The finale of “How I Met Your Mother” had the same problem that the show has always had. It privileged gimmicks over its emotional core, and Ted’s cheap, childish obsession with Robin over the more adult vision of romance and marriage that it did so much to build. And the worst part of that lapse is that “How I Met Your Mother” squandered what, over the course of nine seasons, had proven to be a remarkable capacity for real feeling and clear-eyed thinking about the compromises and unexpected victories of adult life.
“How I Met Your Mother” has always been rooted in the idea that marriage is a profoundly desirable thing. And for a long time, it was fascinating precisely because its main character who badly wanted to be married was a man, and not, more stereotypically, a woman. Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) could be a jerk, he got distracted by casual sex and bad relationships, and he even got a butterfly tattoo on his lower back. As a romantic, he made enormous mistakes, like rushing into marriage and stepfatherhood with Stella (Sarah Chalke), or helping his ex-girlfriend Victoria (Ashley Williams) run off from her own wedding. His inability to step away from Robin could be unpleasant, the sign of a Nice Guy who cannot hear “no,” even when the volume on her rejection is turned up to eleven. But for a long time, Ted was pop culture’s most prominent male romantic, and a counterargument to the pickup culture represented with such enthusiasm by his friend Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris).
And Ted had a remarkable example to follow and to aspire to in Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segal) and Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan). Marshall and Lily may have fallen in love in college, and the tenure of their relationship gave them years to have crazy sex, develop the ability to communicate using only their minds, and come up with a roster of saccharine nicknames. But it also gave them time to hurt each other, to have their relationship crack and get mortared back together. Lily broke their engagement to pursue a career as an artist, a dream that was never really supported by her actual talent, leaving Marshall devastated. Later, the debts she ran up shopping pushed Marshall into corporate law, delaying his return to environmental law. Eventually, her career would take her to Italy, pushing back Marshall’s ascension to the bench as a judge. Their relationship stood as testament to the idea that marriage is work. But Marshall and Lily also made the case–one that conservatives often argue should be a greater part of our cultural conversation–that marriage is a place from which that work can happen from a place of strength.
Lily and Marshall were the core of the show that withstood the rise of gimmicks and calls to suit up, the increasing prominence of bro codes and the constant circling back to old storylines. It is no mistake that Marshall and Lily, and Lily in particular, are the best part of the “How I Met Your Mother” finale. Lily’s heartbreak as Robin drifts further and further from the group, riven from it by her divorce from Barney and her unresolved feelings for Ted, is rooted in the same ideas about adult relationships taking effort that inform her marriage. And Lily’s toast to Ted as “a man with more emotional endurance than anyone I know,” is an expression both of her optimism, and the best version of Ted’s perseverance, a sign of emotional openness and strength rather than neediness or obsession.
Lily always believed in Barney, too, a faith “How I Met Your Mother” cannot really justify. Too much was happening in the finale to give real emotional weight to his final breakup with Robin, given how deeply Barney had changed his life to be with Robin, and given that the breakup was driven less by Barney’s womanizing than the rise of Robin’s career. And Barney’s final transformation, via the birth of his daughter with a one-night stand, is just another kind of gross.
“You young ladies need to go home, put on some decent clothes, and take a good hard look at your lives,” Barney told the kind of women he used to take advantage of, calling out their behavior rather than assessing his own. “Get. Call your parents, they’re probably worried sick.” Barney has always been a good friend, the person who made Lily come home to reunite with Marshall, and who got Marshall and Robin jobs in times of financial and career extremis. But just as he often concealed these acts of kindness, “How I Met Your Mother” could never quite escape the need for Barney to be cool, rather than fully realized.
At the end these last nine years, the Robin of the finale is as much a gimmick as the Three Day Rule, or the Slap Bet, or Gary Blauman. It may have been structurally irritating for “How I Met Your Mother” to spend an entire season on her wedding to Barney, only to rush the couple into a divorce in the finale half of the episode. But the idea that Robin and Barney wanted to make a go of it more than they were actually capable of the show’s vision of strong marriage is an acknowledgement of reality in keeping with some of “How I Met Your Mother”s most piercing moments.
The person Robin becomes after she and Barney divorce, though, is less appealing in reality than in Ted’s imagination. She fades away from the group rather than doing the work of building friendships with Ted and Barney, or adjusting her friendship with Lily to the way that both of their lives have changed. The sequence is a reminder that Robin has always been someone who ducked out of emotionally difficult situations, that she could be blunt and not particularly considerate, that she preferred her own convenience to other characters’ comfort and emotional needs. That “How I Met Your Mother” brought Ted back to Robin underscores the show’s commitment to schtick over character on the level of both running jokes and big emotions.
Ted may have told his children that “Right from the moment I met your Mom, I knew. I have to love this woman as much as I can for as long as I can.” But given that Carter Bays and Craig Thomas knew from the beginning that this was how “How I Met Your Mother” would end, they, if not Ted, always knew he was operating with a cheat code: “as long as I can” would not actually mean for the rest of their lives, through all the difficulties and compromises Marshall and Lily navigated with such strength and persistence. Ted Mosby may not be a jerk. But his quest for love turned out to be not quite as remarkable, whether as a story of a glance across a crowded room, or a testament to the deeper romance of marriage, as “How I Met Your Mother” wanted to believe it was.
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