The “How I Met Your Mother” finale and avoidable disappointment


(Ron P. Jaffe/Fox/CBS)

So here’s the story of “How I Met Your Mother.” It was a good show, then it was a very good show, then it was a decent show that used to be good and still occasionally had its moments, then it was a fairly average show with moments, sure, but they were few and far between and then, finally, it was a pretty mediocre show building toward a finale that had to get a few very specific things right and otherwise avoid doing a few very specific things wrong.

It didn’t work in the end. The final twist foreshadowed a month earlier and the twist that followed that were massive, desultory failures, missteps preordained without care or consideration for what was to come between plan and execution and the kinds of things that are likely to forever skew how some audience members will remember the show. (Although that will presumably be more of an issue for regular viewers than for people who only tuned in for the final episode — and a lot of people did that, with a record 12.9 million viewers giving the show its strongest ratings ever.)

And that show was good for a while, too. I know it’s hard to remember now, after the disappointment of the final episode, after the nightmarish slog that was so much of the final season (set, disastrously, over the course of a single wedding weekend) and after the sad and visible decline in quality over the preceding seasons, but “How I Met Your Mother” was, for a brief time, a very good sitcom. It was never a truly great sitcom, it was never an amazing sitcom and it was never going to be viewed as such. Debuting in the fall of 2005, it had the misfortune to air during a golden age of the network sitcom, snugly nestled among “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Community” and “Parks and Recreation.”

[Related: "How I Met Your Mother" finale: So, how did it all end?]

“HIMYM” — and I’m going to call it “HIMYM” in an attempt at brevity, goofy though it is, so let’s just roll with it — was never at the level of those shows, but during those wonderful early years, it was sharp, inventive and its own unique thing. It was a sitcom that played with plot, time and storytelling in ways that were fun and different, flipping stories and perspectives around and jumping back and forth through time with an impressive nimbleness, while also having a really strong dedication to its romantic, starry-eyed optimism and its notion of making these characters fairly lovable and relatable people (not sitcom punchline delivery machines, not outlines who varied from week to week, but actual people who we got a sense of as they slowly constructed this universe). Yes, when the inevitable decline came — and it comes for all shows, particularly comedies — it hit this show hard, taking what had been a loving and agile series and turning it into an increasingly cartoonish version of itself. And at the same time, it went from being a perpetual “bubble” show, always on the verge of not making the next season’s schedule, the kind of show we would have missed and fondly recalled had it never returned after the second season finale, to the kind of show that sticks around year after year because it’s a sturdy performer for the network.

But let’s get back to the finale. In the end, “HIMYM” concluded with an episode jumping forward through the years to show the way people fall out of each other’s lives — the “Mad About You” finale, basically — giving us glimpses of some happy endings and cheery moments while also giving us some things that were a little more realistic and, if you thought about them, made sense. Yes, sometimes you move and have kids and stop spending as much time with your friends. Yes, sometimes people break up and so one of the people in the couple stops hanging out with their group of friends. Yes, you get older and stop spending all night in bars below an apartment where most of your friends have, at one point or another, lived. These things do happen.

Yes, if you really think about it, it’s maddening that they spent the entire season focusing on the Robin/Barney wedding to promptly have the characters get divorced in the next episode. But that’s not why this season was so frustrating and that’s not why their divorce is annoying. The show had done a pretty good job of laying out why these two characters weren’t a good fit, something that would have been a perfectly fine story in and of itself — sometimes people get together and get married and they shouldn’t and it doesn’t work out, the end. The season-long wedding arc wasn’t a failure because the characters got divorced, it was a failure because most of the episodes were bad, the entire thing felt like an exercise in lightly jogging in place and it was a bad season of television with a problematic central plot device. And the idea of having Robin and Barney get married and promptly get divorced wouldn’t have been so bad had the show’s creators not turned around and positioned it so that Robin could realize She Married The Wrong Guy.

[Related: How the finale betrayed the series’ ideals]

Let’s just discuss the final two twists, both of which were predicted with horror by fans (and critics) after an episode strongly hinted that at least one of the twists was coming. At the end, they do in fact reveal that the mother (finally given a name: Tracy) got sick and died. Ted’s story that began in the pilot ends after that, but the kids announce that the entire point of the story was him explaining why he always loved their “Aunt Robin,” and the kids talk him into going after Robin, and the final scene of the series is Ted showing up outside her apartment just like he did in 2005, holding the same blue French horn, as though 208 episodes of television hadn’t elapsed between the beginning of that episode and the close of this one.

The missteps are clearly intertwined and you cannot consider one without the other. See, this isn’t the kind of show where they cracked the story at the beginning of the year or a couple of seasons ago as they contemplated the endgame. This is a show where they plotted out where it was going a long time ago, to the point that the final conversation between Ted and the kids involved footage filmed with the two actors playing Ted’s kids eight years ago, before they got too old, footage that was meant to be used in the finale, whenever it aired. So before they cast Cristin Milioti as Tracy, before they began showing scenes of Ted and Tracy as they started dating and fell in love and started a family, before they showed her meeting the other main characters, before they showed her becoming part of this group, they knew she was going to die so that Ted would wind up with Robin.

That is, of course, part of the problem with approaching a series with the endgame already in mind. There’s a massive difference between the disappointing finale of a (very different) show like “Lost,” which gained narrative steam before they figured out where the hell they were going, and the disappointing finale of a show like this, which knew where they were going but started traveling before deciding on a route. It’s going to be an ongoing debate that nobody will actually solve, because the two ideas — is it better to decide ahead of time the entire story, or is it better to wing it on the fly and see where the story takes you? — aren’t themselves set in stone, and your feelings about which approach works best will entirely depend upon the show in question, the story it selects and how it works. (In other words, we cannot know which is better, because neither is inherently better; what works is what works for any given show and what doesn’t work fails to work for its own particular reasons.) But in this case, in this very clear and just-concluded case, the preordained endgame was a very blatant problem that creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas opted not to solve.

Because the problem with going with this ending is that we have to think about what the creators want it to mean to us. Do they want us to watch it and think how it sucks that Ted had a brief time with Tracy, but at least he and Robin can reconnect and make each other happy after they’ve had other problems in life? Do they want us to watch it and think it’s a sad ending? Or — and this is the worst possibility of all — are we supposed to be happy with this ending?

That is the ultimate question here. It’s really the only question that matters: Are we supposed to view this as a happy ending? I’m just guessing, but I think the creators would probably say they view it as a tragic ending with a happy coda, because Ted and Robin were able to find each other again. But I cannot help but worry that in writing this ending years in advance, the creators were banking on fans having an affection for the Ted/Robin chemistry of the initial seasons — a chemistry that was great in the early going, but is by this point several years past its prime and ignores the character changes that have gone on in the interim and the way the show has focused so much on building up other relationships. Consider that the creators of the show originally wanted to air the ending at the conclusion of the eighth (and what turned out to be penultimate) season, acknowledging that the mother of the title was basically an afterthought before having the real ending (which, it turns out, is Ted and Robin ending up together).

And that is appalling on a character level and a storytelling level. For the characters, it ignores the years of stories and growth and presumes that all we ever wanted was for the show to figure out a way to undo the twist that capped its first episode; as a storytelling choice, it’s insane for the same reasons, opting to cling to something that made sense to them several years ago rather than accepting the new paradigms emerging in your evolving narrative.

It’s here that I have to point out again that the show went from hovering around cancellation to becoming an anchor for the CBS Monday night lineup, transitioning from a show uncertain of when it would get to end the story to a show that had to stretch out the story for as long as humanly possible. Had it ended, say, two years ago (or, in hindsight, four years ago), and had they basically given us a glimpse of the mother before showing Ted and Robin ending up together, would it have been so bad? Of course not. Because that would have predated years of additional Ted and Robin storylines, years of episodes focused on showing Robin and Barney’s relationship, years of episodes exhausting the Ted/Robin thread — and it would have predated Cristin Milioti’s run on the show.

In casting the role of the mother for the final season, Bays and Thomas were making a very particular bet: They were hoping they could find someone good enough to live up to the title and years of build-up, someone who could match up well with Josh Radnor and the rest of the cast, someone who could make the entire journey seem worth it (even if the show was generally not about the journey toward the title) — and someone who the audience and Ted could fall in love with before she was quickly killed off. (Oh, and the audience had to be okay with that, so they’d accept the final twist of Ted and Robin ending up together.) The problem, of course, should seem self-evident on its face: If you cast the wrong person and the chemistry isn’t there, the entire idea of her being the mother doesn’t work. But if you cast the perfect person and everything falls into place, you’re going to give the audiences a glimpse of something great before yanking it away with a cruel, cheap twist.

Obviously the latter is what happened. Cristin Milioti was great on the show, playing wonderfully off of every major character and proving to be a great pairing with Radnor. She was given a character that wasn’t terribly fleshed out — not even getting a name until close to the very end — but the character of Tracy was still the best part of the final season. She enlivened her sequences, adding a new energy and a spark to her scenes, fitting perfectly with the cast while also bringing something different to a show that had grown static. It helped that all season long, we were seeing the final chapters of the show’s overall story in flash-forwards mixed in with the slow road to the actual final installment; after all of what came before, getting these glimpses of Ted in his happy, future life made for a nice running coda.

The final twists were bad because they were unnecessary. They were the show trying, as it did in that first episode and as it did numerous times over the years, to unexpectedly pull off a magic trick at the last moment. But why? After nine seasons – nine seasons — of a show with a built-in gimmick, why is it even necessary to have a final gimmick? Why is it necessary to build toward something that you will, in the final hour, show in fleeting scenes (the meeting on the train platform was absolutely wonderful, as were several of the other Milioti scenes, but they were largely quick parts of the episode’s steady progression)? Why feel the need for that final twist, only to add another immediately after?

You have to wonder if Bays and Thomas ever considered ditching the pre-recorded footage and figuring out another way to conclude the series without that ending. They saw what we saw in the scenes with Ted and Tracy, and they saw that it had been years since the Ted/Robin storyline was a major part of the show. Why stick to the script just because you conceived of it years ago? Why not call an audible and say okay, we have something that works, and, oh yeah, introducing someone and killing them off so we can recapture part of the pilot’s status quo in a bizarre reset is not at all in keeping with the entire series we’ve done?

So the finale ended with bewildering, astonishingly avoidable mistakes. (The rest of the episode — the jumping forward, the divorce, Barney becoming a father, Ted finally getting all he wants in life — was a mix of the good and the hurried, because the episode was overcrowded, despite being an hour, and overshadowed by the colossal mistakes in the last 10 minutes.) What does that mean for the series leading up to it? Ultimately, I had gone into the finale expecting that if the ending failed — if they went for this ending, specifically, an ending I dreaded once the speculation emerged — that it would sour the series for me, much as the final season and finale of “Lost” (vastly different, I know) made me think less of that entire show. But strangely, I don’t feel that way. I guess it helps that it atrophied a few years ago, turning it from a show I loved watching (during those first seasons) into a show that, yeah, I still watched, I guess. During those early years, when it was very good and occasionally fantastic, it was a wonderful show to watch, and I still think fondly of some of those episodes. When I happen to catch them on syndication, I will still watch them and like them.

I think a part of that is because the show itself has changed so much since those years that it almost feels like watching a different series; the one that ended poorly on Monday night doesn’t seem like the one that was so great in 2007. I also think that I never viewed the show as a long-form story about how he met the mother — I never took the title as a literal statement of purpose — so I won’t watch, say, “Swarley” and think about the dumb decisions ahead. (Watching an episode of the final season with Milioti, though, would serve as a reminder of what a tremendous waste the final episode was.) The finale was not worthy of the good that came before it, and it doesn’t negate that good, it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. It was simply a bad ending to what was, at times, a very good story.

A version of this post originally ran here.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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