April 1st, 2014 How I Met Your Mother 7
Audience expectations are often a huge factor when viewers decide their thoughts on an episode of television, specifically when it comes to the series finale. Throughout a show’s run, viewers expect the writers to subvert their expectations, to take the story and characters they’ve invested time and energy in to new and exciting places that they wouldn’t be able to come up with themselves. If something occurs that is too out-there for the show, or that messes with the status-quo, there can be backlash–and viewers can be lost–but audiences tend to be more forgiving if they believe that everything has a purpose. This forgiving nature does not apply to a series finale, because there is no room left for explanation. Fans invest in shows, and because of that they feel they are owed the ending they pictured, which often is not the ending the creators and writers want to give.
Despite knowing that TV viewers can be slightly irrational when it comes to their favourite shows, I was still shocked at the intensity of the negative backlash last night’s How I Met Your Mother finale received. I’ll admit that the episode was not perfect. They tried to fit years’ worth of events into less than 45 minutes, which made everything seem incredibly rushed. Barney and Robin’s divorce, Barney having a baby, and Tracy’s death all ended up feeling rather abrupt because of the time constraints. However, the fact that we got to see all these moments occur makes me feel pretty forgiving about suddenness with which they were shown. We often don’t get to see what happens far into the futures of our favourite characters. In the season finale of Friends, HIMYM‘s biggest influence, we only get to see up until the characters say goodbye. We aren’t shown what happens next. The HIMYM writers didn’t leave us hanging. They wanted us to see the bittersweet way everything turned out, because that’s the way life works. They wanted us to see the failure of Robin and Barney’s marriage, the way that caused regression for Barney and isolation for Robin (both reactions were complained about, as many felt that it erased years of character development, specifically Barney’s, though it seems realistic to me that Barney would regress to his old habits after losing the love of his life), and the way they were both able to recover from it. They wanted us to see how time changes people and relationships, and staying out ’til 4 AM at Maclaren’s becomes less of an option the older you get. They wanted us to see that though everything may change, the best parts of life come to you in ways you don’t expect, like Barney looking at his newborn baby and realizing that his qualms about parenthood were needless; this is his true purpose in life.
HIMYM is a show about life and friendship masquerading as an incredibly long romantic comedy. The show’s title placed importance on Ted’s eventual relationship with the mother of his children, but it was always about much more than that. It was about Ted’s life, told from his own perspective. It was about the people he met along the way, especially those that stuck with him when it seemed like his life would never be the way he wanted. It was about Marshall and Lily and Barney and Robin, the moments they shared together and alone, and the steps each of them took as they learned how to be adults. It was never really about the Mother, something that it seems many viewers have failed to grasp. If romantic comedies have taught us anything, it’s that the story ends at the “happily ever after”. Since HIMYM often seems like a rom-com, expectations tell us that in the finale we will see everyone end up happy, couple off, and sitting on the porch together as they grow old. Because the show is about life, not just the happy stuff, it ended in a much more realistic way than people seemed to be ready for.
None of the revelations of the second half of the episode were all that surprising. As fun as the Barney and Robin relationship was, and as much as we would like them to survive as a couple, they never could have lasted. We’ve seen their relationship dissolve before, and then we got to see them come back together. Throughout the seasons both characters have changed a lot, but that doesn’t mean that they are all of a sudden ready to be together forever. One of the main complaints about the finale is the fact that viewers had to sit through an entire season leading up to Barney and Robin’s wedding, only to have none of it matter within a matter of minutes. The same way that HIMYM isn’t really about The Mother, season 9 wasn’t about The Wedding. The wedding was a backdrop to having a season’s-worth of stories without needing to create some giant storyline for the season. Season 9 wasn’t even supposed to exist, but because it does we have some incredibly messy episodes, some truly beautiful moments, and an ambitious format that provided some much-needed energy into a slowly decaying show. Like the finale, the season was not perfect, but it was able to make me care about characters that had become cartoons in the back-half of the show, and the bumps were worth it for that alone.
Some of you will cry out that it’s a comedy and you watch it to have fun, not to have your hearts ripped out. Yes, comedy is primarily used to make people laugh, but what show have you been watching for the past 9 years? Some comedies forgo feeling in exchange for cheap laughs, and this has never been one of them. Comedies that are able to comment on darker issues, or even just incoperate moments of sadness among the laughter, end up having depth and meaning that surface-level comedy doesn’t. Just because something is dark doesn’t mean it isn’t a comedy–in fact, the darkness is often used to make the comedic moments that much funnier. Moments like Lily leaving to pursue art, Marshall finding out that his dad passed away, or Robin finding out she can’t have children are as much a part of this show as the slap bets and the suiting-up. Ted himself has always been a pretty tragic character, though it might not be as obvious since we knew it would work out in the end, even if we didn’t know how.
This brings me to the ending of the episode, the one that was planned early enough in the show to have the scene filmed before Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie could age, and the one that seemed to make fans angrier than any other “transgression” in the finale. Ted finishes telling his children the story of how he met their mother, which is really the story of his life, and they tell him that he should date Robin. Then, he grabs his blue French horn, and recreates the moment that began their relationship in season one. Though going from seeing Ted’s wedding and Tracy passing away to Ted going after Robin was rushed (again, biggest flaw of the episode), it in no way causes Ted’s relationship with Tracy to be obsolete. Ted met The Mother, they fell in love, they had children, and then she passed away. Tracy’s death was hinted at a couple times during season 9, and we saw how sad Ted was that she would never get to be at Penny’s wedding. The show’s unreliable narrator format makes it reasonable that Ted would not want to dwell on moments after Tracy’s death, likely the hardest time in his life. Ted’s story focuses on the positive aspects of Tracy–the way she was essentially a female version of him, the way she was able to affect Ted’s friends before she knew them–the aspects Ted would want his children to hear about. When Ted’s children tell him to date “Aunt Robin”, it isn’t because they think Ted didn’t love their mother. It’s because they know how much Ted loved her, but they want their father to be happy. Ending the show with Robin doesn’t take away from what Ted had with Tracy; it just gives him a way to have a continuation instead of her death becoming his ending.
I’ve stuck with this show for more years than any other, and had my own expectations for the finale. While I understand people being upset with certain aspects of the episode, I can’t agree with those who fault the show for not ending the way they had hoped. Television is a form of art, despite its original consumerist goals, and the creators have the right to end their story the way they intended. Some aspects were messy, but the episode never betrayed the heart of what this show is about, and that’s really all that matters. HIMYM’s biggest curse will always be that it went on way too long to be a plausible story for Ted to be telling his children. The creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, may have delved into heavy digressions over the years, enough that the predetermined ending may not feel as right as it would have a few years ago, but such is the way of television. I respect their decision to allow the bitter parts of life seep into the finale instead of doing the easy thing and wrapping everything up before things got hard, because life is hard. Many have unfairly expected more from the series finale of How I Met Your Mother because its title suggests the importance of the endgame. This show was never really about the endgame, but the events leading up to that point, the events that shaped Ted Mosby’s life, and the lives of those around him. It’s time everyone realized that the key word in the title is not “Mother,” but rather “How,” and that shift in focus reveals the true goal of the show.