May 18th, 2009
“The trouble doesn’t seem so troubling”
As I was taking a look at a really enjoyable spec script for How I Met Your Mother last night, I was forced to consider the question of whether or not the show’s defining characteristics are necessary components of its success. The show is known, at this point, for its time-bending narratives, ridiculous life theories, and its continuity in regards to both tiny throwaway jokes and the eponymous question of the Mother’s identity, but are those qualities necessary to create a good episode of the series or, in the case of “The Leap,” a fitting season finale?
In many ways, “The Leap” isn’t an episode that relies heavily on HIMYM’s signature story-telling methods, but they’re all present in a way: it features some narrative shuffling designed to assist the dramatic end of its storyline, it uses the show’s own continuity to create another life theory, and the continuity of the four-legged farm animal mistakenly inserted into Ted’s Birthday last year makes an appearance. But, outside of a brief mention at episode’s end that promises yet again that we are closer than ever before to the identity of the Mother, the episode was not about Ted’s love life.
The result is, without question, a stronger finale than last season: Ted’s relationship with Stella was an element of the series that never quite worked, and I was worried a few weeks ago that it was going to rear its ugly head for the finale, creating drama where drama was not necessary. Instead, Ted ends up facing his dramatic arc of the season with a lady of another species, and the drama comes from the right place and, more importantly, at the right pace considering what has come before it. Combine with the return of Lily, and Marshall being Marshall, and this felt like vintage HIMYM without feeling as if they were relying too heavily on those broader signifiers.
They weren’t exactly stepping out on a ledge and leaping across a metaphorical alleyway with revolutionary plotting, but in many ways the finale felt more grounded as a result.
Ted Mosby being reduced to one of the gang’s life techniques is, perhaps, fitting: for the most part, the show has either two choices with Ted, so they can either depict him as an earnest and romantic guy or they can make fun of him for being so earnest and romantic. Since he can too often fall into douchebag territory (which isn’t a criticism, I think it can be funny), it’s important that the writers place him in the right light in an episode like this one where his struggle to design a restaurant shaped like a cowboy hat overcomes him to the point of sleep deprivation.
For the most part, they succeeded: he isn’t doing this for selfish reasons, but is devoting himself to a ridiculous project we presumed was just a one-off joke when we first saw it, and he treats it as a serious project. At this point, we realize and understand that Ted is at a point where this project is his last real chance, and the opening narration set up well the level to which he needs a big project to cement his own sense of self-identity. Yes, that’s a little bit grandiose for a Rib Town, but the point is that Ted’s tendency to exaggerate the importance of things has more weight when it’s not a dealbreaker in a relationship and is instead a pivotal moment in his career. Sure, he’s still overselling it a bit, but considering it is his livelihood I can more clearly empathize with Ted.
But then the show introduces the Goat, the one that we have been waiting for ever since last season, when Future Ted mistakenly told us thte story of the goat as if it was part of that year’s birthday, and not this year’s. This has been a huge part of the show’s continuity, and as a result is judged on two criteria: is the goat meaningful, and is the goat funny. The answer to both questions is yes, although let’s deal with the second one first: dude, he ELBOWED A GOAT IN THE HEAD. That entire sequence is something I’ll have to watch and rewatch over the next couple of days, as his sleep addled brain imagines an epic battle to the death as opposed to the simply tackle and hump he appears to have actually received. Regardless, topped off by the almost too obvious but still funny “Baa means Baa” from the orderly the storyline was funny enough to serve as the finale comic centerpiece.
And yet it still meant something for Ted – no, it wasn’t a pivotal moment in his life, but there was something refreshing about the Goat being the foil for Ted in an episode as opposed to a romantic interest or even one of his friends. Yes, the comparison between Ted and the Goat was pretty straightforward (Ted : Toils of Architecture :: Goat : Ratty Washcloth), but it actually does sort of ring true, and I was surprised how effective a metaphor that essentially called Ted as simple as a barnyard animal could be in that setting. The episode struck that nice balance between allowing Ted to be earnest and hopeful while, at the same time, showing the ways in which that earnestness was perhaps misplaced, and that there was another aveue where he could take it. He never became an outright douchebag, which would have been problematic for the finale, but when he eventually takes the metaphorical leap and becomes a professor, I bought it.
It was, of course, highly predictable: the second the option was raised in last week’s episode giant alarm bells rang, both because it offers a new form of comedy for the show and because it fits in with Ted’s superiority complex to be able to lord his knowledge and love of buildings over youth, while also taking pride in passing on his knowledge to a new generation. It’s an ideal format for Ted as a character, so it wasn’t any huge surprise. The fact that the Mother was, apparently, in that class, really doesn’t matter to me: I’ll just consider it sort of like the start of the 4th Season of House, where every student in the class could be the Mother but chances are it will be the big-named actress who Ausiello reports as signing on for a multi-episode arc. And then, of course, it will be revealed that she was a mid-term transfer, and she won’t appear until midseason anyways, if she even appears at all. I don’t expect straight answers from that, but as long as the storyline doesn’t dominante or take away from the comedy (as it did here, tucked away at the end without playing a major role) I remain curious but not obsessed with the answer.
Of course, the real heart of the finale was in the other side of the coin, where we finally got the culmination of Robin and Barney’s season long journey. I’ve been frustrated with this storyline for a while since the show seems to abandon it at the drop of a hat, never really allowing it to develop over a larger number of episodes out of fear of altering too greatly Barney’s character. I understand this concern, truly, but at the same time Neil Patrick Harris is so damn good that I don’t really know where the problem was. In “The Leap,” Barney is about to step onto that metaphorical ledge, all set to tell Robin exactly how he feels, gets Ted’s blessing…and then the show finds exactly the way to keep these characters from changing while also acknowledging their feelings.
Intelligently bringing in the narrative-bending perspectives that show us first Barney and then Robin’s prelude to the rooftop conversation, the show allows Barney to do what he’s always done: as soon as he hears that Robin is actually in love with him, he panics, reverts subconsciously to friend mode and even ruffles her hair a little. The show, of course, then shows us (through Lily and Marshall, who are really helpful for these kinds of storylines between two other group members) that Robin was only using Ted’s hapless strategy, The Mosby as Marshall dubs it, throwing out the L-word and the idea of commitment in order to scare Barney away so she could avoid facing her own feelings, subconscious as they are. In many ways the storyline was actually improved by the way the show has often not commented on their feelings: if we retcon every episode not involving their relationship into one where they are subconsciously avoiding it out of fear, then it’s a lot more consistent.
What really makes it work, though, is the inevitable scene when Robin and Barney have to face their feelings. I don’t think I would make this Neil Patrick Harris’ Emmy episode, if only because it didn’t really let him get into any broad comedy and his Murtaugh List run is far superior o that front, he was fantastic actually putting his feelings on the table, and Cobie Smulders (noticeably less pregnant since this episode was filmed out of order) was similarly strong in stating her own feelings, although neither of them directly. The way the conversation slowly devolved into Mosby after Mosby, and then eventually them making out and deciding they’d deal with it later, felt like the perfect way to offer a theoretical climax to the storyline without robbing it of future comic potential: these two characters are both too neurotic and ridiculous to have a normal relationship, and if their path is as funny and charming as that scene then the show is really going to benefit from it.
I also think that I need to at least somewhat apologize to Alyson Hannigan for my own subconscious thoughts for the past few weeks. To be honest, I never really missed Lily during the stretch where Hannigan’s pregnancy meant she was off fuming over Barney’s joke; yes, her character is funny and amusing, but it didn’t feel like the remaining four cast members were incapable of handling the show, especially since Robin has emerged from out of Ted’s shadow into a comic force in her own right. Even in the finale, take for example the scene with Marshall and Lily chatting with Robin – the best exchange there was Marshall’s “*Hand Motions* Eh,” regarding her supposed appearance and Robin’s subsequent frustration at the idea that she really wasn’t all that. Sure, Lily was there, but the scene could have worked without her, and I don’t know if it would have made a huge difference.
But, in the end, I’ve really missed the little things that Lily brings to the show: her anger at the idea of Marshall thinking she was pregnant, her inability to keep a secret finally solved with the Barney/Robin secret only to be shattered when she feels bad and has to tell Barney the secret about Robin knowing, her frantic attempt to inform Marshall that she was speaking of a metaphorical leap, and just her presence in general. She’s always been the wise one in the group, and I thought that her ability to “diagnose” Ted at the end was helpful to connect the dots in that storyline. No, I don’t think the show suffered greatly without her, but it was nonetheless nice to see a friendly face, and should she ever have another baby I won’t quite celebrate but I won’t be panicking either.
It’s really nice to have absolutely no concerns over CBS’ fall schedule: we know that How I Met Your Mother will be on it, we have a clear sense of where it is going in terms of its storylines, and we have two formerly pregnant leading ladies to look forward to when we get back (it’s going to be so much less distracting). While not quite as epic as some other finales, or taking quite a big of a leap as the final sequence (well shot and fitting if not revolutionary) of them leaping across to the patio with the hot tub seemed to indicate, “The Leap” felt like the right steps, executed in the right way, and coming at just the right time to assuage concerns over Stella’s return and offer us a nice season ender.
Plus HE ELBOWED A GOAT. DUDE.
- Barney’s elaborate suit metaphor with Robin came out of nowhere in a way, but it was both silly and clever: I loved his absolute ogling over “double breasted Canadian suit,” but I also loved the realization later that, duh, of course Robin would be listening considering that she lives in the apartment.
- Marshall’s standing on the edge waiting to jump was a really fun sight gag, well played by Jason Segel, but he definitely had the least to do in the finale: doesn’t matter, though, since his “okay okay okay” was in fine form, and he did get the great moment of briefly attempting to act as if he hadn’t known about Barney’s love for Robin despite Lily being the secret holder.
- I love the show’s continuity in all of its form, but the reveal of the Sven T-Rex Rib Town was just plain fantastic: quick, funnier for those obsessed with the show, and not dragged on longer than it needed to be.