December 14th, 2009
There are many shows that, in later seasons, like to do a bit of revisionist history in order to create new storylines. The Office keeps introducing new traditions even though the documentary camera crew should have logically spotted them years earlier (an observation I saw on Twitter last week, although I forget who made it), which is a necessary stretch but one that has no easy “out” for the show.
However, How I Met Your Mother has an easy excuse: because the show takes the form of Future Ted telling stories to his kids, there are logically parts of these characters’ pasts that he wouldn’t tell them out of fear of revealing too much about his past. Accordingly, it makes perfect sense that Ted wouldn’t reveal to his kids that he and the gang are occasional recreational smokers, and that he would wait this long into the series’ narrative to tell a story about how everyone’s smoking habits came together.
The problem with episodes like “Last Cigarette Ever” is that the show needs to either be in a natural place for this story to concur or construct a story that justifies the sudden introduction. And while it isn’t perfect for every character, the show finds enough of a heart in Robin’s journey and enough of a future-forward conclusion to make the story a charming chapter in a larger story as opposed to a single episode of a television series.
Of the people with reasons to smoke, it makes sense that it would be Robin who is at the heart of this narrative. She’s always been considered a bit of a slob, she’s currently working a dead end, dead of the morning job, and she’s currently single, so the reasons for her not to smoke are non-existent (ignoring the whole “disgusting habit” thing, which as a non-smoker is sort of paramount but let’s go with it). And so the episode works best when it focuses on Robin, the “initial” smoker who unearths this behaviour, because she has reason to need the release of a cigarette to get her through the day (or, the night, if we’re being specific).
And while Marshall’s old boss reappearing wasn’t a terrible storyline (noting the social situations in which smoking becomes desirable), and Lily taking on the voice of Harvey Fierstein was a simple gag that didn’t feel overplayed, and having Ted and Barney join in helped bring the storyline together in the end, it really lived or died on Robin’s conversation with Don Frank. Don is someone who has accepted that he’s going to be in these dead end jobs, and has embraced the job if not the concept of wearing pants. And Robin resents him because she’s actually trying, because she’s doing everything she can to make the show legitimate and discovering that the process is futile (not entirely like announcing that this is your “last cigarette ever”). And when Robin realizes that she has friends watching, and that they are rooting for her, she resists heading down Don’s path, refusing to accept defeat.
Of course, like with the constant attempts to quit smoking, it’s never that simple: HIMYM may be an inherently romantic show, but it doesn’t depict a consistently romantic universe, so Robin’s determination isn’t going to suddenly turn her little cable morning show into the ergonomic network news Don speaks of, just the same as that sunrise “Last Cigarette Ever” wasn’t actually the last cigarette that all of them would have. However, HIMYM’s charm is that even if the stories it tells all fall apart before reaching that romantic moment, there is always the sense that some day Ted is going to find the mother, and that some day Robin is going to find her path in life, and that some day Barney might become a real human being (although all signs to that having to be in our imaginations considering the show’s resistance to altering the character).
And so rather than standing alone as a single story, the ending purposefully connects this event to other events in their lives, informing us that Don and Robin will be dating in three months’ time, and that Marshall and Lily will be having a baby boy at some time in the future, and that Ted will quit smoking two weeks after he meets the Mother. And while it may seem like a simple gesture, throwing out indeterminate dates in the future reminds us that this is part of a larger story, and that even if we never specifically focus on this element of the series again it will still in some way be a part of their lives. The episode did not make any huge revelations about the identity of the Mother or anything else, but it was a nice reminder that even in small episodes like this one we are seeing the groundwork for a romantic future that we may never entirely get to see.
The half-hour didn’t provide anything substantial, and some of the jokes (like the McRib runner) felt flat, but as far as “filler” goes I thought it fit in nicely with the show’s overall tone and message.
- The shots of the kids threw me for a loop for some reason: they’re clearly not brand new, as David Henrie looks significantly different now than he did then, but either we haven’t seen them for a very long time (I vaguely remember the “What?”) or they’re from a separate session, as I don’t remember those outfits. It’s weird that something which is usually so static becomes so important, but we’re all waiting to see if we ever get a glimpse of whether they filmed some sort of “It’s the Mother!” reaction that paranoia sets in.
- Intriguing that last week that teenage Marshall was Segel dressed down, whereas this week it was some extremely puny kid. It helps make the joke easier, making it so they don’t need to pull a special effects budget to have Marshall punching himself, but it made for a strange bit of flashback discontinuity between back-to-back episodes.
- I wasn’t sure whether I would warm to Don Frank, as while Ben Koldyke is fine in the role it isn’t really anything special. However, I liked the character’s angle on his profession, and I think it could be an interesting relationship for Robin in the long run…even if I’m still bitter about Robin/Barney.
- And yes, ladies: Barney Stinson is ALWAYS pre-coital.
- My brother raised an important question: will we ever see the characters smoke again? And, if we don’t, does it matter? I don’t really know the answer to that one.