Thoughts on the “How I Met Your Mother” Finale

Sometimes you just connect with a TV show. Something about it just works for you, even if it’s not always perfect, even if it sometimes frustrates you. It just clicks for you. There are only three or four TV shows in the last decade that I’ve really loved like that. Lost, Mad Men, maybe The West Wing… and How I Met Your Mother.

In fact, there’s no show I’ve ever watched from beginning to end as long as How I Met Your Mother.

It seemed promising even before it premiered: a sitcom featuring an endearing Buffy alum, a former child star and theater performer who was rumored to be gay, a cult TV actor — and a cool storytelling gimmick to boot? Sign me up.

It hooked me from the start. Unlike other sitcoms, it was unabashedly heartfelt and sincere, with a romantic, idealistic main character — who, refreshingly, was a man. The unconventional, witty flashback narrative structure, the quick scene cuts, the Lost-like mini-mysteries… it all pulled me in. Not to mention the infectiously catchy theme music.

Surely it would be canceled, just like every other quirky show that was too good for TV, like Wonderfalls. In the first few years it was always on the bubble. But miraculously, it survived — for a whole season, then two seasons, then three, and eventually, improbably, it became a hit.

In later years it went downhill. Barney went from endearingly irritating to repellent, Ted got pompous, the plots got ridiculous, the jokes got crude. Ted fell for an annoying environmental activist. I never cared about Barney and Robin as a couple.

But even when I didn’t like the show, I still loved it. It was still special to me. I still loved Ted and Marshall and Lily. There were still inventive episodes and moments that made me laugh. Never for a moment did I consider giving it up. It made me look forward to Monday nights. (It was the rare long-running show that aired the same night during its entire run.)

And then… last night.

This entire final season was problematic and misconceived from the start. The writers brought in the wonderful Cristin Milioti at the very end of last season, only to almost completely waste her. After eight years of buildup, there was no way the mother could live up to the hype — but miraculously, she did. She lived up to all expectations. She was perfect casting, the perfect match for Ted. Her few scenes with Josh Radnor were magnetic. How often does something actually succeed like that? Their scenes were tantalizing hints of the season that could have been.

But instead the writers squandered this terrific gift they’d been given, all in the service of a rigid, preconceived, off-key ending, not to mention an interminable season-long wedding weekend for a couple that, after all the buildup, got divorced in the very next episode.

Up until the ending, I actually enjoyed the finale. It was a nice tribute, with lots of callbacks to various running jokes over the course of the series. As we saw the characters’ future lives, I felt happy that we didn’t really have to say goodbye to them, reassured that they’d continue on without us. There were a couple of moments that got me teary: Robin and Lily arguing in the eerily empty apartment, Marshall telling the young guys at MacLaren’s about what a special place that bar was.

Barney and Robin’s divorce was shocking, but I went with it. But then — Barney getting a woman pregnant? Maybe it was supposed to be ironic that after years of consequence-free sex, he finally had A Consequence, but it seemed inconsistent with the spirit of the show: he never got an STD, but he got someone pregnant? (And his announcement of impending fatherhood — that would have been a better moment for Marshall’s Final Slap.)  His emotional breakdown in front of his new baby daughter was sweet, but too sudden and rushed for me. And we never see the baby’s mother?

And Ted. Are we really supposed to believe that Ted Mosby, the crazy hopeless romantic, would put off marrying the love of his life for five years? That he wouldn’t immediately marry her upon learning she was pregnant?

And then — just as had been hinted at — we learned that she was sick. I hoped it wouldn’t happen, but it did, and it hit me in the gut. Right then I broke into sniffles and tears and little stifled sobs. I was so sad that I had trouble focusing on their very first conversation in the next scene.

And then, insult to injury. Instead of getting to mourn this wonderful woman whom we’ve been conditioned over the last nine years to adore and idolize and worship — because our protagonist kept telling us how wonderful she was — we see her just tossed aside, and suddenly the kids and Ted are all in love with… the emotionally immature Robin? Seriously?

Yes, the characters had six years to mourn and accept the mother’s death and move on. But we didn’t. It was jolting, tone-deaf and cruel. Yes, it’s just a TV show, but it was cruel. I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been if they hadn’t hinted at her death a few weeks ago.

I guess this worked on paper. And given these characters and their history, I can see how it could have ended this way. But it didn’t feel real. TV characters are different from characters on paper. They’re played by flesh-and-blood human beings, actors who either have chemistry or don’t. Whatever chemistry Ted and Robin might have had early in the series (and they had some) had long dissipated over years of drawn-out plot points and character developments. Ted and Tracy – they had the real thing. Alan Sepinwall has the best analysis I’ve read of the finale so far: the writers should have seen what was organically happening, adjusted their plans, and gone with it. Instead they gave us an ending that was an emotional betrayal. Fan-service pandering is lame, but giving your audience a huge middle finger is worse.

This all might sound overwrought. I know it’s just a TV show. But it’s a show I cared about, with characters I cared about, for nine years.

Somewhere in an alternate universe, someone has recut this season and deleted some scenes near the end. Robin finds love and happiness with a great guy. Ted marries Tracy, and they grow old together.

In my dreams, I guess.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on the “How I Met Your Mother” Finale

  1. I stopped watching the show early on, but it seems to me that you would need a very good reason for spending eight times longer on the circumstances leading up to the meeting than on the meeting itself. The narrator having moved on fits the bill.

    And you’ve touched on a pet peeve of mine here: the creators have probably spent more time living with and caring about these characters than anyone alive. If you didn’t care for how they ended their story–their story, not yours–it was not because they chose at this crucial moment to give you the middle finger.

  2. Rereading my comment. Sorry if my tone is a little more biting than I intended. I use the internet as practice for writing professional emails.

  3. No worries. :)

    Yeah, in a sense I’m always willing to concede ownership of the characters to the people who created them, and I know it’s their story and it’s their prereogative to end it how they want. But stories are written for an audience, and an audience gets invested in a story and the characters, and in my opinion the ending for the characters was just not earned. The creators were allowed to end it how they wanted, but as an audience member I’m allowed to be unhappy with how they did it.

  4. I hear you. My beef is less with the assessment of the authors’ needs vs. the audience’s–they can be very different–and more with the feeling that they chose the ending they did out of spite and not out of conviction. Perhaps that’s what happened for the Dexter finale, where the network dictated the terms of the ending and the writers apparently held their noses while executing it, but under most circumstances I think that’s an unfair and hurtful allegation. They did it this way hoping that most people would like it, and are presumably disappointed and upset with the response.

    If I’m a little fixated on that point, I went through a similar situation a couple of years ago with the third Mass Effect game, which tried an Inception-like ambiguous ending after three (40-hour plus) games of straightforward space opera. People lost their shit in much the same way, but given that they were exclusively game nerds, they pressed the issue to the point that the company had to stop everything and redo the ending, and they still weren’t satisfied after that. I came away from that experience with a little more respect for what creators have to go through, and some determination to try to appreciate things for their merits before dwelling on what’s wrong with them (at least assuming they aren’t clearly vacuous cash grabs). Which is hard for me!

  5. I definitely don’t think they did it out of spite – I don’t think they intentionally gave a middle finger to the audience. And in fact some people seem to have liked the ending. I just feel like they didn’t lay the emotional groundwork for the ending they wanted and gave us. There’s a way in which their desired ending could have worked — if they had given us a chance to actually mourn the mother, even just a few minutes of a montage of Ted mourning her and later moving on might have helped. As it happened onscreen, it was more like, “Okay dad, stop talking about our boring dead mom and go be with Aunt Robin.” It was just callous. It just failed emotionally and aesthetically. I don’t think they did it on purpose.

  6. I think (again, based entirely on second-hand reports) that if Robin was going to spend several seasons developing a relationship with another character, it should not have been a central character that the audience was invested in if this was the ultimate plan. It’s one thing to create an uplifting message about moving on, and quite another to create a lot of collateral damage in the process.

    Anyway. This sounds to me like the kind of plot development that will be more appreciated with the passage of time–if it was locked in when the scene with the kids was recorded years ago, it’s presumably foreshadowed in ways that no one’s yet noticed. Maybe I’ll binge-watch it with this in mind.