Once there was a show called How I Met Your Mother, or HIMYM. First airing in 2005, magic happened, as HIMYM proved to be a endearing and funny sitcom that over its first three seasons (especially season 2) proved to be so good that it seemed destined to end up being one of the all time great sitcoms on television. Season Four proved to be a weaker but still relatively strong season that one might expect as a sitcom ages. Then came Season Five and HIMYM found itself falling off a steep cliff. Season after season, it was never able to regain its original magic, continuing on a slow, painful descent that finally ended with the train wreck that was HIMYM’s series finale. That finale left many, including myself, full of rage… so much rage. Now, I’ll admit I debated writing about this at all. But once I decided to, I delayed my analysis a bit to allow myself to process all that happened, and see if maybe some time would give me a different perspective on things, and the answer is…. sort of. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the finale was still awful and full of so many bad decisions and so much bad writing that even a more rational me still questions if I can still be friends with someone that actually would consider the finale to be good (okay, that is probably a bit extreme, I’m probably not that petty). But taking some time to think did at least allow me to more closely evaluate all that happened, and gain some modicum of respect and sympathy for a finale that was so spectacularly flawed.
Okay then, so, let’s get this out of the way: massive spoilers ahead, like the reason for internet rage spoilers ahead, so just don’t read anymore if you haven’t seen the finale or if you plan to ever watch HIMYM in the near future. (And if that is the case, just save yourself a lot of trouble and don’t. Trust me, you don’t have to be trapped like I was).
Anyhow, without getting too muddled in series details and mythology, in the finale the star of HIMYM, Ted (Josh Radnor), finally has his “first” meeting with the titular Mother (Christin Milioti), whose name is revealed to be Tracy, and it’s great, and they prove to be a perfect match, and then like ten years later she dies, and it is revealed that six years after, the Ted that has been telling all of the stories from the show to his kids, has done so to basically in a roundabout way get their blessing to ask out the woman that had always seemed to be the “one” for him, Robin (Cobie Smulders) so they can finally be together. As Ted’s daughter Penny (Lyndsy Fonseca) states, all of his stories barely involved their mother at all, but all involve Robin. Thus, HIMYM was able to have its cake and eat it too by keeping their pilot promise that Robin is not the titular mother, but still allow Ted and her to end up with each other. Admittedly, that is a rushed explanation without much nuance, but it gets the job done, and gets everyone to the same level for the rest of my analysis. (Disclaimer: there are going to be a lot of seemingly contradictory thoughts in this. I will do my best to explain them, but what can I say? This show makes me think weird things.)
So where to begin? Well, first, what makes this ending so frustrating is that it violates the spirit of what appeared to be HIMYM’s boldest story choice—to have Ted declare that Robin is Aunt Robin, and not the mother. This despite the fact that everything about Ted and Robin’s first meeting went along the One True Pair TV relationship handbook. She is the perfect girl for him, and the “will they or won’t they” tension really helped drive the first season along. Add in the fact that the best season of the show, season 2, is the season that Ted and Robin are a couple, and you can see why not making Robin the mother would be a weird choice. But that is what made it so great. The creators of the show basically laid down a gauntlet promising that they would do better than the Ted and Robin relationship, and as an aspiring writer I found that choice inspiring (Josh Radnor has stated since the finale that this choice was always supposed to be more sleight of hand as was the shows title, but that doesn’t change what the choice appeared to represent). They made a huge standard that the titular mother would have to live up to, and seemed like they embraced this challenge. Even as the show began to fall apart, that promise kept things afloat, so when they cast aside that essential promise it was the culmination of a series of increasingly bad decisions that left me feeling disappointed and betrayed. While it’s true they didn’t technically break their promise, as Robin is indeed not “the mother,” they certainly broke the spirit of it, and that above all else is what is so disappointing.
Of course, maybe for some it wasn’t as bad. I’ll admit I was probably one of the few people that actually both always liked Ted (even as the show at times forgot how to use him), and still cared about who the mother was long after the device had served its purpose in the show. I wanted to see who she was, I wanted to see how she would spawn the epic love story that Ted so often spouted that she had, I wanted the show to figure out how to impossibly find the actress that could handle such an impossible role. That is one of the key reasons I kept going through the muck of the final seasons—because there was that light at the end of the tunnel, a light I felt would make everything before it worth it. Maybe that was a bit naïve, and never really going to be true, but here’s the thing: the show got damn close. Christin Milioti was perfect as the titular mother, or Tracy, which I will now try to call her as much as possible, because she deserves to have an actual name. Virtually all of the best parts of the final season were the scenes with Tracy in them, and they continually showcased how much the show really had blown it by not bringing in the mother much sooner. She brought a new life to the show, and helped make parts of the final season as good as anything the show had ever done. So all of this just made it seem so cruel that the show decided to kill her off (in the future), and make her a footnote in what was supposed to be her story, a story that she doesn’t even get to enter until near the very end.
And for what? So the show could try and act as if the true epic love story was between Ted and Robin? A couple that broke up for very mature and legitimate reasons (he wanted a family, she didn’t). A couple that proved to work even better as friends. A couple that really showed some interesting ways that two people can remain platonic friends on television. This is not an epic love story. No, it is an epic almost-love story about two people who weren’t quite right for each other before they found on the ones for them. (Or in Robin’s case, maybe she didn’t need a man at all, as it is possible for a woman to be fulfilled without a husband or kids.) Or at least it should have been. But creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas had a plan, and by God they were going to stick to it, no matter how little sense it now made. They even shot the final scenes with the children all the way back in 2006, so there can be no doubt that this was always their plan.
This last point is important, because a little time and distance has lead to some weird schisms in my thoughts. I do feel some respect and sympathy for Bays and Thomas now. See, as a writer, you have to be willing to stick to your guns sometimes, even if no one else believes in what you’re doing. It’s the only way you can survive. You have to believe at some level your ideas need to be protected and stay exactly as you originally envisioned them, or why should anyone care what you have to say? So I respect the fact that Bays and Thomas had a plan, and that they made every decision they did in service of that plan (whether they made the right decisions in service of this plan is a completely different question). So I can’t hold it completely against them that they stuck to the plan they always had—especially because so few showrunners ever get the chance to follow their plans for TV shows in the way that the HIMYM creators did. I may not agree with their plan, but I respect that they had one. Furthermore, their plan probably would have worked if not for a couple of events that proved to be both good and bad fortune. (Some of these points are going to be similar to some of the points of Alan Sepinwall’s analysis, which can be found here, just for full disclosure.)
The first event was HIMYM finally leaving the renewal bubble for good. By the end of its run, HIMYM had solid-to-great ratings and demo numbers per episode, but in the early seasons (also the best seasons, showing what little sense viewership can make) HIMYM was constantly on the bubble for renewal, so Bays and Thomas always had to have multiple plans on how finales would go, just in case they were going to be cancelled. If the show had been cancelled after the first season, for example, Bays and Thomas revealed that Victoria (Ashley Williams), a baker Ted meets in the first season, and the one of the only pre-Tracy and non-Robin relationships that worked on the show, would have been the mother. It wasn’t until the Britney Spears episode in season 4 that HIMYM finally got the sustained ratings boost it needed to never be on the bubble again. If the show had ended in one of the early seasons it would have been much easier to accept the twist of the finale, because Ted and Robin would have just seemed so right for each other that it would be silly for them not to be together. (Tracy dying in this case would still seem a bit contrived, but slightly more forgivable, because everyone would have wanted Ted and Robin to be together.) More seasons, though, bred problems for the Ted and Robin plan, however.
Problem one was the good fortune that Smulders proved to have almost as good a chemistry with Harris as she did with Radnor, which made the Barney and Robin relationship one you could root for. (Even if the writing for this relationship was never handled that well, Smulders and Harris always made virtually anything the two of them did together work). Suddenly, a world in which Ted was not the right guy for Robin seemed possible, and that made the continuing lack of a woman who proved Robin wasn’t the best girl for Ted a problem. This led to problem two. The mother’s absence in the show really began to weigh the show down, to the point that it had to be deemphasized, especially in season 7 (and somewhat in season 8), to try and avoid the fact that show would have simply been better if the mother had just become part of the ensemble in earlier seasons so the audience could grow to love her like Ted does. The title of the show didn’t have to be taken so literally. (Of course, if they had done this earlier, there is a good chance they wouldn’t have found someone as good as Milioti, so maybe that part sort of worked out for the best.) Still, this did have the unexpected benefit of making all the women Ted had met before Tracy in the first eight seasons seem so unappealing that I probably wouldn’t have minded the twist, simply because it would have been hard to believe that I would ever be invested in a mother character the show could created.
At this point, there was almost a resignation that we would never really meet the mother—until another bit of good and bad fortune hit HIMYM. The show was picked up for a ninth season, just when it seemed almost impossible due to how big most of the actors had become and CBS’s apparent desire to move on. This last renewal allowed Bays and Thomas to introduce the mother, and then give her a season to be a part of the show. Milioti’s already stated awesomeness was thus able to truly shine through, and suddenly there was a palpable excitement in the show again about Ted’s first meeting with the mother. Tracy is exactly the kind of person Ted had been waiting for throughout the show, and for once a show that constantly over-promised had truly delivered. Here’s one of the greatest testaments to how good Milioti really was as Tracy. My roommate, who had long since stopped watching the show, happened to catch one of her episodes late in the season. His response to my explanation that the show had hinted at Tracy’s impending death was that he had only seen her for five minutes, but he would be pissed if she was killed off (and he was annoyed when it actually happened, though, his annoyance was tempered by his amusement at my displeasure). Milioti’s performance should have been the thing that truly spurred Bays and Thomas to change their now obviously flawed final plan, but they were in too deep and it was too late. A series of fortunate circumstances had come together to make their long-planned efforts moot, but they were too entrenched to change anything.
I also feel some sympathy for them because, regardless of how the characters got there, each of them did get an ending that left them happy, and in a lot of ways that is all you can ask for from a finale. Barney’s ending is the standout of the episode, as him finally becoming a father (something that would have never happened with Robin, and the number one reason they simply may not have been meant to be) led him to make profound changes in his life, and his earnest speech to his newborn daughter was a truly phenomenal moment of television (as was Ted and Tracy’s first meeting under the yellow umbrella). So in that way, Bays and Thomas did everything right. More importantly, if you look at things from a real life perspective, even the way they do things with Ted and Robin works. I mean, Ted’s wife died, and six years later he decides he will see if he can move on with a former love in Robin. This is a perfectly reasonable thing for someone to do, and if I knew Ted in real life, I would encourage him to do the same thing just as his kids do.
Here is the thing, though: this is not real life, and the creators had complete control over what happens. There is no reason to kill Tracy off. Really none. Just because the nature of television and the creators’ stubbornness led to the show always including Robin while rarely featuring the mother doesn’t mean that this was actually the story of Ted and Robin. Could this ending have worked? Possibly. Maybe if Tracy had come in earlier and gotten to be a bigger part of her own story, so it didn’t seem like she was a pit stop on Ted’s ultimate journey back to Robin, or even if Tracy could have actually been in every episode of the final season instead of the show wasting time with pointless side stories like Marshall (Jason Segal) road tripping to the wedding and being separated from the rest of the group (yes I know this was clearly due to scheduling conflicts with Segal, but still a good example). Hell, maybe it could have worked if the writing didn’t suddenly shift at the end of the season to make it obvious what was going to happen to Tracy, and if the writing had done a better job making it clear that Ted would have never left Tracy for Robin unless Tracy had died. I mean, this is implied, and Josh Radnor’s great acting made me believe it, but there is nothing in the writing that really supports this. That’s the ultimate injustice about the end. It seemed to almost make everything abut Ted’s life with Tracy meaningless, because the end of the show had to be Ted and Robin getting back together with the blue horn from the pilot there to sew everything up nicely.
Here’s the thing, though, and what ultimately makes me respect Bays and Thomas as much as I am angry with them. They made me feel. They created a world of characters I cared about, and made me legitimately invested in their lives. This is impressive. Really impressive. The show was always able to bring me back in, even when I swore I would never care about what happens in it ever again, even when I treated it as an little more than an obligation. So Bays and Thomas deserve to be commended for creating a show that so many people care about. Did they screw up the ending? Yes, but it is so rare for a show to make so many people care about what happens, and HIMYM certainly proved itself in that regard.
Of course, this begs the question: why do we care? I mean, it is just a television show. But television is so intimate. It is in our homes. It becomes a part of our lives. We grow to depend on it for the sake of normalcy. In my case, HIMYM was one of the last two shows that I both watch and were still on when I was in high school (the other being Supernatural, which, while having its own ups and downs, thankfully seems to have righted the ship lately). This creates an immense connection. This show was with me as I grew into an adult. As I grew to be the person I am now, this show was always there. It’s hard to let such a thing go. It’s why I kept watching the show even when it became clear it would never be what it once was again. It’s hard to let those connections go, because when you do there is a loss. In this case, a loss of the person I was before I came to live in Los Angeles, a loss of when I was still a child, a loss of an anchor to my past, and so much more. As infuriating as it was, HIMYM was a part of my life, and now it is just a part of my past, and that realization is sombering. The problem, is before the finale I at least had hope that HIMYM would be a positive part of my past, but instead, the knowledge that the ending has forever tainted my memories of the show is simply heartbreaking.
Remember the good times…
So here we are. I hated the finale of HIMYM, but at the same time deeply respected it. I still want to know more about the story of Ted and Tracy, but cannot understand how a show can spend two seasons building up a wedding between Barney and Robin only to have their marriage dissolve in about fifteen minutes of screen time. The finale has tainted the show in such a way that I don’t ever know if I can enjoy watching a lot of it ever again. But at the same time there are still episodes such as “Slap Bet,” which is and always will be not just one of my favorite sitcom episodes of all time, but one of my favorite episodes of television, one that I could rewatch infinitely. The show has taught me so much as a writer from both its strengths (wearing its heart on its sleeve, clever and layered set-ups that always payoff, and, well, the slap bet) and its weaknesses (letting its cleverness get the best of it, letting your gimmicks dictate too much of your writing, and most of all, sticking to a plan no matter how ill-advised it eventually becomes).
I have so many more words to say about this show, but at the same time I never want to think, write, or talk about it again. I guess my introspection has led me to a place of contradiction. I will miss Ted, Barney, Robin, Marshall, Lily (Alyson Hannigan), and Tracy, and I thank Carter Bays and Craig Thomas for bringing them to life. But I’m not going to lie, I hope How I Met Your Dad fails miserably, and they never get to run another show again. One giant middle finger of an ending is enough in this lifetime.
Only good things can happen under yellow umbrellas.