Well, we know two things were promised in the finale of How I Met Your Mother: A mother would be met, and it would be legendary.
We can grant that both promises were kept. What can also be granted is that there’s a reason the show isn’t called How I Met Your Mother and Lived with Her Happily Ever After and the fact that something that fades into legend won’t necessarily earn that title in a good way.
There’s little doubt the finale of HIMYM will be compared to the finale of Seinfeld, the disappointment that ruined TV in the 90’s. Most video game fans watching, though, already know the more apt comparison. Any gamer worth his weight in silicon is familiar with the legend of the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, an RPG series which presented gamers with an unprecedented amount of control over the events of its universe with the promise that the endings could be altered and character fates totally changed. The characters were well-written, believable, and three-dimensional, and the plot worked within a universe created to contain it instead of the other way around. Then, in literally the final 15 minutes of Mass Effect 3 – the final game of the series – every ideal and development gamers worked literally hundreds of hours into three games to discover was junked for a cliched twist ending that betrayed every ideal, theme, and philosophy promised by the series. Fan outrage reached such a point that the developers released a refurbished ending which still didn’t tie up all the loose ends. As I only just started playing the first Mass Effect game, I’ll hold off my commentary on the finale for a year or two, but I’m going into Mass Effect knowing that any fan contrarian enough to declare the ending a good fit or (gasp!) defend it outright isn’t in any hurry to step forward.
Fictional story endings don’t have to be agreeable, and hell, we can even stretch that out a little bit by insisting they don’t even necessarily have to be good. But they do have to make sense, and ultimately, that’s what creating closure for a work of fiction is about: Making a mite of goddamn sense! I’m still going to try to eventually play the Mass Effect series through to its conclusion to see what all the hubbub was about, but after the HIMYM series finale, I think I understand exactly what it feels like. The finale was one of those dealies that splits fans into a faction of contrarians – all citing reason X for why it was great – and a faction that is right. Unfortunately, unlike Mass Effect, How I Met Your Mother isn’t an interactive adventure which invites art aficionados to come take a look inside the world and preside over the characters’ actions while pretending to be Apocalypse God from the Torah. We’re stuck with this.
Okay, we get that the show was never really about the mother (her name was Tracy McConnell), but there was still nine years of buildup and maturation before the big reveal which made the mother a character as real to the audience as Lily, Barney, and the rest of the gang. Maybe the big reveal scene where we finally got the name was a little cliched – there was rain, for crying out loud – but it was touching in that Ted Mosby romantic idealist way. We culled the name, and a scene or two later, the conspiracy theorists were proved right. Ma croaked six years prior to the frameup device and the kiddos give him the express permission he needs to start gunning for Robin again. Poor Tracy McConnell turned out to be as disposable as a razor, to be used to hold up Ted’s ideals until someone better came along, and the show truly cheaped itself out when that someone better turned out to be Robin. The very woman he had dated in the pilot episode and the woman he went through several on-again-off-again romances with and – this is key – the woman whose circle was supposed to have been effectively tied up in the penultimate episode turned out to be the one true love. She did get married to Barney in the last episode, right?
That’s certainly what I remember. It was only last week! Well, 20 minutes into the finale, they divorced. Robin and Barney were the most rewarding characters on the show to stick with as they developed. In the beginning, they were the most flawed and childish; Robin was a commitment-phobe who didn’t like kids, and Barney womanized so serially that he came off as a borderline rapist at times. These two characters were perfect for each other, because both of them were forced into maturity and sacrifice of their longtime essences when they finally got together and fell in love with each other. After that ridiculous multi-year sequence of events which defined their relationship, they decided that, nope! Ain’t worth it, they have to keep being immature postcollegiates after all. How convenient for Ted and Robin. Barney revealed that old douche side of himself again which made him an endearing character in the show’s early years, which was nice, but it also made him look pretty pathetic. In fairness, that might have been the point. This wasn’t classic suit up Barney Stinson, stealing scenes and being the life of every party. Ted was committed to Tracy now, while Lily and Marshall are still Lily and Marshall. It was more like mid-life crisis Barney, broken of his aura of cool, now desperately trying to recapture the magic of his earlier and more daring years and coming off as pathetic. I could have excused this, but even then, Barney couldn’t be let alone. He took a bet that he could have a perfect month, having sex with a different woman every night, and is forced back into maturity when the last one gets pregnant. That’s the key term: Forced. He doesn’t willingly decide he’s fed up with his whole Bro Code schtick, he gets into it after knocking up a girl. While Barney apparently does transform into a loving and devoted father, we’re still not freed of the old Barney Stinson, which Lily even tacitly acknowledges when she expresses that Number 31 – Barney’s baby mama – is eventually going to need a name. Thats right, the show never names her. I will give credit where it’s due, though: Neil Patrick Harris is wonderful in the delivery room scene, when he promises everything to his new baby girl.
Robin’s side of the divorce was, ironically, the most truly believable part of the episode. Save Tracy – who didn’t join the show until the final season – Robin was the last of the main characters to work her way into the inner circle of main characters. She only met Ted in the pilot, and she turned into Lily’s best friend. Now in her rush to make up for the recent hole in her heart, she’s becoming a world-famous reporter and jet-setting everywhere, distancing herself from the other characters while Tracy takes her place. Cobie Smulders breaks a lot of hearts playing this role; one of the other great scenes in the finale is a sorrowful conversation between Robin and Lily in which Robin acknowledges that their friendships are changing for the worse. She’s feeling left out, and leaves Lily to question how close the two of them really are in a scene where the two characters clearly haven’t seen each other in a long time. It’s unexpected and poignant, and it also retcons the shit out of the show. Didn’t the pilot take a special pain to introduce her as Aunt Robin? And didn’t Ted’s narrator keep calling her that?
The very end of the show was shot in the first couple of seasons in the show and kept in a vault, which means this is how the show’s creators decided to constrain themselves. They kept pushing toward an inevitable Robin/Ted get-together, despite the characters all maturing to reach the point where they all clearly accepted the fact that real life is fairly devoid of fairy tale romances, and for at least seven years, ignored all opportunities to correct any course which would have made the very end plausible. The characters got mature to an extent that made even Ted/Robin shippers accept the fact that it was never going to happen, but the writers clearly didn’t, so they found a way to cram it in there.
What’s upsetting is that there were so many wonderful shout-outs to longtime fans – the cockamouse returned, the slap bet was finally tied up, the yellow umbrella made the appearance we all knew had to be there, and the blue french horn even came back! – and moments which, taken individually, were beautiful. Ted introducing himself to Tracy on the train platform was perfect. Robin drifting away from the gang was handled excellently. Barney evoked a few awws when he first met his daughter, Ellie, in the delivery room. Even the series-closing scene between Ted and Robin with the old blue french horn had touching, emotional vibe about it. (It helped that Smulders and Josh Radnor nailed this one too, even without any dialogue.) Unfortunately, this show isn’t the sum of all those potential-filled scenes. Played out naturally, this finale could have been one of the greats, right up there with Breaking Bad. Instead, something feels soggy about it. In one scene, Lily proposes a toast to Ted, praising him for all the heartbreaks he went though. That now goes double for everyone who ever got caught up in this show now.
Here’s the clip of the final scene from Youtube: