Wednesday, April 02, 2014

How I Met Your Ending

One of the reasons that I'm not so down on spoilers is that, for someone who consumes pop culture the way I do, they're essentially impossible to avoid.  Online fandom talks a big game about its spoiler-phobia, but if you've ever spent a day on twitter in the wake of a major pop culture event, you know that there's no way not to pick up exactly what happened, even if people haven't said it outright.  For someone like myself, whose geographic location means that I watch things--TV episodes in particular--a minimum of 24 hours after they've originally aired, there are only two options--get spoiled, or cut yourself off the internet completely.  I take the latter approach sometimes, in the cases of big TV events like the finales of Breaking Bad or True Detective.  But for the most part I can't be bothered, and occasionally a Red Wedding will take me by surprise--as in the case of last week's episode of The Good Wife.  And sometimes, there are shows that you just never imagined could be spoiled, which is the case with this week's finale of How I Met Your Mother.  Before I went online yesterday morning, I thought that the finale would merely be going through the motions of an ending already laid out.  The show had already shown us that perennial wife-seeker Ted (Josh Radnor) would meet his future wife and the mother of his children on the platform of the Farhampton train station, after leaving his best friend Barney's (Neil Patrick Harris) wedding to Robin (Cobie Smulders), the woman whom Ted has spent the show's nine-season run alternately dating and pining for.  The final season, which spent several episodes introducing us to the mother (Cristin Milioti) and flashing forward to her life with Ted, had even revealed that their love story would be a bittersweet one, with a flash to ten years in the future in which the mother is terminally ill.  All that was left, it seemed to me, was to fill in the blanks--the mother's name, some more of her and Ted's courtship, and most importantly, the moment in which Ted walks up to her and starts a new chapter in his life.  What could there possibly be to spoil?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  The first big revelation of the double-length finale, titled "Last Forever," is that Robin and Barney's marriage--which had been the show's prevailing obsession in its final two seasons, the latter taking place entirely over the weekend of their wedding--fell apart after only three years, under the weight of Robin's career demands and Barney's aimlessness.  After the breakup, Robin, who has finally had enough of the show's quasi-incestuous core dynamic, in which she spends most of her social life around her two most significant exes, cuts herself off from the group.  Barney goes back to his horndogging ways and accidentally conceives a child, a daughter whom he proudly proclaims "the love of [his] life."  And then, as predicted, the mother (whose name is revealed to be Tracy) dies, and Ted concludes his story.  But his children, who have been listening patiently for nine season, are unconvinced.  If the story is about how Ted met their mother, they point out, then why was she hardly in it, and why was so much time spent on his relationship with Robin?  It turns out that Ted is telling the story six years after Tracy's death, during which time he and Robin have rekindled their friendship.  His reason for telling the story, the kids argue, is that he's fallen back in love with Robin, and is trying to justify, to himself and his children, the decision to pursue her again.  The series ends by echoing the first season finale, with Ted standing outside Robin's window holding the blue French horn he first stole for her twenty-five years ago, all the way back in the pilot.

The reaction to this twist has been, shall we say, heated.  Various reviewers--Alyssa Rosenberg, Margaret Lyons, James Poniewozik, Linda Holmes, Todd VanDerWerff, Alan Sepinwall--have argued that the finale, and its choice to return to the Ted/Robin endgame, is a betrayal of the show's ideals and the story it had constructed over nine seasons.  Why, they ask, did the show ask us to become so invested in Robin and Barney's romance if they were only ever a stop on the way to Robin's happy ending with Ted?  Why introduce the charming Milioti and the equally wonderful Tracy only to treat her as an obstacle to Ted's real love story?  Sepinwall's post is particularly instructive, as he goes into the mechanics of how series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas planned out this ending as far back as the second season, working around what he defines as the mistake of announcing, in the pilot, that Robin was not the titular mother.  Ted's final conversation with his children, he notes, was filmed seven years ago, when Bays and Thomas first came up with the ending that they delivered this week.

Sepinwell's argument is that the example of How I Met Your Mother's finale is a point against creators becoming too caught up in a rigid plan for their story that doesn't leave room for unpredictable, organic developments such as Harris and Smulders's chemistry or Milioti's appeal.  But to me--as someone who has problems with the finale but on the whole likes it--the message seems more complex.  The fact is, Bays and Thomas laid out the ending they wanted their story to have seven years ago, and by God, this week they reached that ending.  Can Lost say as much?  Can Battlestar Galactica?  Is there another example of long-form, multi-season serialized television that has so successfully delivered the story it had planned for itself?  Whatever you think of Bays and Thomas's choice of ending, the fact that they managed to get to it, and to do so without cheating--the seeds for Barney and Robin's breakup, for Ted and Robin's lingering feelings for one another, and for Tracy's death, are planted well before the finale--is impressive, and marks How I Met Your Mother out as a unique achievement that deserves to be celebrated and discussed.

All the more so when you consider that Bays and Thomas did this in the face of network interference that would probably make Damon Lindelof or Ron Moore quake in their boots.  As Sepinwall notes, when the original plan was made How I Met Your Mother was a modest success that could reasonably expect to run for perhaps four seasons, but as the show's popularity ballooned its ending kept being pushed back, altering the show's structure and story--most dramatically, a last-minute renewal last year which forced Bays and Thomas, who had already planned to deliver something very like "Last Forever" at the end of the previous season, to come up with the concept of a season-long weekend.  What's more, Bays and Thomas not only got to their planned ending, but did so while maintaining one of the more ambitious structures in series television, a story that constantly jumps backward and forward in time over a period of nearly half a century, that plays with multiple points of view and unreliable narrators, and that constantly sets up stories and recurring characters and themes--slap bets and yellow umbrellas and goats--that the show only rarely failed to pay off.  As someone who loves the television medium and is excited any time a creator expands its horizons, I don't see how you could do anything but cheer at this demonstration of skill and nerve, especially when it comes from something as unfashionable as a multi-camera, laugh-tracked romantic sitcom.

None of this is to say, of course, that How I Met Your Mother doesn't have serious flaws.  Like, I suspect, a lot of the show's fans, I've been ready for it to be done for a long time, as successive seasons lost more and more of the flavor that made the show so delightful and funny in its early days (it's this, I suspect, and not the controversial finale, that will prove the biggest stumbling block for the already-announced spinoff series How I Met Your Dad).  This is a problem for most sitcoms, which tend to have a short half-life--see, for example, the pleasant but inessential fare that Parks and Recreation has been serving up lately--but it's all the more crucial for a show like How I Met Your Mother, which had a predetermined end point.  Going by the timeline established in the finale, Ted's children Penny (Lyndsy Fonseca) and Luke (David Henrie) are 15 and 13 when he sits them down to tell his story in 2030.  The fact that neither of the actors could believably pass for these ages (they were actually 20 and 18 when the scene was shot) is a fairly decisive indication that How I Met Your Mother was never intended to run more than five or six seasons at the outside, and the wheel-spinning with which the extra time was filled--besides being boring in itself--only serves to undermine the characters, and the endings the show gives them.  That Barney insists, after the breakup of his marriage to Robin, that he simply isn't suited to serious relationships would be more believable if there were not, before that marriage, a serious girlfriend and another fiancé, both introduced to mark time before the wedding endgame could be implemented.  Even more importantly, Ted and Robin's constant back and forth ultimately serves to neuter their romance.  By the series's end, they have both announced that they love each other, and then that they no longer feel that way about one another, so many times that the words have lost all meaning, and the decision to put them together feels almost arbitrary.

And yet, if the overlong, meandering path that leads up to "Last Forever" undermines the episode's power, it doesn't completely negate it.  There's a lot to be said against Barney's story in the finale, in which the always-problematic character achieves redemption by having a daughter and then realizing that all women are someone's daughter, at which point he begins berating the same young floozies he had previous preyed upon to "make better choices" (I don't agree with all of Sady Doyle's conclusions about the finale, but she's spot on about the problems with Barney).  But the breakup of his and Robin's marriage feels absolutely true to both characters, who have always been depicted as two people who love each other deeply but have no idea how to be in a relationship.  Unlike uber-couple Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel), who can withstand competing career tracks, the pressures of parenting, and even an early-season breakup, Robin and Barney never had the resilience or the selflessness to handle the challenges of a long term relationship, so it's not surprising that the first crisis they face breaks them up.  Would this have been more believable, and more emotionally resonant, if Robin and Barney hadn't already broken up once for largely the same reasons, and if the last two seasons hadn't been dedicated to building up their love story without ever acknowledging the cracks in their foundation?  Absolutely.  But the premise still works, and the actors and writing are good enough that the breakup still stings the second time around.  By the same token, as annoying and Ted and Robin's I-love-you-I-love-you-not game became, their reconnection at the end of the series makes sense.  I can easily see them, in their fifties, having both achieved the conflicting goals that kept them apart--his children, her career--embarking on a late in life romance, and the actual moment at which Ted shows up at Robin's window with the blue French horn is as powerful as anything in the show's history.

None of this, of course, would matter if Tracy were not a vivid character in her own right, and if there's one criticism of the finale that I simply don't get, it is that it treats her like a plot token, a way of getting around the bind that Bays and Thomas trapped themselves in at the end of the pilot.  I think that this would be the case if How I Met Your Mother had ended as originally planned, with "Last Forever" capping the eighth season and Ted meeting Tracy for the first time in the same episode in which her death and his ultimate relationship with Robin were introduced.  But the decision to extend the show, though undeniably driven by purely financial motivations, turns out to have been a godsend.  It gives How I Met Your Mother the time to turn Tracy into a real character, both through her interactions with the rest of the main cast, and through flash-forwards to her and Ted's marriage.  She even gets her own backstory episode, "How Your Mother Met Me," in which we discover that while Ted was desperately searching for the love of his life, Tracy was trying to get over the sudden, early death of hers, and slowly working her way back to being ready for love again (amid the outrage over the finale's twist ending, one point that appears to have been lost is that Ted and Tracy end up with exactly the same romantic trajectories, both experiencing two great loves, the first one cut off by death).  Even her death, as I've said, is laid out before the finale, in the episode "Vesuvius," in which Ted and Tracy go for another weekend getaway that is clearly intended to be their last (I have to wonder if one of the reasons that the finale has aroused outrage is that so many people seemed determined to read "Vesuvius" ambiguously, whereas I thought that it couldn't have made Tracy's impending death any clearer).

As Penny and Luke point out when their father finishes his recitation, the point of How I Met Your Mother's finale was to reveal to us exactly what kind of story the show had been telling, what its purpose was and what it was about.  For several years, I'd happily assumed that the show was about the roundabout way in which Ted made his way to Tracy, when actually it turned out to be the story about Ted and Robin's on-again, off-again love story, which just happens to encompass both of them falling in love with and marrying other people.  I like my story better, but I can't deny that the one Bays and Thomas chose works for their characters and how they constructed the show (and again, I think it's damned impressive that the show can hold off on committing to the kind of story it's telling all the way to its last fifteen minutes without making either of the alternatives unbelievable).  And in a way, their ending feels true to what always seemed to me like the show's most important theme.  In its best moments, How I Met Your Mother was a show about disappointment, about realizing that your life wasn't going to turn out the way you wanted or planned, and that this can be both sad and wonderful.  Ted sees Robin across a crowded room and thinks that he's solved his life's puzzle, when instead he's only discovered a more elusive one.  Barney thinks that Robin will save him and instead finds salvation in a baby.  Lily runs away from Marshall to be an artist but turns out not to have the talent, while Marshall dreams of being an environmental lawyer, and then a judge, but keeps having to defer his dreams.  That Barney and Robin don't work out despite all the time we spent on their love story, or that Ted and Tracy's happiness is so tragically short-lived, returns to that theme of disappointment in a way that is deeply affecting.

To me, revealing that Tracy dies and then Ted and Robin get together--and doing so after a season that made Tracy so very real while she lived--doesn't negate her relationship with Ted.  It doesn't mean that Robin is The One while Tracy isn't.  It means that there's no such thing as The One, or a happy ending that your whole life is leading up to--just happiness and sadness, love and disappointment, for as long as you're around.  At another time in his life, when Tracy was alive or newly dead, Ted might have told the story of how he met his children's mother another way, with Tracy as the star and Robin as a barely-appearing supporting character.  The fact that he's changed, and fallen in love again, doesn't mean that his and Tracy's story ceases to exist, but rather that none of our lives have a single story.  I don't know if that's the message Bays and Thomas intended me to take from their finale, but it's one that I can take from it--because despite being so in control of their story that they knew how it would end seven years ago, no story is ever as rigid as to have exactly the meaning its creators intended, just as no life has just one great love that it is building up to.  Whether they meant to or not, Bays and Thomas have created a romantic comedy that both embraces and rejects the genre's cherished conventions, and for that reason--despite the finale's flaws and the sometimes hard slog leading up to it--I like How I Met Your Mother's ending just fine.

6 comments:

Ryan said...

Great essay. You put into words a lot of what I've been feeling about the ending. Though the execution wasn't perfect, I think the actual resolution fit the tone of the series perfectly, and I agree wholeheartedly that many critics (and fans) are getting a little too hung up on who is and who isn't The One.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Honestly, I think a big part of the problem has less to do with the idea, and more to do with the execution. Namely, I think a lot of fault lies on the old footage, and Lyndsey Fonesca's delivery. It's exuberant and joyous, and the whole bit is played a little too much for laughs. That tonal whiplash, more than the actual idea itself, was what sat wrong with me.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think that's a fair complaint in itself - though I can't find it in me to condemn the show too much for not knowing exactly what tone they wanted to strike seven years in advance (and again, I think there's a difference between a fifteen-year-old girl telling her father to move on from her mother, and an 18-20 year-old, as Penny was supposed to be, doing it). But that hardly strikes me as a reason to dismiss the finale as a whole, or the concept of Ted and Robin getting back together in this way. Most of the complaints I've been seeing feel like criticisms of the show as a whole, for dragging the story out for so long and adding so much back and forth between Barny and Robin and Ted and Robin. Which I think is entirely fair and pretty much agree with, but also not a criticism of the finale itself, which as I say was not only well done but had a sufficient foundation to justify its plot twists.

Unknown said...

Speaking as someone who didn't watch the show much over the last few years, I didn't have a problem with the "twist." I did find it annoying that most of what we saw of Robin post-divorce was her pining over Ted; that diminished her character to me. We were told she had a successful career and we can imagine she had fulfilling friendships (and maybe even romantic relationships) away from the group before ultimately coming back together with Ted; but I'd have felt better if we had seen that she didn't spent 15 years lonely and waiting for the Mother to die.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I go back and forth about Robin in the finale. I agree that it's frustrating that all we see is her pining for Ted (while also noting, as you do, that she appeared to have a full, satisfying life away from the group, which had become so toxic to her that she cut herself off from it). But on the other hand, it also feels as right to the character as her breakup with Barney. There was always something a little sad about Robin. She was a character who never really knew what she wanted - right until the moment when she realized she couldn't have it - and who unlike Ted, tended to respond to interpersonal crises by backing away from them, not pushing forward. It might have been nice to see Robin work through these issues, rather than assume that they would have been magically resolved by the time she and Ted finally get back together, but I'm not sure her actual attitude toward Ted post-divorce is unrealistic.

Jodie said...

I'm still waiting to see the finale but having seen the spoilers I wonder if some of people's outrage isn't also to do with how this ending aligns conveniently with very common, depressing, sexist narrative tropes. Important female character dies at the end. Dead lady provides the reason for a hero's story. Female character is removed to allow dude to move back to other female character. I don't want to negate Tracey's complexity as a character (from what I've seen so far she seems great) but just because she's a complex character who fits into a complex story about how real life treats people that doesn't mean the way her story treats her doesn't raise a lot of problems because of our bigger cultural narratives.

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