I stay in very close contact with my family and friends from back home. We call each other often. I stay in such good touch, in fact, that sometimes they forget I’m three hours behind them. This is how, at 5:28 last Monday night, I ended up with a text from my sister about the How I Met Your Mother series finale: “A divorce?? On a series finale?? WTF?”
Well, spoiler alert, jeez (she actually did the same thing when Barney and Robin first got together). But what’s interesting is that what my sister ended up spoiling for me was not the surprises in the finale itself but rather the reaction of more or less the entire viewing public, echoed in the final three letters of her text to me. The results are in and few, very few, are satisfied with the way creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas chose to end their epic nine-year tale of love in the big city. The episode (“Last Forever”) has its defenders, but on the whole, the consensus seems to be that it was a major disappointment (cue Robin and Ted’s salute: Major Disappointment).
There are, I think, a few reasons for this. The most obvious of them is that HIMYM, perhaps more than any other TV show in history, was framed so that the entire series hinged upon its own finale. Whereas most sitcoms are episodic (they’re situation comedies, after all), HIMYM is serialized, and not even in the week-to-week serialization mode of a soap opera, or even—dare I say it?—a Lost. People looked forward to Lost’s finale because it was a mystery, a puzzle for which people were anxious to see the final piece, but the finale wasn’t anything more than that. HIMYM’s finale had the expectations of truly ending something, this ongoing forever-fairy-tale we all needed closure on. We stuck around out of emotional investment, not sheer curiosity. As a result, many critics have suggested that the entire series now reads completely differently in the wake of this finale, and it’s interesting to examine whether that’s true.
This is not to say that audiences were disappointed simply because their expectations were too high. Indeed, there was much to find disappointment in. It was waaaaay too cramped: after creating an entire season that spanned only one day, they crammed fifteen years into 44 minutes here; Barney had a daughter, Marshall became a judge (and then a State Supreme Court judge), Lily had two more kids, Robin became famous, Robin and Barney got divorced, Ted met the Mother, we found out her name, they got married, and she died. Yes, all of that happened.
And that’s not even counting the last two minutes, which were totally strange (Grantland called it “one of the most tonally inappropriate things ever seen in a sitcom of this caliber”). Ted finally, after nine years, finishes telling his kids the story of how he met their mother, except apparently that’s not what he’s been doing at all. Both kids, with smiles beaming across their faces and with pretty much no regard for their dead mom whatsoever, don’t seem the least bit perturbed that, having been promised a loving story about the mother they didn’t get a chance to know that well (and never will), they’ve instead been subjected to a story about dad banging random women in bars and actually being secretly in love with someone else the entire time. Not only that, but the kids respond by nonchalantly encouraging Dad to call this other lady up, win her back, and move on from stupid old what’s-her-name…oh yeah, Mom. And on top of that, the creators don’t even treat us to what it looks like when Ted and Robin finally, finally, at long last do get together, instead just tossing in a wordless look exchanged between them, cut to credits, the end.
So. There are a few things to point out here. One is that this final scene was obviously planned out over the entire series (reportedly the penultimate scene where the kids encourage him was filmed in season two—either that or those kids are some sort of ageless freaks). Bays and Thomas obviously wanted to stick with Ted and Robin the whole time, and arguments in favor of the finale state that they were brave for sticking to the plan, even if that did possibly mean shoe-horning the whole thing in. Except, well, we weren’t exactly led to believe in Ted and Robin’s romance—and I’m a huge Ted and Robin fan. But the creators worked tremendously hard to sell us all on the least convincing romance ever—Robin and Barney—only to end it completely in the span of one scene. They also put an awful lot of effort into getting us to like the Mother this past season, and it actually paid off, as fans took to her almost immediately.
But the real kick in the balls about his return to Robin is, I think, how accurately they hit the emotional target by positioning Robin not as the one-and-only, but rather as a safety blanket for Ted to outgrow, a relationship that the young, naive and frankly selfish Ted needed to let go of in order to mature into adulthood. As the AV Club noted earlier this week, “Accepting that her role in his life wouldn’t be determined by his dreams, but by hers, is the crucial step into maturity that allows the end of the story to happen.” But in the end it turned out that it’s exactly his dreams that determine whether they’re together, unless we are to assume that after the credits rolled on Monday night’s episode, he went inside and Robin was like, “Sorry, I have to leave on assignment in Tokyo.”
Speaking of which, why didn’t it end like that? What’s most curious to me about the fans’ reaction to the finale is that they seem to think it wasn’t happy enough—what with all the divorce and death and everything—but I can’t say I agree. Cristin Millotti made a great Mother, sure, but I don’t feel attached enough to her to see her death as anything, no pun, fatal to the quality of the show. In fact, a few years ago, my friend Ben and I jokingly suggested the darkest endings we could imagine for the show, and one of them was, indeed, that she was dead, so when those rumors spread we were excited at the ambition of that choice: it had the scent of reality, of the truth that it doesn’t matter how hard you look for your love story, sometimes it doesn’t come true; effort doesn’t enter into it. (I really wanted it to end with Ted saying, “Okay kids, your mom’s here to pick you up,” and then his ex-wife, the Mother, asking them in the car whether he’s still telling stories about his friends from twenty years ago…).
A preliminary interview with Bays and Thomas suggested that such an ending was really possible. They praised the finale of Cheers for ending on a note of melancholy, wherein everyone else who hung out at the bar left, but Sam hadn’t moved on and was left alone, in the dark. “This finale will be like that—it will make you re-think a lot of what you watched,” they promised.
And, true to their word, it has. But not in any poignant or significant way. Maybe it really was all a con (I hate to say I told you so, but I called it almost a year ago). Blue French horn be damned, the story feels incomplete. But at least there’s nothing for my sister to ruin anymore.