“We’ll always be friends. It’s just never going to be how it was. It can’t be, and that doesn’t have to be a sad thing.”
And so here we are again, with a series that most of us here at NPI liked–if not enough to offer serial reviews—ending in highly scorned fashion. How I Met Your Mother has gone the way of Lost, or even of The Sopranos, its conclusion drawing ire from fans and critics alike.
Series finales, especially for quote-unquote comedies, are really difficult, for the reasons John S laid out a year ago post-The Office. I mean, let’s face it: Endings in any fictional work are hard and typically forced, because in real life things don’t really end. The kind of closure we expect from a story isn’t intrinsic. There are always going to be loose ends and unexplained details and things we never find out. Fiction writers have to navigate their way around this, usually by killing characters or by having them unwittingly broach the fourth wall by weirdly acknowledging a finality that shouldn’t exist diegetically.
But of course, most people didn’t like the conclusion of How I Met Your Mother, undercutting as it did the supposed raison d’être of the series and revealing that Ted’s just going to get back with “Aunt Robin.” The final scene of “Last Forever,” in which Ted reenacts the scene from the pilot episode with the blue French horn outside Robin’s apartment, would have been terrific had the series concluded years ago. It was a poor culmination, however, after a full season of exposition to Robin’s wedding to Barney, and after several seasons showcasing the increasing gap between the Robin Ted fell in love with and the Robin that married Barney—work furthered in the flash-forwards of the finale. In that regard, series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas were victims of the show’s prolonged run, as it made it nigh impossible to maintain the will-they-or-won’t-they feel their preferred conclusion required over the course of nine seasons. And so they changed Robin’s and Ted’s personalities–OK, mainly Robin’s—to the point that their initial conclusion could no longer really work.
But whatever. Endings we disagree with happen all the time. It’s their right.
What intrigued me most about the finale wasn’t its attempt at closure, but rather, how real it got—for lack of a better adjective. It’s a remarkable episode because of a tone that strikes me as devastatingly realistic. The year-by-year flash-forwards that display how friendships erode in favor of family—and what this does to those who lack the latter—are outstanding, to the point that one wishes the final season comprised these scenes in longer form rather than Marshall and Daphne in a Hummer.
Although family life is happy for Marshall and Lily and Ted and Tracy, Marshall is miserable at work and Lily misses her friends. Robin and Barney get divorced. This is the stuff that happens to real people.
That divorce is eminently realistic; it might have even been inevitable. Robin and Barney’s dual conviction that it wouldn’t change things—and how it subsequently changed so many things for them—follows suit. (The issue with divorcing the two of them, of course, is building an entire season around their wedding, and then undoing said wedding so quickly. This is a theme of the finale; all this would have played much better if it had been isolated entirely from the rest of Season Nine.)
Robin’s diatribe against “The Gang” at the Goodbye, Apartment Halloween party is virtually unassailable. All Lily can manage for a rebuttal is a “So that’s it?” before Robin explains what adult friendships are actually like: “We’ll always be friends. It’s just never going to be how it was. It can’t be, and that doesn’t have to be a sad thing. There’s so much wonderful stuff happening in all our lives right now, more than enough to be grateful for. But the five of us, hanging out at MacLaren’s, being young and stupid, it’s just not one of those things.” A pregnant Lily crying in an empty apartment in her white whale costume is oddly fitting for the scene.
Even a small thing like Barney forgetting the night he and Ted licked the Liberty Bell—because he does a lot of cool things—speaks to the asymmetry of memory. What shared experience matters so much to me might not and in fact probably does not mean the same thing to you.
“Last Forever” did the work of expressing the lesson the series tried to sneak in at the end of “Gary Blauman” two weeks earlier: “You will be shocked, kids, when you discover how easy it is in life to part ways with people forever. That’s why when you find someone you want to keep around, you do something about it.” That line didn’t make sense regarding a character that I had forgotten had previously appeared on the show—or even regarding the Carls and Ranjits of HIMYM‘s universe. But when it’s Robin we’re talking about…
It’s a risky maneuver for a comedy to delve into this type of darker material—and we haven’t even gotten to Tracy’s coolly glossed-over death. You can argue that this tone is inconsistent with the overall tenor of the series—that How I Met Your Mother was more about optimism and an enduring belief in destiny. But was that always the case? The promise of the title gave HIMYM the free rein to emotionally cripple its protagonist throughout its run. Ted sees Victoria go to Germany. He lands Robin, only to break up with her when he realizes she wouldn’t change for him.* He is left at the altar. In the pilot, Ted opens up, way too much, to Robin about how sick he is of being single, about how much he wants to find the one. It rings hollow for a 27-year-old we’ve known for 22 minutes to feel this way; it certainly doesn’t nine seasons later.
*The Season Two finale is still my favorite episode of the series, and Ted’s “I would have stolen you a whole orchestra” its best line.**
What Ted often endures is endurable only because the show tells us he makes it through to the other side, because it tells us he meets the mother of his children in its title. How suffused with optimism do the events of Ted’s life appear when you take him out of this retroactive context? What if he were just a friend of yours, and you hoped Ted would find the girl—Ted will probably find the girl, right?–but you didn’t know?
That’s what makes the final get-together at MacLaren’s, with Marshall preaching to a younger generation and Lily leading a tear-filled toast to “Ted EVELYN Mosby” on his wedding day both hard-earned and well-done. In the characters’ world, it was never clear whether this would happen.
There are other slam-dunk scenes. Barney meeting his daughter and reciting the same line he had mocked earlier in the bar was a contrived pull on the heartstrings—but it pulled anyway. Same with him telling Robin later that “Daddy’s home.”
And the scene that has to work the most, the scene the title has pointed to for nine seasons, is just about perfect—since we could do without the old lady, for the most part. Part of the anger at seeing the woman we now know as Tracy killed off and replaced stems from how well that character was written for and played by Cristin Milioti. Even in brief glimpses, she seems the best female friend Lily has always wanted, and her ragging on Barney at Robots vs. Wrestlers showed how well she acclimated to that aforementioned Gang. She also always said “Hi” really awkwardly, which helped in the pivotal meeting scene with Ted. The repartee between Ted and Tracy under the yellow umbrella—the various things “TM” stands for—is witty but not unrealistically so. It’s a conceivable way for the two to meet and bond, enough so that Ted would delay his drama-queen move to Chicago. The music—Everything But The Girl’s “Downtown Train”—was great, because the music is almost always great on HIMYM.
It was the ability to write that kind of scene that kept me coming back to How I Met Your Mother, even as it lagged for what became the majority of its run. Bays and Thomas, like The Gang, showed up for the big moments. And maybe that’s what makes the final final scene a bit of a letdown—how they failed to read the room and adapt to changing circumstances. But that doesn’t have to be a sad thing.