As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of the show How I Met Your Mother. And following the last few episodes, I’ve seen a lot of speculation online about the show… with next year’s season nine pretty much confirmed to be the final season and the second half of season eight already bringing us tantalizingly close to the actual meeting of Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) and “The Mother,” there’s a lot of chatter going on about who the titular Mother is. And while that’s by no means unimportant, I don’t think it’s as important as some of the other factors at play here. Things like the Mother’s job, her background, even her name are only important in how they play into the story of Ted Mosby.
So here’s your spoiler warning. I’m about to talk about specific plot points up to and including the January 14th episode. If you’re not caught up, you may not want to read.
Too many people are concerned about who the Mother is. They approach the story like it’s a murder mystery, trying to use each clue as it’s revealed to narrow down the field of suspects and find the Mother before Ted does. There’s a problem with this approach, though. Unless both the producers of the show and the show’s narrator (Ted himself in the year 2030) have constantly lied to us from the very beginning, the Mother is not someone we have ever met. We can’t narrow down the field because the list of potential mothers includes virtually any woman on Earth who has not previously appeared on the show.
Well, that’s not strictly true. Seven and a half seasons in, we actually know several specific things about the mother. But true to form, those details don’t actually point us towards a specific person, but rather to the circumstances of Ted meeting her. The genius of the show is that each fact we learn about her explains why one (or more) of the series’s many side-stories, subplots or tangents are not actually side-stories, subplots or tangents after all, but actually are integral to explaining just how the complicated tapestry of Ted Mosby’s life finally leads him to his true love. Let’s look as a few of the things we know about the Mother and Ted’s encounters with her, and how those clues actually point backwards rather than forwards.
- In the episode “Definitions” (Season Five, Episode One) we learn that the Mother was a student in the first class Ted taught when he became a professor at Columbia University. However, on that first day he went to the wrong classroom – he was giving his opening day spiel to a class of economics students rather than his architecture class. While he no doubt couldn’t pick out his future wife in the auditorium of students, she would most certainly remember the strange young professor who boldly humiliated himself teaching the wrong subject. This justifies the season four story arc in which Ted almost marries Stella (Sarah Chalke). If not for their relationship Stella wouldn’t have reconciled with her ex, who then got Ted the professor job out of guilt, and therefore the Mother wouldn’t have seen Ted that day. I would be very surprised if this isn’t referenced when the two of them finally, officially meet.
- In “Girls Vs. Suits” (Season Five, Episode Twelve) Ted dates a woman named Cindy (Rachel Bilson). Their relationship crumbles when Ted finds that all of the stuff in her apartment that he actually finds appealing belongs to Cindy’s roommate, and Future Ted reveals that Cindy’s Roommate is, in fact, The Mother (although at that point he does not actually meet her). Interesting information, to be certain, but considering how many one-episode girlfriends Ted has had, it doesn’t appear to be particularly significant at the time. As of this week’s episode, however, that is no longer the case. But we’ll get to that.
- In “Big Days” (Season Six, Episode One) we learn that Ted will meet the Mother at a wedding, in which he is the best man. Important, but not enough of a clue to build on, except that it turns a storyline from later in the season — in which Ted is best man for his old high school buddy Punchy (Chris Romanski) — into a red herring… because it isn’t Punchy’s wedding after all.
- In “Challenge Accepted” (Season Six, Episode Twenty-Four) we learn that Ted will meet the Mother when he’s the best man at Barney’s wedding. Now we know why so many of the Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) stories, going all the way back to season one, matter to the arc. It’s important we know that Ted is Barney’s “best bro in the world.”
- In “The Magician’s Code Part Two” (Season Seven, Episode Twenty-Four) we learn that Ted will meet the Mother when he’s the best man at Barney’s wedding… to Robin. This is probably the biggest, most important bomb dropped on us yet. The HIMYM story begins, in the pilot episode, when Ted Mosby meets Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), because he literally would not have met his wife if he wasn’t at Robin’s wedding. This explains the significance of huge swaths of the show, including all the stories about Ted and Robin’s relationship, Robin and Barney’s relationship, and even those stories about Ted and Victoria (Ashley Williams), an early Mother candidate whose path with Ted was derailed twice because of Robin. (It’s okay. Victoria turns out to be Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand anyway.)
- In this week’s episode, “Band or DJ?” (Season Eight, Episode Thirteen), we learn the Mother will be the bass player in Barney and Robin’s wedding band. She gets the job because the first band they book will cancel just a week ahead of time. Disaster, until Ted just happens to run into Cindy again, who tells him that her old roommate’s band is available for that weekend.
I could go on, but the point is that none of these things are about the Mother’s identity as much as they are about how all the dominos of Ted’s life were arranged to get him – both emotionally and literally – in the right place at the right time to meet her.
The Mother’s name? Where she grew up? How long she and Ted will date before they get married? If that’s what you’re focusing on, you’re going to be disappointed, because the narrative structure of the story isn’t pointing towards these things as being part of the Big Payoff. Even the actress who ultimately gets the role is largely irrelevant, as long as she’s talented and has chemistry with the rest of the cast.
The emotional core we’ve been building towards for eight years now has not pointed to the revelation of any specific cast member. We’ve only encountered the Mother, whoever she is, in fleeting glimpses here and there. Structurally, this show has more in common with Se7en than an Agatha Christie mystery: the final character reveal is not nearly as important as what happens to our hero as he searches for that character. The emotional punch at the end of HIMYM isn’t going to be seeing Kevin Spacey’s face, it’s going to be finding out what’s in the box.
And that box, by the way, is where the writers have wiggle room for season nine, even if the meeting is at the end of season eight. Even once they meet, that doesn’t mean the story ends right there. Maybe she’s going out of town for a year and Ted doesn’t know (at that point) if he’ll ever see her again. Maybe he’ll do something outrageously stupid and have to find a way to win her back. Maybe any of a dozen obstacles will pop up that will allow us to end season nine, and the series, with a final emotional jolt equal to that of “The Final Page” (Season Eight, Episode Twelve), even if we’ve already known exactly who the mother is for a whole season at that point.
And that’ll be okay.
Because remember, the show isn’t called Who’s Your Mama? It’s called How I Met Your Mother.