January 17th, 2011
Response to “Bad News,” HIMYM’s last original episode, was decidedly mixed. What struck me most was the way the episode-ending reveal that Marshall’s father had passed away became so problematic despite the fact that this is the kind of show which should be capable of handling such delicate matters. I’ll certainly agree with those who felt that there was some potential incongruity between the playful nature of the countdown and the eventual reveal, requiring a sudden gear shift which made the episode considerably divisive.
However, while the series is no so heavily serialized that we need reserve judgment on an individual episode until seeing how it carries over into the next, I would say that “Last Words” is in a position to sort of payoff the buildup offered in “Bad News.” The result, I feel, is an infallible merging of the comic and dramatic elements mashed together two weeks ago – with more time to establish the balance, Bays and Thomas emphasize the way in which well-drawn, longstanding characters offer great potential to take even a fairly rote storyline to a truly emotional place through some sharp writing and some stellar performances.
And that’s the sort of self-actualization the show was missing last season.
I don’t really have any deep thoughts about this. It’s just a really effective balancing act from Bays and Thomas, delivering a really effective emotional gut punch that never feels as if stops being a HIMYM episode in order to achieve those moments. There’s still the same focus on flashbacks, and the show doesn’t abandon running gags like Robin’s “Vice Purse,” but the episode actively tests the degree to which this formula can serve a more emotional purpose. Barney and Ted’s attempt to create a running gag to make Marshall laugh fails, as you can’t force that which needs to come naturally. There was room for humor in the episode, but it had to come from those who were outside of the realm of our central characters (like Danny Strong’s appearance as the pint-sized bully Reverend) or in service of the greater good (Barney’s attempt to redefine “last words,” Robin’s purse, Lily becoming Judy’s bitch, etc.).
I didn’t think the episode was unfunny, but rather the humor was channeled towards that emotional conclusion. I loved the symbolism of Marshall choosing the funny story over the emotional one, understanding that the people who loved his father needed a good laugh about Crocodile Dundee 3 just as much as he needed to hear that his father’s real last words were “I love you” and then some stuff about foot fungus. The episode sort of followed the same principle, in that it maintained a comic sensibility on a surface level but the function of those moments spoke to a deeper emotional undercurrent. The way that Marshall’s father’s death resonated with his friends is a fine example of this: it plays out as comedy within the flashbacks, but the way that the actors play the scene when we return from the flashbacks is subdued and emotional. “Lawyered,” once a triumphant declaration of pwnage, becomes an acknowledgment that this is all real. And so when the characters steal away from the funeral and call their parents, with Barney’s desire to meet his father being the most powerful, there is no humor: that which was once played for laughs has become the domain of the emotional, transformed over the course of the episode.
As was sort of foreshadowed in “Bad News,” Jason Segel absolutely knocked this out of the park: the sort of dazed nature of the early scenes was a nuanced bit of work, but his episode-ending controlled explosion of sorts was just heartbreaking. There was nothing surprising about this scene, nothing that couldn’t have been predicted the moment we learned that it was a pocket dial. While I feel confident the show could have pulled off the darkness of the message truly being nothing but static, there was never a chance that he wouldn’t pick up that phone and say something heartfelt and honest. And yet because of how great Segel was in that sequence, and how well Alyson Hannigan delivers when it comes to waterworks and the emotional moments surrounding waterworks, the scene lands. The series’ entire premise is a bunch of romantic hooey on some level, and yet the execution has often been so fitting that it transcends to the point of poetry, and the conclusion to this episode was without question one of the series’ finest moments on the level of charting the life changes among this group of friends.
Whether or not it’s your favorite will depend on your opinion of Ted, and whether you prefer the Lily/Marshall moments (like their Wedding, for example) over those relating to the central search for the Mother, but I think “Last Words” easily qualifies as one of the most complex and effective that the series has managed. A fine effort from Bays, Thomas, Fryman, and the entire cast.
- For those Buffy fans kicking around who were worried about me being a soulless automaton when it comes to emotional responses, not a dry eye in the apartment during the climactic scene.
- On that note, I always tend to be a bit more emotional in scenes like that one when other people in the scene are emotional: Smulders and NPH were particularly strong in this respect, breaking my heart even in those moments where Segel and Hannigan weren’t on screen.
- I know that Danny Strong is really short, and I know that Jason Segel is really tall, but I swear they put Segel in lifts to emphasize the comedy there. Wonderful sight gag, albeit one subtle enough to co-exist with the rest of the episode.
- I know there was a big brouhaha on the subject with Eric Braeden backing out of playing Robin’s father and NPH calling him out for it, but the end result of Ray Wise? Ray Wiserific.
- This was intended to be a short, concise take on the episode, and ended up being over a 1000 words, so clearly my last words are not going to be particularly concise.
- Note that there was neither a cold open nor a coda.
- Anybody who disliked “Bad News” feel that the strength of this episode somehow redeemed that one? I don’t think it necessarily intended on fundamentally changing your take on that episode, but I’m curious.