March 8th, 2010
When How I Met Your Mother threw in the towel on Robin and Barney’s relationship earlier this season, I was angry.
The reasons I was so frustrated were, just to be clear, not simple. I was not just a “shipper” of the couple or someone who thought they should stay together forever, someone who responds negatively because the show doesn’t go in the direction I want it to. Rather, I was also annoyed that it felt like the show was abandoning a story which had untapped potential in order to return to its status quo, shallow Barney stories where he turns into a complete womanizer. I prefer Barney when he shows some sense of humanity, some shred of awareness of his own actions, and his relationship with Robin felt like it had the potential to bring that out more often.
For their relationship to end – according to interviews with the creators at the time – just so that the show could return to a more one-dimensional version of Barney’s character felt like it ignored the show’s emotional complexities, and it has in some ways tarnished the entire season for me. While Barney’s womanizing is still funny, it has seemed spiteful and at times even hurtful as the season has continued without giving the breakup time to settle in. Instead of laughing at Barney’s antics, I found myself focusing on Robin, and how she must be feeling to know that Barney is moving on so quickly. In some ways, it bothered me that the show was moving on so quickly, that it was so willing to turn its back on comic and dramatic potential for the sake of returning to something familiar that, let’s be honest, won’t remain fresh forever even with Neil Patrick Harris at his Emmy-nominated, should be Emmy-winning, best.
“Of Course” is effectively the show’s apology, where they admit that there were unseen consequences to Barney’s quick return to his normal self, and where they admit that there was unresolved tensions surrounding their breakup. So, as one of the most vocal critics of the way in which the pair were broken up and certainly the critic most unable to look past it as the season wore on, the question becomes whether this retconning was enough to convince me that the show made the right decision.
The answer to that question is “No,” even though “Of Course” is a damn fine episode of television.
At the time, it was clear that Bays and Thomas were basically burying the lede, as they knew that they were going to eventually deal with the question of Robin and Barney’s breakup but wanted to be able to get back to normal first. I get what they were going for in that, by waiting for months to do this episode as opposed to doing it immediately after their relationship, all of the situations become that much more serious: Robin’s sadness becomes a long-standing struggle, Barney’s aloofness becomes that much more damaging, and Marshall and Ted’s complicity becomes that much more douchey. By waiting, the emotions that drive this story to a fairly sentimental and emotional place are big and broad, resulting in an overpowering sense of remorse in all of the characters involved. And so, when Barney puts the pieces together and makes Robin’s dreams and wishes come true in a way, it’s that much more powerful.
But as strong as those moments were from both Cobie Smulders and Neil Patrick Harris, and as happy as I was that the episode avoided reverting Barney back to his normal self at the end of the episode, it’s a really big cheat. I don’t care if the show is retconning things, because I don’t think they are: there were various moments where Robin showed that she was uncomfortable with Barney’s behaviour, so we could see the pain she was going through, if not to the degree that we saw it here. My concern is that by making things so broad, by literally throwing it in Barney’s face, it makes it far too easy: of course Barney, faced with months of mistreatment, will come through in the end, as anything else would turn him into an irrepairable douchebag. My issue is that I don’t understand why Barney wouldn’t have realized this sooner, why the character isn’t capable of being nuanced enough to figure out how terrible he was being before months of poor behaviour are served to him on a silver platter. I still believe that the Barney we know wouldn’t have been blind for this long to the real subtleties of this situation, and to wait this long makes it easier to let Barney be emotional and caring but then revert back to normal next week, satisfied that Barney’s kindness only emerges when faced with months of absolute disregard for Robin’s feelings.
The episode was really well designed to bring the story to the point where it should go, there’s no question about this. Jennifer Lopez was charming and funny in her guest role as Anita, the author of “Of Course You’re Still Single, Take a Look At Yourself, You Dumb Slut” and a believer in the power of “No,” while I enjoyed how Barney’s apology to Robin came with both a super date for her and Don (Ben Koldyke) and in his refusal to sleep with Anita. And I enjoyed Ted’s “Super Date” song with the revolving green screen technique, as well as Marshall’s obsession over how awesome Dale was, and the fact that the Cameraman Robin had on the hook in last week’s episode gets hooked by Anita in this week’s.
And when we got to that moment of Barney confronting Robin at the gun range, it worked perfectly: Barney was apologetic and understanding, Robin was emotional and honest, and the laugh track cut out so that even when Barney said something that likely resulted in some laughter (like that he makes a far worse ex-boyfriend than boyfriend) it was played for poignancy rather than humour. But, despite how strong the episode was on that front, complete with Barney’s surprise vomiting into his stormtrooper helmet to break the tension up a bit, I couldn’t help but remember that in order to create that scene, the show became compromised, the audience asked to laugh at Barney’s actions without considering their impact on Robin in an explicit fashion.
While I think that the episode sort of dances around the idea of retroactive continuity, where previous events are rewritten, in terms of Marshall, Ted and Barney realizing the signs they had missed in the past, I think what they’re asking of an audience member like myself is very different. They’re looking to retroactively change my reaction to previous episodes, to rewrite my feelings about particularly stories in an effort to make it seem like it was all worthwhile. The episode demonstrates that there is some strong comic and dramatic potential in their breakup, and perhaps eliminates any concerns that the couple should have never been broken up at all, but it fails to convince me that their relationship needed to end when, or how, it did, and reveals that it was easier, not necessarily better, for them to wait this long at providing the emotional resolution I’ve been waiting for since the fall.
As such, it’s a pretty great episode of How I Met Your Mother, but not an episode which makes me any more disappointed in how this storyline was bungled in the past. My hope is that now they will be able to move on, able to look past a somewhat tarnished period in the show’s history and get back to doing what they do best, this time without that being at the expense of other characters on the show.
- Not entirely sure that the “Jumping in the River” bookends were all that necessary: I get that it goes into the storytelling form of the show and all, but it seemed like Barney could have done something other than jump in the river, and I was so focused on the dramatic importance of the episode to bother getting caught up in the mystery of how he ended up in the Hudson.
- Barney dropping a Phantom Menace joke (about, we presume, dropping something else into the stormtrooper helmet) was a fun little bit, a bit of geek humour that fits nicely with Barney’s character and his passions. That said, Marshall’s “I still sort of hate the Empire” was better.
- Was kind of hoping that Robin was going to end up at the Hoser Hut instead of the gun range, but the earlier mention of the range in terms of her mourning period made it a fairly easy call.
- It’s important to note that the show really benefits from the lack of “live” laughter: I personally laughed at Barney’s line about boyfriend/ex-boyfriend, and the audience would have to, but instead of hearing (and being influenced by) a similar “Heh, awww” reaction from the audience we got to have our own at a personal level. I think the laugh track has a place on the show, but the producers know where that place is, and aren’t afraid to leave it out when it works better without it. It’s a nice compromise that really sells scenes like that well.
- I really liked the coda, as Robin returns from her super date to be coy about her time with Don right up until she decided to teach Barney a lesson by singing Marshall’s “Bang Bang” song complete with Marshall on Banjo. It sets up Barney and Robin as something similar to Ted and Robin, people who can still be friends while being exes, so long as they find mutual ground. Barney and Robin are very similar characters in a lot of ways, and I hope the show taps into that, friendship wise, as the show continues.