Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How I Met "How I Met Your Mother"

It's fairly unnecessary for me to chime in about my reactions to the finale, after nine seasons, of How I Met Your Mother. All of the actual professional review sites have shared their thoughts and feelings, ranging from disappointed to defensive, and this gently-read blog that I've largely ignored for the past few years isn't going to add to the conversation in any significant way. But something about the last two-part episode has inspired me to record what the show has meant to me, and how the finale made me think about my own life.


If by now you've seen "Last Forever," and read the largely negative reviews, then you know that it's the "twist" ending that really upset a lot of the show's fans. Of course, there are problems with the show's denouement and how it was presented. But I suspect it's only going to make more and more sense as time goes by and I continue to think about how it ended. In the pilot episode, I fell in love with Ted's falling in love with Robin on their first date, and it was a cute, funny, and startling moment when his future-narration reveals that this meet-cute brought him together with his kids' "Aunt Robin."

For nine seasons we've seen Ted and Robin's relationship grow into a complicated romance-turned-friendship. Numerous times, it's been exhausting to see them split up and get back together, when we've known since the beginning that they would not end up together. Once we finally discovered whom Ted was meant to be with, "The Mother," Tracy McConnell (pitch-perfectly played by Tony nominee Cristin Milioti), the show did an admirable job of getting us to fall in love with her throughout an awkward 'bottle episode' of a final season. She was perfect for him, intelligently designed to match him in every way, and it was a delight to see their pairing, finally.

What I didn't know until after the series ended was that her death after only a ten-year union with Ted was planned from the beginning. It's a great relief for me to know that this was the creators' intention, because it allows me to better appreciate the ways, throughout the years, that they've built towards it. When I first heard murmurs a few weeks ago that this outcome was being theorized by fans, I was initially dismayed. It did seem like a betrayal, as if the show had gone off the rails in its latter seasons, and this was one final transgression against a show which had once been so excellently-crafted and emotionally affecting.

That it was the plan all along for the show's framework of Ted telling his kids how he met their mother, to be focused primarily on his relationships with Robin, Barney, Lily, and Marshall before Tracy came into their life, makes much more sense when it's revealed that he's curious how they'd feel if he started dating Robin, six years after having lost his wife to an unspecified illness. It's understandable to be skeptical that his kids wouldn't react in such a cavalier way throughout the story if their mother is dead, but I disagree. They're teenagers, listening to their nerdy dad tell one anecdote after another that has nothing to do with their mom. And, she died when they were young children, so it's not as if he's trying to start dating immediately after the funeral. I like to think that Ted frequently regales his children with countless stories about their mother: who she was, what she was like, and what he loved about her. So this story we've been privy to doesn't seem as relevant to them as all that.

Of course, there are numerous things wrong with how the show wrapped up. I was never a fan of the final season dragging out over the course of one wedding weekend, and wish that they'd stretched the finale's years-long story arcs out through the entire ninth season instead. This would have given the writers many opportunities to creatively tease out the eventual reunion of Ted and Robin, rewarded longtime viewers with more delightful scenes in the life shared by Ted and Tracy, and more intelligently served the storylines of Lily, Marshall, and Barney.

Barney is easily the least satisfying of all the characters, both throughout the show's run, and during its marathon last episode. I was never on board for his romance with Robin, apparently life-changing, as the writers tried so hard to convince us. (It reminded me of the bad taste Grey's Anatomy gave me when uniting George and Izzie in that show's watershed third season.) Perhaps because I was so uninterested in their union, I had no problem with their divorce, but it was frustrating for the show to have burned so many calories trying to convince us that they would truly go through so many enormous changes in order to come together, and then when they come apart, for Barney to basically bounce right back. Robin truly reevaluates her life after her divorce, but Barney seems like the same old cad.

Barney was a latchkey kid with seriously complicated relationships with his mother and absentee father. This turned him into a hypersensitive young man, rawer even than Ted, who was moved to change his entire life after an early heartbreak and the tutelage of a hardened womanizer turned him into the Barney we would eventually meet. For him to try so hard to do things right, finally, and see it fail, I can't believe it wouldn't send him into a truly dark tailspin. I would have liked to see a middle-aged Barney find himself at the bottom of a whiskey bottle, struggling to find a new identity for himself. A full season of flashbacks/flashforwards would have given the character a chance to build himself back in more than just the one moment (beautifully acted by Neil Patrick Harris) when he first meets his daughter.

What I liked the most about the last hour was Robin's disconnection from her former friends. Some of it was inconsistent with earlier seasons' flashforwards, but it felt the most natural to me of any of the finale's "disappointments." The speech she gives to Lily when bailing on a frustrating Halloween party makes perfect sense. Why would she stick around with a well-meaning old married couple, her promiscuous ex-husband, the ex-boyfriend she suspects is the man she should have ended up with, and his beloved wife? She's successful and famous, she can avoid the pain associated with this particular group of friends and move on with her life. Of course it's sad. Life is frequently, relentlessly, sad. Alyson Hannigan's acting was excellent in this episode, possibly because she wasn't acting much at all. In a ridiculous pregnant whale costume, against a bare set, Hannigan's big watery eyes were powerful enough to make me forget she was ever Buffy's bestie (or her Big Bad).

And that's what was so great about all of the changes in the show's conclusion. Life is rarely neat and clean. People are almost never in the right place at the right time. How many times did Ted and Tracy just miss meeting each other, and how many more years could they have had together? People do marry the wrong person. People marry the right person, and lose them tragically. People marry the right person, and struggle with their relationship regardless. People have to put their dreams on hold because a baby is coming. People pursue careers that make them very happy, but still feel something is missing. Hearts get broken, more often than not.

I see now how all along the show was laying the foundation for us to be okay with Ted and Robin coming together in their fifties, only ready to be together after being dragged through the highs and lows of life first. That girl in the fifth season episode "The Window," whose numerous relationships all had to start and end before she could be reunited with her childhood sweetheart. Stella, who eventually found her way back to her daughter's father after jilting Ted at the altar. One of my favorite characters, the almost-Mother Victoria, who came into Ted's life before he was ready to let her go for a time, and whose own wedding was prevented at the last minute. There's even the first season episode "Return of the Shirt," where Ted seeks love by getting back together with a former flame, only to realize he hasn't changed enough since their first breakup. Finally, take Tracy's deceased boyfriend Max, whose death she had to overcome before she'd be ready to turn down Louis' proposal, even though he is a great guy, before she can be ready to meet Ted.

Relationships end, and they change, and sometimes we find our way back to the people we used to love, or didn't love enough, but a lot of the time we don't. When How I Met Your Mother premiered I was just eighteen, a sophomore in college, and the characters seemed majorly grown-up (Major Lee Grownup). Now, I am pretty much the same age they were when it all started. I have friends who are lawyers, I have friends who are married, and I've quit jobs. I've fallen in love. I've had my heart broken. And I've seen many of my friendships change.

It was this that made me cry when watching the finale, seeing the rift between Lily and Robin and knowing how this has been mirrored in my own life. Today I discussed the show with someone I became very close to in college, and thought about how HIMYM ending was one of the "big moments" we'd be sure to discuss. Coincidentally, this conversation happened on the day she taught her first college class as a professor. I asked if she, like Ted, walked into the wrong classroom at first. Over the years, there have been drunken nights, inside jokes, hook-ups, road trips, and first kisses in my life to rival those portrayed on the show. Once I managed to tune into the most poorly-timed rerun of the episode when Victoria moves to Germany, while visiting my boyfriend who lived in another country. Our relationship didn't last either.

I so wish that the finale had just been tighter, and more consistent with some of the show's set-ups. I wish the Slap Bet had been more entertainingly resolved, and that we knew what happened in the Pineapple Incident. I wish we'd gotten to spend more time with The Mother, as surely Ted and their children did too. I wish the final season had been rewritten, and that later seasons had been better paced overall. (I wish a lot of things in my real life had gone differently, too.) But I wish all of this because in the Golden Age of television that has come about in my twenties, almost no show has better spoken to what it's like to be me. Mad Men's Peggy has resonated with me, there's the titular Veronica Mars, and elements of shows like Happy Endings have struck a chord. But I think when the time comes for me to go back to the beginning and watch all over, I'll be so glad that Ted, Marshall, Lily, Robin, Barney, and even Tracy and all the others, were in my life ... at the right time.