I have written before — and often — of my love for CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, which ended its nine-year run Monday night. It was a show of true heart, relateable joys and heartbreaks, and outrageously funny characters that have kept me entertained for nearly a decade. I didn’t want to fire off a knee-jerk reaction to the finale — as the internet has proven time and again, that way lies madness. I wanted a little time to ponder, to sort out my feelings, to understand them before I tried to explain them. Now that I’ve thought it through, I think I’m ready.
Be warned. Spoilers ahoy.
To say the ending left me feeling conflicted is an understatement. There were certainly fine moments, and the structure works. At the end, the show is finally given its true context. The framing sequence, when Ted Mosby circa 2030 is telling the children how he met their mother, is really Future Ted’s attempt to explain to his children why — six years after the death of his wife — he’s considering trying to start up a relationship with their “Aunt Robin.” It explains succinctly why the story started with his and Robin’s first meeting, why so much of the story has centered on her, why over the years Ted and Robin would backslide to one another so often. It makes sense.
Despite making sense, though, something about the finale left me feeling… hollow. And I needed to decide what that was. It wasn’t just that Tracy, the mother, was dead. I didn’t want that, but I’ve also never thought it was fair to judge a story by what you want it to be rather than what it is. And it isn’t that the ending was, at best, bittersweet, because those are often the most emotionally rich and spiritually honest ways a story can end.
My problem, I think, stems from the fact that the final few minutes of the show thrust Ted and Robin back together again — this after years of Ted trying to get over her and finally succeeding just a few short episodes ago. In the penultimate episode, in fact, he underlined that moment, telling Robin that he was not in love with her anymore. To leap, then, from that point to Future Ted returning to Robin’s apartment with the blue French Horn from so long ago… it felt like all the character development had evaporated. I could deal with Robin and Barney’s divorce, sad as that was. I probably even could have dealt with the Mother dying, as such sadness is true to life, is what ultimately makes the moments of joy all the greater. In the last minutes, though, I felt like we bounced back to square one.
In a way, I think the writers trapped themselves. In any long-running story — especially on TV, where the writer’s goals can be derailed by actors leaving, dying, getting arrested… really any circumstances where real-world events can intrude on the storytelling — there has to be room for flexibility. We all know that Aaron Paul’s character was originally slated to die in the first season of Breaking Bad, but Vince Gilligan changed his mind, and thank goodness. Then we have LOST, which initially hung a lot of significance on a 10-year-old named Walt. The mysteries around that character had to be dropped, though, because while only a few months passed on the show, in real time several years passed. The actor aged and hit a growth spurt. Now I remain a defender of LOST, I liked the ending, but I can’t deny frustration at some of the questions that were never answered because nature necessitated putting him on a boat off the island.
HIMYM’s problem wasn’t as dramatic — there was never a question of removing an actor or one of them leaving the show. Instead, the characters moved in a direction I don’t think the creators anticipated by focusing so much of the show of Ted trying to get past Robin, to the point where many viewers (I’m raising my hand here) wanted to just get past that and get on with the story of the Mother.
But the die had already been cast. To avoid “The Walt Problem,” they filmed scenes of Ted’s kids reacting to the end of the story eight years ago, before they had visibly aged from the scenes they shot for the first few episodes. It was a good strategy, but it kind of locked them into the ending, in which the kids gave Ted their blessing to go after Aunt Robin. With no wiggle room, they took an ending that may have worked in season two, or three, or even five, and applied it to characters who — by season nine — had outgrown it. The ending planned no longer rang entirely true.
I don’t hate the ending. There was, in fact, some fine work in there. Lily and Marshall have always been the stable core of the group (save for a brief period in season two), and having them act as a sort of Greek chorus in this finale, shuffling them between Robin, Barney, Ted and Tracy, all rang true.
Neil Patrick Harris, to use a baseball analogy, gets the save here. One of the best aspects of the show for the past few years has been the slow growth and development of Barney Stinson from a one-note character to someone you truly wanted to root for. When he and Robin broke up and he reverted to form, it was heartbreaking. In his case, though, it was not a question of true backsliding, of him becoming the person he once was. Even sadder, he was trying to return to the person he used to be, and with each protest that his friends “let me be who I am,” it was increasingly clear he was no longer that person.
Then he held his daughter and professed his truest, most sincere love. In that moment the old Barney — the Season One Barney, the Barney he put back on life support when he and Robin called it quits — well and truly died. And as sad as his split with Robin was, I don’t think the new Barney, Daddy Barney… hell, the real Barney… ever could have existed without her. It was a phenomenal moment, and although we didn’t get to see much of Barney as a dad, I have no doubt that it was Legend — wait for it…
And finally, Cristin Milioti as Tracy, the Mother. She gets this season’s MVP award. To come into a show in its ninth and final season would be daunting under any circumstances. To do so in such a way that makes the viewers feel for her and care about her as deeply as the five characters the audience has known all this time… it’s heroic. She was simply magnificent. We accepted easily how quickly Ted fell in love with her, because we did too.
I believed Tracy as the love of Ted’s life. Which is initially why that ending felt like a gut punch. upon reflection, though, I think I also see a seed of redemption in it. I can use it for a little perspective. Ted, after all, was the one who turned down Robin when she tried to take him back at her wedding. Tracy wasn’t his second choice, like I felt at first. Even though he didn’t know her yet, he gave up Robin to look for her, and he was rewarded. And it’s not like he ran back to Robin as soon as his wife died — he took six years, a more than respectable amount of time, before he decided it may be worth pursuing. Even then, he put the wishes of his children — Tracy’s children — before his own. Through that prism, I can see it as Robin and Ted finding solace with each other after her unexpectedly lonely life and the loss of his true love.
It’s not what I expected. It’s not how I would have ended it. But it has some truth to it nonetheless.
So while I’m not fully satisfied, I’m not really upset either. I’m certainly not angry. How could I be? For nine years, I’ve been allowed to join in on the adventures of characters right in my own stage of life, allowing me to grow with them. As Ted’s friends married and had children, so did mine. The first time Ted ever heard Tracy’s voice, she was singing “La Vie En Rose,” and as Erin and I prepare for our own wedding, they’ve given us the song for our first dance.
So thank you, show creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, and thank your writers, for nine years of joy. Thank you to Pamela Fryman, who directed nearly every episode of the series (a Herculean feat in and of itself). And thank you to our six incomparable friends, and the countless supporting players, for the pop culture milestone you’ve created.
For robot wrestlers and the Kennedy package. For slap bets and for Swarley, duckie ties and dopplegangers. For never buckling to peer pressure and explaining about the pineapple. (Yes, I’ve heard the rumors of a DVD extra. Shut up.) For making interventions fun again. For extending the cultural significance of the hanging chad by a good 13 years.
For making me cry more than once and never making me ashamed of it.
For blue French Horns.
For yellow umbrellas.
I request the highest of fives.
Yeah. Totally worth the wait.