How I Met Your Mother – “Last Words”

“Last Words”

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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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6 Comments

Filed under How I Met Your Mother

6 responses to “How I Met Your Mother – “Last Words”

  1. Tausif Khan

    I was surprised to see Barney so broken up. He was always the guy that tried to break horrible serious moments. This episode sapped all the gags out of the show. The episodes of this show for me center around Marshall. Except I like to see Marshall happy. So that was bad.

    I hope this was the show course correcting itself back to episodes which blend romance drama and comedy organically. When drama and comedy blend organically Alyson Hannigan can be really funny, where jokes aren’t used as a punch line but come organically from the plot. It blends pain and humor and for me that is where the best story telling comes from.

    (Myles, I made two other post that did not show up. I am wondering if it is because I put links in my posts.)

  2. trefusius

    You need to be careful with lengthy last words Myles. There’s a danger you don’t make it to the end, and it probably won’t be as funny as “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…”

  3. I just started writing my own TV reviews so here’s my (lengthy) piece on How I Met Your Mother’s current state and analyze each character’s reaction to the funeral. http://bit.ly/dMwrJI

    How I Met Your Mother – “Last Words”: Better Than Crocodile Dundee 3

    I originally got into How I Met Your Mother just as season 2 was nearing its end. I heard a lot of positive feedback about the series for some time and decided to catch the first few episodes to see how it was. By the time I reached the episode “Ok Awesome” I was completely sold. I immediately ordered the first season on Amazon and devoured the sitcom as quickly as possible. My next move was to watch the first few episodes with my brother and close friends to which they soon got hooked. I continued to spread the show around but as season three continued the show became something different. The sweet romantic Ted Mosby was replaced by what the showrunners in retrospect refer to as Outlaw Ted, notable by his trademark cowboy style shirt (seriously go back and watch, he wears the same cowboy shirt like every other episode). This new Ted had a goal to hook up with as many girls as possible and just have numerous flings and one-time things. Though it wasn’t just his character that lost it’s romantic touch, rather the entire series seemed to take a slight dive.

    Then the writer’s strike occurred and the show went off air until later the following year and How I Met came back with what seemed like a newfound purpose with the plot of Ted realizing what he’s become and starting the journey of being a better man, which led into the Stella arc. Though the series also began to taken on a decidedly more sitcomy feel (Brittney Spears episodes), something that remains intact in its later seasons. The show continued to go on and while I still watched it clearly wasn’t on the same level as anything like “Slap Bet” or “Showdown”. Barney and Robin’s blooming romance became the show’s main draw for me, as it was full of possibilities. They were a great team as far back as season one’s “Zip, Zip, Zip” and Barney’s growth as a character was great to track as he moved from cartoony womanizer to a real human being with actual feelings. But rather than continue with this development the writers didn’t know where to go and broke the couple up quick into season 5’s run. This in many ways killed the show for me as at this point the Lily and Marshall storylines never seemed to go anywhere (Lily’s credit card debt, Dowisetrepla’s awful location, etc) and Ted existed almost purely to annoy everyone. Let alone the fact that Ted as professor was never made out to be a big deal other than in a few episodes.

    It wasn’t even that Barney and Robin broke up, but that Barney reverted the very next episode to being a sleaze as if the slate was completely clean and rejecting two seasons worth of character development. This was also the time that the show decided to take a traditional sitcom approach and focus on one-episode stories with no larger story arc. Now How I Met has given us great fillers before, in fact “Arrivederci, Fiero” is a near perfect filler in my opinion. The episode had no real impact on the larger stories at play (Ted and Robin’s romance, Marshall and Lily’s upcoming wedding) yet it holds up as one of my favorite episodes and is the episode I go to first if I feel like randomly watching just an episode of How I Met. It has humor and emotion, along with giving each member of the gang their own great short flashbacks that offer fun insight into the characters and their lives. Though it’s clearly Jason Segal’s character Marshall Erikson that’s at the center of the episode. In a lot of ways this week’s latest episode, “Last Words”, reminds me a lot of a more dramatic version of “Arrivederci, Fiero”.

    Picking up right where the previous episode “Bad News” took place with the sudden news Marshall’s dad’s death, “Last Words” had the gang travel to Minnesota for the funeral. An important thing to note is right off the bat Ted tells his kids, “When your best friend loses someone you rush to their side to help, only to find yourself standing there with no idea what to do or say”. Usually when older Ted tells a story about a friend he tells it in terms of “Uncle Marshall did this…” but in place he begins by talking about it in context of himself. For the rest of the episode Ted and Barney attempt to make Marshall smile by showing videos of people being kicked in the nuts (Marshall’s comedic kryptonite), and despite Marshall’s clear uninterest they keep trying. The truth is they are showing him the videos not for Marshall, but rather for themselves. As Ted stated in the beginning he has no idea how to help, all he can do there is be for him. No one else in the group has yet to deal with a serious death and act out in a different way to help them cope with the issue themselves.

    Where Ted and Barney have nut shot videos Robin has vices, a joke that couldn’t be more accurate with her character. Robin is a character that dislikes serious emotions and actively avoids dealing with issues head on. She’d rather drink alcohol and play [dirty] cards to get her mind off what’s going on around her. Naturally she assumes that’s how everyone else deals with their issues and brings a bag full of vices for Marshall to cope. Robin passes her items to others at the funeral and takes sheer delight in getting a reputation for them among the reception. Robin could barely deal with being made fun of at her new job let alone deal with a major death. She spends most of the episode ignoring the seriousness of the issue at hand, instead thriving in a scenario where she’s the cool girl handing out booze to what turns out to be an underage relative.

    Lily interestingly puts her focus into helping Marshall’s mother as she takes pity on the women who never liked her, helping her eat and sleep for the first time since the incident as a way to indirectly assist Marshall. Ted says the death must be hard on Lily, but she throws off that statement and focuses on others. She knows there’s nothing she can do to instantly help Marshall, and instead focuses on his mom.

    When I first read the description of this episode the TV guide highlighted Marshall having to deal with an old bully from his childhood. Thankfully this turned out to simply be a minor plot point, more of a joke that began the real plot of the episode. While the bully turning out to be smaller than the victim is an old sitcom joke, I felt it was done fine as it plays into the idea that to Marshall it isn’t the size that matters. He’s a big guy, despite being the smallest in his family, but he’s a sensitive one. It makes sense that the guy that would bully Marshall would be one who gets to him through emotion. Marshall is more defeated by the notion of carrying a stepladder for the bully rather than the proceeding noogies. It was a joke used quickly and really didn’t even need to be in the episode, but got the ball rolling by throwing out the funeral’s theme of last words.

    I highly enjoyed Marshall’s string of thoughts as he went over the various last words he thought until he realized they were “Rent Crocodile Dundee 3”. I laughed quite hard at this line, as its utterly ridiculous set of final words and just absolutely random to make a Crocodile Dundee reference in 2011. Yet the line is perfect for Marvin Erikson. Marvin was a simple Minnesota man. He liked his Vikings, his meat, his mayonnaise, and most of all his family. This was reflected in the lovely speeches the Erikson family gave. While Marvin was never exactly a favorite character of mine (I frequently saw him too much over the top) by the end of the episode he became a character I really cared for, simply because he cared so much. His funeral made me generally sad and feel for the characters, something the show hasn’t made me do in a long time.

    I enjoyed the scene of Marshall’s yelling at God, as it’s something we are quick to do when the world seems so cruel. But God came through for Marshall in the end by providing him with a new set of last words. I find it interesting overall how Marshall directed his statements at God, yet when Ted is upset or wants something he instead talks to “the universe” as seen in season one’s finale “Come On”. It’s a settle difference, but one that says a lot between their different beliefs being a topic that is rarely discussed or brought up on the show.

    It was a sweet moment to see Marshall kept his speech still about Crocodile Dundee 3, as his dad’s sweet phone message is something that Marshall can always keep for himself and hold onto. Marshall didn’t need to talk about how his father last told him “I love you” because the message reminded Marshall that his dad loved him along. It doesn’t matter what exactly the last thing Marvin said to him was, but rather the fact that he always loved him. And that’s something that no last words could ever take away.

    Remotely Interesting Points
    -Crocodile Dundee 3 is actually an incorrect title. The proper name for the movie is actually Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles. I remember highly enjoying the movie as a little kid when I went through a brief Australia phase. Looking back I’m sure it’s terrible. The only thing I can remember from it is the Wendy’s scene which taught me Australia doesn’t have drive-thrus, a fact I’m not sure is accurate.
    -The Korean stereotype lines were also very humorous. Marvin was just so happy and innocent as he said those lovely racist comments.
    -So happy they kept the weird Erikson diet, which consists of random junk food such as gummy bears and of course lots and lots of mayonnaise.
    -My favorite line has to be Ted’s ““Nothing beats the immediacy of live theater!”
    -Going against continuity Barney is wearing a suit at the funeral, but this a fitting change as Barney respects Marshall far too much to embarrass him in front of his entire family. I just wish they put in a line referencing this. Since Barney hasn’t really coped with death before he could get away with caring more about his policy of “suits are for the living” but now that he’s had a death that’s actually influenced him he trades in his silly rules for the respect of the dead.
    -It was nice to see all the gang’s dads again with Ted’s being my favorite, keeping him just as creepy and into being single as before. I also enjoyed Robin’s father (now played by Ray Wise of Twin Peaks) continued desire for Robin to be a boy or that Robin ignores the fact he called her RJ because he actually remembered her birthday. Lily’s dad on the other hand continued to not funny with his weird board game ideas, thankfully we were sparred much of that.
    -Of course the episode all leads up to the inevitable call to Barney’s mom in which he asks to meet his real dad. We’ve been waiting for this all season now and it felt like a good time for Barney to want to know. I thought he might have gone on more, perhaps even mad, when Marshal ranted about how no one understood the pain he had loosing his dad when Barney never he knew his. I wish I didn’t already read who is playing the father, but I am really interested in seeing how who they picked plays out. Should be great fun to watch.
    -Marshall’s “last words” to his friends was a charming addition and made hysterical by adding the “take a deuce” to the very end.

  4. Harley

    “However, while the series is no so heavily serialized that we need reserve judgment on an individual episode…”

    Is that meant to be not or now?

  5. HIMYM is deader than Marshall’s father

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