March 31st, 2014
I want to say upfront that I think the How I Met Your Mother finale was not an abomination. It featured a number of resonant moments, images, and character beats that tapped into what made the series resonate early in its run. When it finally reached the moment the series had been building up to, the chemistry between Josh Radnor and Cristin Miloti was quiet and sweet, and it stands as one of the series’ finer moments. This was a series that set out to tell a non-linear story about love, and delivered a—somewhat—non-linear finale about love, such that no one can claim How I Met Your Mother was a dramatically different show at the end than it was in the beginning.
However, I also want to say that I hated the How I Met Your Mother finale. A lot.
I hated “Last Forever” because I hate the idea of Ted and Robin being together. I’ve hated every time the show has defaulted to Ted and Robin as its status quo, and I’ve hated every time the series has returned to this well despite the fact I’ve found it to be dry for years. Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders have chemistry, and I think their relationship is crucial to the series, but after “Slapsgiving” I was done with their relationship, and nothing the series could do could convince me otherwise.
Hate is a strong word, but I think it’s accurate in this instance. I do not want to suggest that I feel betrayed, because on some level I could read the signs that Ted and Robin were OTP in the eyes of the series’ creators. And based on the conclusion, which used footage of Fonseca and Henrie filmed years ago, it’s clear that this was their plan from the beginning: through all of the ups and downs of the series, they always knew it was leading back to Robin. It was always going to be a rumination on how fate—not unlike the show—is non-linear, and how just because you’re fated to meet someone and love them and marry them and raise two children with them doesn’t also mean that you weren’t also fated to meet this other person, who was a part of that journey, and who will be there when a more traffic fate befalls you. It’s a fine rumination, one that is as poetic as you would expect from a show that loves to be poetic, except it hinges on accepting a relationship that I cannot in good conscience accept.
That is largely on me, I want to be clear: as I said, the finale was not an outright abomination. However, it suffers coming at the conclusion of a problematic season, one that struggled—and ultimately failed—to solve two central problems. The first, Jason Segel’s limited availability, simply made for some tedious episodes early in the season’s run, which were more or less forgotten by the time the season reached its conclusion. However, the second was the fact that the writers had run out of story to tell at the end of last season, necessitating the tight focus on Barney and Robin’s wedding weekend. It was a claustrophobic story structure, one that solved the problem of having to generate material over a longer period but created the problem of trying to spin a full season of story out of what was, at most, a 15-18 episode arc (which Todd VanDerWerff notes was the length of the finale season of M*A*S*H).
However, in retrospect the largest problem with this decision—and one the finale made no effort to solve—was that the season asked the audience to invest in a relationship the writers knew they were going to dissolve in the span of a few fast-moving vignettes in its finale. Barney and Robin’s relationship has always been complicated, so much so that their divorce is actually not a terrible surprise; however, the season had to pretend it was invested in their relationship, and pretend that their relationship was going to work, because it all had to be intact for the finale to have its intended impact. It was also the reason for the season, if you excuse the play on words: the season set at Barney and Robin’s wedding needed to be about Barney and Robin, even if that remains just a small part of the larger story.
This might have been fine if it hadn’t come at the expense of the part of the story we’ll never see. As the finale charted its way through the next two decades of the “gang”’s lives, Ted’s relationship with the Mother took place almost entirely off-camera. As much as the season made efforts to offer non-linear glimpses of their future, the fact remains that their relationship was what all of this was building to. It was what the audience had been waiting for, and what this season steadfastly refused to offer us enough of. And so when the finale completely skips over the moment she found out she was sick, and the moment she dies, and a huge collection of moments that are crucial to who Ted is, it represents both their disinterest in giving Tracy her due as a character (giving her a name was basically the finale’s greatest contribution, as though it was some special gift) and their insistence that this was ultimately a story about Ted, Robin, and a blue french horn.
And that’s why I hated it. As I read that sentence back, it feels like a dramatic reduction of a series that was about a lot of things. It’s also a reduction of a finale that was, on occasion, many of those things. It reduces the essence of the series down to the one thing I couldn’t stand, the one thing that made me feel like I was watching a different show than the one the producers were making. It’s also one thing that the finale could have done a better job of establishing, given how Robin’s point-of-view is entirely marginalized, such that we have no sense of where she is emotionally when Ted makes his grand gesture. Perhaps that was by design, or perhaps it was just a case of not knowing exactly how to justify a coupling that the story had been steering away from on the surface while steering toward it behind-the-scenes.
I’ve always been a strong proponent that disliking a finale shouldn’t take away the enjoyment one gained from earlier episodes, and I stand by this even in a case where one could argue this is very possible. By promising an answer to its eponymous question, How I Met Your Mother created a contingency on which viewers could look back and rewrite their time spent investing in guest star girlfriends. It’s true that everything that happened between the blue French horns was all an exercise in circular storytelling. It’s also true that the finale’s accelerated timeline meant that entire seasons worth of development were erased in the span of ten minutes, exaggerating the sense that the show had been wasting time exploring Barney and Robin’s relationship the way it did.
However, as much as I truly did hate “Last Forever” and what it does to the overall arc of the series, I’ve long ago come to terms with this response to How I Met Your Mother. The series threw away Stella like yesterday’s garbage after investing considerable time with her, but I learned to accept it as inevitable and still adore the two-minute date in “Ten Sessions.” I had serious issues with how the show dealt with the Mother once she was revealed, but it didn’t take away from the thrill of seeing Ted retracing his steps to Guided by Voices’ “Glad Girls” in “Right Place, Right Time.” As much as I found Barney’s relationship with Robin difficult to accept, and never quite bought the degree to which Barney’s grand subterfuge resolved its complications, that moment still represents something I admire about the series and its storytelling.
How I Met Your Mother ends with one of those moments. But whereas in the past I’ve been won over by moments in spite of the whole, here I am—marginally—won over by the whole—the series, in this instance—in spite of the moment. The Walkmen’s “Heaven” is exactly the kind of song the show has had success with in the past (and I’ve been listening to it on repeat as I’ve written this review). The tie back to the blue French horn is the sort of callback that reflects the audience’s long-term connection to these characters and storylines. The script is precisely what it’s supposed to be, except it’s in service of an ending that I hate, built around an idea that I cannot help but reject in every way, and built around a choice that I believe was a mistake.
Nothing about that will dramatically change how I feel about the rest of the series; at the same time, nothing about the rest of the series will change how much I hated the finale.
- It’s fitting that they would include one last mystery—the identity of the mother of Barney’s daughter—that they’ll never solve, in honor of the various threads they took forever to bother closing.
- That said, they tried too hard to fit an entire arc for Barney into an episode that wasn’t really about him—after spending nine seasons refusing to change the character out of fear of losing his comic presence, to basically admit that Barney would never change before having become a father change him felt way too convenient.
- Open question: what was with the obnoxiously on-the-nose train station lady? It was a small part of the episode, I know, but the writing there was way too self-aware for its own good, and the broad performance wasn’t helping.
- I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the ludicrous image of Robin floating away into the great beyond, but I do wish we could go back to that moment when Ted was finally letting her go, you know?