I’ve kept with How I Met Your Mother from the very beginning, sometimes against my better judgement (let’s pretend Season Five didn’t happen). But even if there were an occasional episode here or there that felt uninspired or dragged (and let’s be honest, the show at its worst was still better than 99% of what constitutes network “comedy”), you stuck around for the characters.
Josh Radnor plays Ted, the straight man, beautifully/perfectly/so-many-lys-i-don’t-have-enough-space-in-one-article(ly). He’s relatable, though not so ambiguous as to be dull. His pretentiousness is cringey yet endearing (and perhaps somewhat seeped in fact if his directorial debut Happythankyoumoreplease – a dramedy about “finding yourself” and cancer patients – serves as any indication). Barney, the ever-scheming ladies’ man, was sufficiently over the top so as not to be unlikable, but built three-dimensionally enough that you really believe the evolution he undergoes over the nine years. Robin enters the show as the apple of Ted’s eye, and soon becomes that for the audience as well. And, of course, every serious couple I know thinks they’re “totally” Marshall and Lily.
*** SPOILERS BELOW ***
The problem with the ending is not that it’s sad… although, I guess in some ways it is. This isn’t Breaking Bad. This isn’t Oz. This isn’t The Wire. This is a CBS comedy. Not to minimalize the work here because I do believe that, front to back, this is one of the finer TV sitcoms to ever come around… but it’s still that. These shows work or don’t based on whether the audience grows attached to the characters. If you’ve stuck around with the cast of HIMYM for the past nine years, these people have become a part of your family. There’s a reason comedies generally end happily. Film is a much safer place to try bittersweet or downer endings; it’s a more story-driven medium and will only ever take an hour or two of your time. When it comes to television, you’ve spent the past decade inviting these people into your home. They’ve been there to make you laugh and to make you forget about the rest of the world. You want them to be okay. It’s not that the show owed us a happy ending – I believe that kind of thinking is wrong and combats the artistic method – but if you’re going against the grain, you have to do it well. I can’t think of many ways this episode could have been handled worse.
In just one hour, nine seasons of character development and build-up are tossed aside purely for the purpose of accommodating the creators’ (Carter Bays and Craig Thomas) original plan. Josh Radnor recently revealed that the show’s creators had not deviated from the ending crafted from the start of the show. In fact, the finale footage had been shot within the first two seasons to account for the teen actors’ aging. In early seasons, Robin was Ted’s only conceivable love interest and, had the show ended at that point, their union may have made for a perfectly good finale. But the characters have grown and the series has progressed. The program spends nine years proving that Robin and Ted aren’t right for one another. Whereas many fans were disappointed that the two were paired together on and off in later seasons, I thought it added to the show’s complexity. We knew that they wouldn’t end up together – we were told so in the first episode – but the show seemed to be just as much about as Ted’s long road to true love as it was about letting go of a woman we all knew wasn’t his soulmate. It seems the creators themselves may have had trouble letting go.
The beautiful story Ted tells his kids of how he found the love of his life is, in the end, whittled down to the words of his teenage daughter, “So basically you totally have the hots for Aunt Robin.” That’s what his children got out of it and that’s what it was all about. It wasn’t “How I Met This Perfect Woman That Was Your Mother” but “How I Veiled This Story of Meeting Your Mother Into My Asking Permission to Try Again With a Woman the Audience Knows I’m Not Meant to Be With.” (I’m sure at this point I’ll be the thousandth writer to make a play on the show’s name. Apologies.)
It’s a true testament to both Cristin Milioti and the writers who constructed her character that the mother was as beloved as she was. She saw very little screen time and, once the dust settled and we learned who the story was really about, she felt almost like an afterthought. That Ted would have the gall to sit his children down for the purposes of telling how he met their now deceased mother, and then barely mention her, verged on the vulgar and went against the sensitive character we had come to know.
In the hour that the HIMYM finale was on, I counted only one great scene – and for those of you who’ve watched it, I’m sure you already know what I’m talking about. Barney’s reaction to first seeing his baby daughter is emotional and raw. Neil Patrick Harris is a fantastic actor and does an unbelievable job pouring his heart out and proclaiming his love and devotion to her… but that beautiful moment was cheapened by his insisting, barely seconds before, that he didn’t want or care about her. It was like a switch flipped upon seeing her – which I’m sure was the point – but it felt inauthentic, and marked one of the few times Barney has been legitimately unlikable.
Barney gets pretty beaten up on this whole episode. This could be because he’s experienced more growth than any other character and the creators didn’t want to stray from their nine year-old blueprint. We’re given an entire season to really buy into Barney and Robin as a “meant to be” couple in a way Robin and Ted never were. That they divorce fifteen minutes into the last episode robs us of our fantasy of soul mates. This bleak ending may have been fitting for the Barney we met in Season One or Season Two, but not the one we’ve come to understand and love. He’s quite likely the show’s most complex character and, as you near the end of a relationship with someone you’ve come to love, you want them to turn out alright.
Ted may have had six years to grieve the passing of the mother of his children, but we were only given ten seconds to mourn. The show could have greatly benefited from another thirty minutes.
It’s a disappointing end to a wonderful series. Carter Bays and Craig Thomas did an impeccable job of crafting lovable and sustainable characters. But even the creators couldn’t know who these characters would become and how they would be embraced by audiences. They grew, we grew, but the original plan didn’t evolve with us.
I guess we can take solace in knowing that Ted didn’t abandon his two children to become a lumberjack.
Mark is currently studying political science at San Diego State University. He hosts the Bad Men Basketball Podcast and writes about movies (I guess TV now too) and basketball.
Follow him on Twitter @Mlaturno