningful periods of his life, remembering why the people he loves are so important to him, how much he’s changed over the years, and how he finally got to have the life he’d always wanted. And now, in 2030, he allows himself to go on living, even after getting everything he’d always wanted.

Happily Ever After

Back when the finale aired, I described it like a magician perfectly executing a trick. It was years of deliberate misdirection. Going back and watching the pilot episode, it became clear that there was no other way this series could possibly have ended meaningfully.

After all, Ted starts out saying he’s going to tell the kids how he met their mother, but instead gives a 22-minute account of hanging out with his friend group and meeting Robin. They tell us that Robin isn’t the kids’ mother. They even have the kids comment on that — why did you start the story like that? Future Ted responds by saying that it’s going to be a long story. Most of us said “ha ha good joke, they know how TV series work,” and left it at that.

Almost everybody in the audience — including me — got all excited about the mystery and ignored the obvious question of why the very first episode of the series ends by showing two of our lead characters being completely smitten with each other. “This is a story about the false starts and lost loves we stumble through on our way to our own Happily Ever Afters,” we all told ourselves, because that’s what we were supposed to think.

And each episode would usually end with Ted explaining the lesson he’d learned, and why it was an important step on his journey towards becoming a fully-actualized person. It happens so often that we just assume we can trust Future Ted, even though he’s shown over and over again to be a less-than-reliable narrator.

So the setup is a hopeless romantic looking for his fairy tale ending, but the reality is story after story of a bunch of people learning about themselves and what they want out of life. That is the through line that is constant in every episode, not the mystery of who’s the mother. And that’s inherently incompatible with a fairy-tale ending, where your reward for finding your true love is that you both stagnate and stop growing. “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens,” after all.

But the show, like its main character, is a hopeful romantic, and it’s far too kind-hearted to just cynically reject the “Happily Ever After.” It still insists that Ted was naive to believe that he’d find his One True Love, but not because he’d never find his True Love. Just that there was no reason he could only have One.

I do agree with the people who wanted to see more time with Ted and Tracy, because they cast the role perfectly, and she’s charming AF, and I could watch a whole series of attractive and charming people being happy with each other. But again, that would be a pretty boring series.2And I’d argue that we got the charming-people-living-mostly-happily-together story with Lily and Marshall. Possibly the best TV depiction of two people who were extremely and happily in love with each other without being twee and/or insufferable.

It’s right there in the title of the show: it’s How I Met Your Mother, not How I Really Got To Know Your Mother Over Several Years. It feels wrong to even call the finale a “twist,” since we’d already spent years watching the love story of Ted & Robin. We know who they are, how they feel about each other, why their previous attempts at a relationship with each other failed, why their relationships with other people failed, and how they remained best friends even when they weren’t in a romantic relationship. Those are the characters who deserve a Happily Ever After, and it just happens to be Ted’s second.

So I hope that’s a better explanation than I tried before; it’s definitely a less obnoxious one. It’s been so long since the series ended that I’ve remembered most of the gags and stunts and running jokes, but I’d forgotten how it was so often sweet and romantic and clever at its core. I think it’s aged even better than I expected3There are still some things that make me cringe, but overall, it was just silly and kind-hearted, and I wish people had a less shallow interpretation of its finale.

Essential Episodes

When asked how best to get into a series with over 200 episodes, I realized I didn’t have a great answer. I have a few of my favorite episodes, but the rest has kind of blurred into an unorganized cloud of yellow umbrellas, blue french horns, and slaps.

Because so much of the show is about non-linear storytelling, you can jump around quite a bit without missing much. There’s actually not a ton of continuity besides “who’s Ted dating now?” The series has a frequent gimmick of showing or mentioning something that seems significant, and then not giving it context until much later, so you can treat most episodes as self-contained.

Usually the first episode of each season, and the last two episodes of each season, are the ones that drive the over-arching story.

After looking at a couple of best-of lists online (like this 50 best episodes list from Looper and this 50 best episodes list from Entertainment Weekly), here’s how I might tackle the series. “Essential” episodes I put in bold highlight:

Season 1

  • Pilot: Sets up the whole premise of the show, like you’d expect, but makes even more sense after you’ve seen the finale.
  • Slutty Pumpkin: I just like how this one shows the character dynamics and the tone of the show.
  • The Duel: I remember thinking at the time that this one was too twee and pleased with itself, but in retrospect it’s the kind of dorky earnestness that I like about the series.
  • The Pineapple Incident: One of the best early examples of the unreliable narrator
  • Game Night: everybody describes something embarrassing from their past, and we see Barney’s “origin story”
  • Milk/Come On: two episodes mostly about Lily and Marshall’s relationship

Season 2

  • World’s Greatest Couple: Some of the Lily and Barney dynamic, which you rarely get to see
  • Swarley: The series loved goofy episodes and setting up running jokes
  • Slap Bet: One of the best episodes of the entire series, even if the running gags it sets up did get run into the ground over the next several years
  • Arrivederci, Fiero: More of “the gang remembers their favorite moments together,” which always makes for good episodes
  • Something Borrowed/Something Blue: Another two- episode season finale, with Marshall and Lily’s wedding

Season 3

  • How I Met Everyone Else: Ted recounts his first meeting the rest of the group
  • Dowisetrepla: Some of the show’s best episodes are about the characters dealing with their lives not going the way they’d hoped, but I mostly like this one because of the gag in the title
  • Spoiler Alert: The group reveals each other’s once-you-see-it-you-can’t-ignore-it flaws. One of my favorite episodes just because this style of storytelling is unique to HIMYM
  • Slapsgiving: Continuing one of the long-running gags
  • Ten Sessions: This is Ted getting turned down by his dermatologist, but ends with the kind of sentimental, extended romantic overture that HIMYM excels at. (Also, Britney Spears is surprisingly a natural as a comedic guest star).
  • Sandcastles in the Sand: Robin is Canadian!

Season 4

  • Intervention: A great example of the group dynamic, and how they all love each other despite their flaws
  • Woooo!: The inner life of woo girls
  • Benefits: I liked this one just because most sitcoms are still so prudish about how grown-ups live their lives
  • Three Days of Snow: My favorite episode of How I Met Your Mother, and one of my favorite episodes of any television series. It’s not that weighty in terms of the series’ overall plot, but it is exactly the kind of unabashed earnest romanticism that I love about HIMYM. The ending makes me cry every damn time I see it.
  • The Front Porch: Just for seeing more of Ted and Lily’s relationship
  • The Three Days Rule: About how Ted’s romanticism is often at odds with reality
  • Right Place Right Time: For the series’ recurring ideas about fate and destiny and finding “the one”

Season 5

  • Girls vs Suits: This was a stunt-filled 100th episode, but it’s pretty fun and ends with a musical number
  • Robots vs Wrestlers: Ted succumbs to his worst tendencies to be an insufferably high-brow douche, and Barney worries that the group might not stick together.
  • Doppelgangers: The group keeps seeing each other’s doppelgangers in New York City. It’s a silly running gag combined with weighty questions about relationships and getting older, the kind of combination that HIMYM is great at.

Season 6

  • The Mermaid Theory: I remember liking this one just for introducing The Captain
  • Bad News/Last Words: The friends pull together when one of the group gets some terrible news.

Season 7

  • The Stinson Missile Crisis: I admit that this is only on the list because of my long-standing crush on Kal Penn.
  • Tick, Tick, Tick: I was never invested in the Barney & Robin relationship, but I liked this one for the goofiness of the sandwich-eating undercutting all the drama of the A storyline
  • Symphony of Illumination: Another heavy episode with a character getting devastating news, but ending with a beautiful and tear-jerking expression of Ted’s love for Robin
  • No Pressure: I honestly don’t remember this episode, but according to the synopsis it’s a key plot-driver for this season
  • Trilogy Time: The guys use their love of Star Wars as a metaphor for their friendship and getting older

Season 8

  • The Time Travelers: Future versions of Barney and Ted come back to the present to convince Ted to go to “Robots vs Wrestlers.” Carries on the theme of Ted’s anxiety that the group is getting older and growing apart
  • Something Old/Something New: Another two-parter building up to a big wedding event. The second episode finally reveals the kids’ mother Tracy for the first time.

Season 9

  • How Your Mother Met Me: In one episode, recounts Tracy’s story over the past 9 years, with all of the near-misses with Ted told from her perspective
  • The End of the Aisle: The gang finally settles into some kind of equilibrium at the end of the season-long wedding weekend, and the slap bet finally ends.
  • Last Forever: The series finale two-parter. Ted finally finishes telling the story of how he met the kids’ mother, and the kids figure out the real reason he was telling them the story in the first place.

  • 1
    In fact, I’m unfamiliar with her work, but based on her list of influences it sounds like we have similar taste in movies!
  • 2
    And I’d argue that we got the charming-people-living-mostly-happily-together story with Lily and Marshall. Possibly the best TV depiction of two people who were extremely and happily in love with each other without being twee and/or insufferable.
  • 3
    There are still some things that make me cringe, but overall, it was just silly and kind-hearted

2 thoughts on “How I Chose a Weird Hill to Die On”

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed them! I haven’t watched any of it in years, so I’m not sure how well the series has aged.

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