C: What with good shows getting abruptly canceled and once-good shows outliving their watchability, it’s not often I see the preplanned finale of a series I’m invested in. And in fact, I almost gave up on How I Met Your Mother at the end of last year (we can agree, I think, that Season 8 was pretty dismal), but I hung on because I was curious about The Mother. Yes, that ploy got me. And while the premise of Season 9 — the whole season taking place over Barney & Robin’s wedding weekend — should have been terrible, there have actually been some great episodes, especially those featuring the funny and delightful Cristin Milioti. Oh, and let’s not forget Billy Zabka. The gang lacked fizz with Marshall on a too-long road trip, but once Jason Segel was back in the mix, we got some scenes as good as anything in the earlier, classic seasons. I had no fears about the finale.
As it turns out, that confidence was a mistake.
Since this ending made so many people unhappy, it won’t be long before some critic calls it “brave” or “innovative” or perhaps “daringly realistic.” But while I’d love to give the writers credit for artistic courage, the sad truth is, it was just bad. To see why, let’s talk about genre for a moment. We don’t look for a sad ending in a comedy, and you know what? We shouldn’t feel like there’s the smallest betrayal of artistic integrity in that. We don’t look for a purely believable plot in a Shakespeare play, or photo-realism in a Monet painting. Instead, we look for an aspect of reality, heightened to make it stand out. Comedies show us how significant joys can outweigh the many difficulties of life. Tragedies show how significant losses can overshadow the many pleasures of life. Both hold an element of realism because our real lives encompass both.
Satisfying fans here was a ridiculously low bar to vault: just spend the episode at the reception, where you revive a few running gags, include at least one tear-jerking moment, maybe throw in a goat or a pineapple, have a few hijinks delay Ted and Tracy’s meeting till the end of the hour, and close with Bob Saget intoning: “…and that, kids, is how I met your mother.” An easy ending, perhaps — but only because it was the payoff the actors and writers spent nine years earning. The finale they filmed instead didn’t just betray its fans’ expectations by turning a comedy into a tragedy; it slapped them in the face by undermining the entire previous series in a single hour, ladling on the tragedy, and then plopping an unsatisfying, poorly conceived “happy ending” on top.
Although “Last Forever” seems widely despised, there’s debate about what exactly makes this ending so darn unsatisfying (mostly in the form of: “I’m okay with X, but Y is just unforgivable”). So I thought I’d go through our five key characters separately, and talk about why this ending should henceforth be taught in writing-for-television courses as an impressively complete failure, on all fronts.
Lily & Marshall
Stories that don’t end with death have to pick some point at which to artificially cut things short. The series begins with these two getting engaged, so while ending with them about to have two kids and a year in Italy would have been good, it seems equally good to end by giving Marvin and Daisy a third sibling and giving Marshall his dream of becoming a judge. However, the finale chooses to dwell instead on Marshall’s misery as a corporate lawyer in the years before receiving the judgeship, and Lily’s misery as a woman whose circle of friends has fallen apart. (Her best friend Robin apparently can’t even be bothered to Facetime with her.) Lily and Marshall are shown as moving on in their family/professional lives, but in social terms they’re firmly stuck in the past, still trying to live the lives they did in their twenties, even though it’s patently impossible.
This is a bad ending for these two because, simply put, they’re better than that. In a show with no truly mature characters, Lily and Marshall have always been, by comparison, the mature ones. Accepting a new phase in life isn’t easy, but learning to accept the hard stuff together has been a major strength of their relationship throughout the series, especially in some of its most powerful moments. Lily and Marshall would always love and miss the gang, but they would move on.
Lily’s abandonment by Robin feels like a betrayal, too, of the emotional resolution of the episode “Glitter.” Yeah, remember how Lily feared Robin was freezing her out because of the baby — but really she was just afraid of being frozen out herself? Scratch that — Robin doesn’t like people with babies after all.
If there was one major misstep in the final season, it was the tiresome “Robin’s locket” plotline, which simultaneously asked us to believe that the woman who until recently reacted with horror to the very idea of marriage had really buried a locket in Central Park for her future wedding (“yeah, sixteen ‘no’s to that, writers” was my thought at the time) and tried to revive interest in the desiccated corpse of Ted’s supposed lingering feelings for Robin (“hey, writers: dead horse. stop beating.”). I thought it was all worthwhile, though, for the really nice resolution in the penultimate episode, “The End of the Aisle”: Ted realizes he’s truly moved on, and Robin realizes she can’t use Ted as a fallback plan and that Barney has, against all odds, grown into a promising marriage partner.
Then in the finale, all of this is jerked away. Robin becomes a plot point rather than a character: the love object who Ted gets simply because she’s the first girl we saw him want.
It sounds harsh, but Robin has never quite had the charm of the other characters on the show. I like her and find her compelling, but she’s been written very unevenly. Sometimes needy, sometimes independent; sometimes caring, sometimes selfish; sometimes witty, sometimes flaky; basically, Robin is whatever the plot needs her to be at the moment. (That ridiculous locket!) She is, if you will, the realistically inconsistent one in a room full of unrealistically consistent people, and since this is a comedy, that hasn’t always served her well.
Still, if you asked a fan to identify Robin’s key traits, they would probably rattle off a list something like this: unconventional, ambitious, tomboyish, funny, prickly, self-focused, independent, risqué. At the beginning of the show Robin seemed very confident, but over the years the writers systematically dismantled that to show deep insecurities. Her relationship with Ted was doomed in part because of their differences on important subjects (wanting to travel, wanting kids) and because he lacked her unconventional attitude and frankly, her dirty sense of humor, both of which she shared with Barney.
But Ted’s overly demonstrative, extravagant love was also shown to be bad for Robin, in the sense that it compensated for her insecurities instead of forcing her to deal with them. We see this in “The End of the Aisle,” when Robin asks Ted to run away with her — not because she’s realized she loves him, but because she thinks she ought to be with the man who will “do anything for her.” Her return to Barney represents a return to reciprocity. And despite her (understandable!) last-minute reservations about marrying Barney, throughout most of the last season we see a far more confident, happy Robin than we’ve seen in years. You only have to watch the scene in “The Wildcard” where the pair fear they might be cousins to appreciate how well these two play off of each other.
But after spending years asking us to care, and then not care, and then to commit fully to Barney and Robin as an item, the writers flush all that down the toilet in the first ten minutes of the finale. Somehow we are supposed to accept that the things which made Barney and Robin right, and Ted and Robin wrong — her desire to travel and advance in her career, her inability to bend her dreams around a partner’s neediness — cause the knot the show took a season to tie to quickly unravel. No effort, no fight; they just give up, and the best reason we get is that Barney can’t stand Robin traveling a lot (really?) and dislikes traveling with her (really really?).
Then, a few years later, we learn that Robin has dropped out of everyone’s lives and, in her brief appearance at Lily & Marshall’s last apartment party, the writers try to foreshadow the ending they’ve imposed on us by having Robin audibly regret not choosing the man who would do anything for her: Ted. At this point my head is spinning fast enough to warrant exorcism. Did Thomas and Bays not see “The End of the Aisle”? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure they wrote it…
But if the erasure of all Robin’s character development is frustrating, what the writers did to Barney is just criminal.
Now, of the few positive comments I’ve heard regarding aspects of the finale, the one scene that’s gotten multiple glowing reviews is the moment where Barney holds his baby daughter for the first time and commits his life to her.
I’m not going to try to convince you that this isn’t a great scene. However, that’s because Neil Patrick Harris knocked it out of the park, acting-wise. He’s always been great at selling the rare genuine moments the writers give to Barney, and being a relatively new dad himself probably doesn’t hurt. Let’s take the scene in context, though. To get to this moment, you have to erase all the slow, halting changes Barney has made over the last five years or so. To get to this moment, you have to imagine Barney choosing to let Robin go, rewriting his playbook, and going for a “perfect month” instead of writing a new version of “The Robin” to get her back. To get to this moment, you have to do something truly awful: you have to re-break Barney.
In episode 15 of the last season, “Unpause,” there’s a hilarious scene where Ted and Robin discover a further stage beyond what they thought was the most extreme form of Barney’s drunkenness (where he talks like Jabba the Hutt): the truth-telling stage. Under the influence of 35-year Glen McKenna acting like a truth serum, Barney gives what is probably the most touching confession of the entire series, and he delivers it with his eyes crossed.
“But never mind that,” say Thomas and Bays. “Look, we’ll give him a baby. You’ll like our ending now, right?”
If nothing else about this crappy finale had made me cry, that would.
Also, what does this charming scene with the baby lead to? We have no clue what Barney’s role in his daughter’s life looks like. He refers to her mother as Number 31. The only payoff is the tired sitcom cliché that the womanizer becomes the most protective father. Instead of treating women like objects of his lust, he “hilariously” starts treating them as objects of other men’s lust, and shouts at them to go home and put more clothes on.
Basically, this ending says that Barney is the comic relief buddy character and always will be, world without end, amen. His growth, his emotional moments with his father and James and Robin, his rounding out as a human being, simply do not matter in a story that is suddenly only about Ted.
Ted (and Tracy)
Everything I’ve said above also reflects on why this ending is terrible, above all, for Ted. I’ve heard the series described as a “long con.” I’ve read that what happened that final Monday night was decided on in season two, with the speculation that Thomas and Bays were so taken with their own cleverness, they couldn’t bear to give it up in favor of the ending viewers wanted and they, themselves, had led up to over nine years. I’ve even read comments from viewers saying they could have handled Tracy’s death — just not this all being about Ted and Robin. Which I understand. Because EVERYBODY was over Ted and Robin.
I think the reason people feel this way is that usually Thomas and Bays are pretty good at their job. And since Robin and Ted broke up at the end of season two, they’ve been treating it like their job to get us over them.
If the great central mystery of How I Met Your Mother appeared to be the identity of the Mother, then the great central mystery of the finale is why the writers did no work at all to lead up to it. We know from the Ted’s kids’ reaction shots that this ending had been planned from pretty much the start. Yet the final episode plays like they just thought of this. These are the people who teased out the slap bet brilliantly across eight seasons. I’m pretty sure they could have made us want this ending, if they’d tried.
The entire final season, minus “Last Forever,” seems to have three goals: 1) Get us to like Tracy and show how perfect she is for Ted; 2) Resolve any concerns we might have had about Barney and Robin as a couple; and 3) Sell us on the idea that Ted is finally over Robin. Guess what? 3 for 3! You succeeded, writers! So why was your next move to say “HA! GOTCHA!”?
But of all the many ways in which this ending stinks, writing out Tracy and treating her like nothing more than a red herring, after she breathed life into the series and gave it a new source of comedy and palpable interest, is probably the most obnoxious. Some people have said she was a little too perfect. It’s true that Ted’s major love interests have always been idealized when first introduced. But viewers could predict that she’d reveal some flaws and their romance would hit bumps along the way. The only way to make her too perfect was to vaccuum-seal her, prevent the audience from even imagining future development — by killing her off.
I began this post by talking about comedy and tragedy. It’s probably worth saying that I think the best fiction should surprise you. Whether it works or not, though, depends on the quality of the surprise.
I mean that in two senses. Quality — an attribute or trait. Surprises work the best when they seem knit from the same material as the whole work. It’s the difference between when the music of a symphony suddenly swells from a murmur to a tempest, and when a heavy vase suddenly falls on the piano keyboard as it’s being played. This was a vase-dropper — out of tune with everything that came before.
And then there’s quality — degree of excellence. Good art contains ambiguity and rewards deeper attention. Some people might object to me applying this standard to a sitcom, but don’t ever let anybody tell you that making people laugh for twenty straight minutes on a weekly basis, while simultaneously making them feel things, is easy. And anything that takes that level of skill does reward deeper attention. The skill that went into making HIMYM fun for nine years, and great for several of those years, lies in the acting but also in the complexity and cleverness of the writing. This ending shows no internal logic and no cleverness. Worst of all, it wasn’t funny.
I could have done without an excellent finale, because the cast and crew did so much good work in getting us there. But the terrible surprise of this finale is that it devalues everything that came before it. It treats the fans like suckers for buying what the show was selling.