By Josh Oakley
Even in the waning seasons of How I Met Your Mother’s life, the show has been able to pull out a number of classic episodes. It seems as if the sitcom understands it isn’t quite as funny as it used to be, and the build-up to the “meeting of the mother” is no longer enough dramatic tension on its own. In the middle of season six, Marshall’s dad passed away, providing Jason Segel with his best acting work to date in “Last Words”. Barney has evolved slowly, though the brunt of this came in the story arc where he met his father and reassessed his relationship with Nora. Cobie Smulders proved that her part in The Avengers is likely only the beginning of a large post-HIMYM career in the brilliant season seven episode “Symphony of Illumination”. Ted of course, has had his moments throughout the show’s run. And then there’s Lily.
Lily has often been the least-utilized character in the show’s main arsenal, largely acting as a catalyst for others' actions (normally Marshall’s). This isn’t to say she is a poorly developed character; rather, she is the mother of the group, and as such, is less likely to act wildly. She’s had more than her share of quality humor, and nice dramatic moments as well, over the years. But perhaps her greatest character arc, leaving Marshall and then returning, focused mainly on the way it affected Marshall (and, in the excellent episode “How Lily Stole Christmas”, Ted). Another HIMYM classic, “The Front Porch”, gave her more development, but still sidled back to Ted as its focus.
Again, none of this is a fault per-se, at least not on the large scale. Lily is a delightful character that I’m exceedingly glad to have had in my life these past eight years. Alyson Hannigan is a terrific actress that has turned all of this work into a performance that will be remembered alongside the rest of the casts'. This season is making sure of that.
Lily hasn’t been given a knockout episode, or arc, like those mentioned above, which really is a shame. And at the conclusion of this week’s episode (“The Ashtray”), I’m worried she may never receive one. If not, at least we have the beautiful work that Hannigan gave in both this episode and “Band or DJ?”. She may not have had the acting showcase that Segel had in “Last Words”, but she utilized every second of dramatic screentime that she was given.
To give the writers credit, the challenges facing Lily come not out of the blue. She ran away from the love of her life at the end of season one, and while that was resolved in the short term, we know that didn’t “fix” Lily as a whole. See, Lily is terrified of growing old and never achieving the things she dreams of. That may not seem as meaty of material as losing one’s father, meeting’s one father, or finding out one can never have children, but Hannigan is proving otherwise.
In “Band or DJ?” Lily confesses to Ted that sometimes she wishes she hadn’t become a mother. It’s an electric moment of brutal honesty, one few network sitcoms have ever come close to pulling off. It’s not that she hates her child, nothing as easy as post-partum depression (easy, of course, in a writing sense, not in an actually-having sense). Lily is a painter, she’s an artist, or at least she was. Now she’s tied down. She’s tethered by a child she loves, but she is tethered nevertheless.
“The Ashtray” expands upon this, and seemingly resolves it. Lily fully admits to Marshall that she worries that her best, most exciting days are behind her. Marshall assures her that this is untrue. Lily retorts that at some point, in every person’s life, they have more great days behind them than those that lay ahead. While the story resolves with Lily gaining a job in the art world, that doesn’t erase the truth behind those words. It is a brutal reality, one that all of these characters, and all of us, are confined to. For the most part, good things remain for us in the future. But not, necessarily, better things than those that have already passed. At a certain point, we’ve seen our best days.
Lily is a perfect vehicle to explore this theme, as she left her passion behind to be a wife and mother. There is nothing at all inherently wrong with this, unless it has unsettled her, as it clearly has. These characters are only in their early-mid 30’s. Of course they have great years ahead of them. But Lily fully realizes that if she doesn’t find her way back to art, and painting, she may find those years disappearing quickly. Love and family is one thing, a thing this show is about. It is a thing only Ted does not yet have (but as we’ve known from the opening moments of the show, he will have). It is a major part of life, but not the only part. The characters of HIMYM have run up against career roadblocks previously, but at this point, they are pretty much settled in that field. Ted has his teaching job, Marshall is on his way to being a judge, Robin has found a home in news and Barney is, well, Barney. But while Lily loves teaching kindergarten, she had to leave a piece of herself behind.