Mar 31, 2014

A Good Story Poorly Told: On How I Met Your Mother’s Finale

By Josh Oakley

One of my favorite Portlandia sketches, and also one of its most popular, features a line that my friends and I have paraphrased many times over the past couple of years. Mocking those that spoil shows (and those worried about spoilers), our variation of the line goes something like: “It’s how they do it.” It’s a joke that speaks a certain amount of truth: if a show is doing something well, it doesn’t really matter if you know what’s coming. The power of the incident itself should carry the weight, rather than shock that hardly exists in our social media-trapped world. In Portlandia, they’re referring to The Wire, and a twist done so well that it doesn’t even matter as a twist. On How I Met Your Mother’s finale, so many turns were stuffed into one hour that the actual events are all that matters. In the best of times, it’s the moments, the lived-in beauty of television that enhances the sudden reveal of a story. But in the worst of times, people die with minutes left to go in ways that don’t follow naturally at all from the story that preceded.

The major twist, of course, is the death of the titular mother, and the final, cut-to-credits romantic reunion of Robin and Ted. It was a theory since last season’s “The Time Travelers”, and became nearly undeniable in “Vesuvius”. But deny I did. I was so sure that the writers of How I Met Your Mother knew what they were doing far too much to go to such a maddening conclusion. At the very least, I thought, they would pull it off in an organic and surprising way. I’m glad I didn’t put any money down on either of those counts.

I don’t think social media is harping enough on the story of Barney in the series finale. While the Ted/Robin conclusion is weak, the show literally rips all of Barney’s character development away until there's a reversal that has literally nothing to do with the show we’ve been watching. Barney’s journey has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the show’s last few seasons, as the trope of the playboy morphed into something human. Then that was all dumped. Luckily, an accidental baby saved the day because the writers realized they wanted him to be able to lecture two young women in one of the most demeaning and awful scenes the show has ever produced.

Besides that mess of a scene, however, I don’t begrudge any of the actual choices made in the story of these five characters. Barney reverting to his old self, Ted overcoming loss and returning to the woman that was there all along. Robin leaving every choice in her romantic life in the hands of a man (actually, that last one should have been shot in the foot immediately). As I said before, it isn’t what they did that was wrong. It was how they did it.

Ted losing The Mother (whose name I won’t bother to quickly search because I’m still sweating from rage a little) is an interesting choice. Even the fact that the final blue horn means that the show did ultimately succumb to “will-they-won’t-they” clichés isn’t the worst thing in the world. The issue then is that mere episodes ago the show gave us a beautiful closure to Ted’s feelings for Robin. That catharsis was powerful. And I understand that feelings arise after long periods of time. But the shift here was so sudden that it made that letting go episode incomprehensible.

Why not, instead, have spent the season seeing Ted letting go of Robin and slowly finding his way back to her? There were enough episodes here to introduce the mother, show her passing and Ted’s recovery from grief, and his eventual moving on. Plenty of time could have been spent turning Barney back into a cad, and then having his responsibility as a father ultimately deepen him. Instead, the show granted nearly every story an ending. Barney promised Robin to be honest, and they were married. Ted was minutes away from meeting his future wife. And then it all came down in quick, unfair succession.

Again, the reason that these choices acted as a middle finger to viewers (and to the characters of the show), were because they were so quickly handled. They weren’t given real depth or meaning beyond “we need to get this done”. A ninth season that follows these later chapters in the characters’ lives would have been bold and intriguing and wouldn’t have left such a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. Instead, death and divorce, of characters we love, was treated as a last minute twist, as a tidy way of saying goodbye without saying anything of much substance.

I think there were moments in the finale as good as anything the show did. Robin telling Lily the honest truth of what age does to friend groups was painful and authentic. Actually, pretty much everything with Lily was fantastic, making her the de facto MVP of the series finale. But so much of the rest of this episode felt like reading the Spark Notes of what could have a truly great season of television. How I Met Your Mother, with its final breath, clearly wanted to say something about aging, and agency and fresh starts. That it tried to say it all so quickly, and in a way that softened much of what was said before, will be one of the great shames of what was often a show falling in love with.

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