In hindsight, I’m still not sure whether I would have been impossible to please with this episode or not. It’s the last of 216 episodes of a show I really care about, and while I came to it late, it’s still a three-year investment. On the other hand, as I said in the previous post, the ninth season had already ticked all the boxes for me. It left the characters in satisfying places. The Mother was wonderful. It seemed almost impossible for them to actually fuck it up.
Almost impossible, obviously. Because they really did. I should know better than to become a screaming fanboy as I bear down on my 21st birthday but Jesus fuck did they blow it.
The dominant theory I’ve read is that for whatever reason, the writers felt hemmed in by their original vision for the show, where Ted ended up with Robin despite the “That’s how I met your Aunt Robin” line at the end of the pilot. Alan Sepinwall has a plausible, if infuriating, account in his delightfully angry review:
They had a plan. They were going to stick to that plan. They would take the title literally, introduce the Mother at the very end, then kill her off to clear the way for the Ted/Robin coupling everyone really wanted.
I’m going to stick with the “how” of their fucking it up completely for a second, and then circle back round to the “why” and the “what if”.
Remember how I said everything was resolved and satisfied for all the characters except Ted, although we knew him and the Mother were wonderful together, so all I needed was a double episode of him and the Mother being cute and happy?
Fine, you can’t always get what you want. If they had wanted to commit to killing the Mother off, then fine, that’s a bittersweet ending, and I’ll allow it for having produced The Time Travellers episode.
However, do you remember how I also said that Barney’s development was the most satisfying character work the show has ever done, and how nice it was to have him get a fully earned resolution and happy ending in “End of the Aisle”?
Replacing all the cute happy fuzzy stuff I wanted with a 35-minute rollback of all said development and a five-minute condensed retread? No. Obviously, Barney and his daughter was absolutely beautiful and NPH killed it. Obviously, any rewrite I make up to soothe the pain has to include that moment because it was fucking wonderful. Daddy’s home indeed.
Even if it wasn’t such a travesty of a decision on its own merits, the fact that they had to go over so much ground with Barney to get him basically back to where he was at the start of the episode left them with about twenty minutes for all the rest. You know, the How I Met Your fucking Mother bit. I’m not one of those people who spent the whole series complaining that “lol has he still not met the mother wtf” because brain cells and stuff*. This, again, could have been OK. Over the years, Barney had seemed almost a co-lead character with Ted, so if they felt like dedicating more of the finale to him, then fine. That left enough time for Ted to meet the mother and have plenty of cute little moments going forward.
What it didn’t leave time for, unfortunately, was a bleak little vignette on how friends grow apart, how loved ones die, and how later in life, if pursuing your career has made you a lonely tragedy of a woman** you can always just end up with someone you had repeatedly decided wasn’t right for you.
I’ve seen lots of people point out that this isn’t an unrealistic or outrageous conclusion, and I think they’re sort of right. Just because the Mother was “the one”, doesn’t mean there would be no other “one”. Just because the Barney-Robin marriage seemed perfect, doesn’t mean it was perfect for ever. People do die, and it is sad. This is all very true. Unfortunately, this episode didn’t do enough to make this work.
Tonally, it was strange. So fucking bleak. It might have been the time of day, or my general mood, but the last two episodes felt bleak and depressing in a way that doesn’t really gel with what HIMYM usually is. Obviously, it’s dipped into moving, borderline maudlin territory before – including with Robin’s infertility discovery and acceptance of no kids in “Symphony of Illumination”. But this felt like something else entirely.
Structurally, it was a fucking disaster, which is particularly bad for a series which has always been so masterful with its structure. We didn’t see the mother’s funeral, her gravestone, nothing. The kids tell us six years have passed in between her death and the story being told, so there’s obviously been an appropriate process of grieving or whatever, but for the audience, the whiplash of:
“she got sick and died” 😦
“yo dad we know why you’re telling us all this, go ask out Aunt Robin” 😀
“yeah lol why not” 😀
Was baffling. We’ve seen two scenes of Ted being sad about the Mother dying – one was in Season Eight, and one was three episodes ago. Honestly, I wasn’t keen on them killing the mother, but I’m sure they could have pulled off a moving look at what it would mean for Ted to lose the One and made it satisfying. If they had fucking tried. My sister pointed out that we didn’t even see the group reacting to her death, when they had been friends for eleven years. She was dismissed so cheaply.
To be honest, I’m not sure if the committed auteur vision Sepinwall proposes is more or less irritating – the idea that they decided to write themselves out of the corner as a challenge (read his review for the actual argument). OULIPO, 22’2s – these are valid instances of constraints producing improved art. This? Todd VanDerWerff suggests that fundamentally, they weren’t good enough to rise to the challenge:
The ultimate takeaway from the final season is that series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas were at once too good and not good enough to tell the story they ultimately wanted to tell.
As annoying an explanation as it is, I don’t really see another. The notion that they would rather fuck everything up than sacrifice 60 seconds of footage of Lyndsey Fonseca and the other kid looking the right age*** is almost too implausible.
The only other explanation would be some sort of network pressure, or maybe demonic possession? Because the last episodes of the season and the season leading up to it seem fundamentally at odds. You could probably argue convincingly for either of them representing the true spirit of the series as a whole, but a 22-episode dissection of why Ted and Robin aren’t meant to be, why the Mother and Ted are perfect for each other and have totally earned this happiness and a 40-minute look at how life carries on after the “end” and that’s OK and happiness and love are still worthwhile even if short-lived are both valid things, but they’re different things.
The ending we got was not what the season had set up. I would rather they fixed the ending, but I’d be intrigued by an alternative season nine that actually took the time to make all of the developments they placed in the finale work and feel earned. It’d be a bit of a dark turn, but I’m convinced they could make it bittersweet and nice even if the mother had died halfway through the season. Hell, they could even have sold me on Robin/Ted again if they hadn’t just spent 22 episodes shooing that possibility away.
As it stands, though, I’m currently watching season nine again and all I can think when I see the Mother being great, I see Ted trying to let Robin go, Barney and Robin trying to make it work, is that it’s all in vain, because it’ll be undone in the space of forty minutes.
When I remember the real Scrubs finale****, all I really remember is the two beautiful scenes that tie up JD’s character arcs beautifully. When I remember the Frasier finale, all I really remember is the beautiful transition from Frasier saying his goodbyes to his family and friends to him saying goodbye, in essence, to the show.
Now, when I remember the HIMYM finale, all I’ll remember is those few minutes of horror as they crowbarred their preferred resolution into being. And that’s a damn shame.
Reading List, because old habits die hard
At the AVClub, Donna Bowman has been doing the weekly recaps for HIMYM since the start. Her review of the finale is more positive. She also wrote a nice retrospective the day before it dropped. Meanwhile, Editor Todd VanDerWerff has a couple of good pieces that acknowledge the horror while trying to understand what led to them.
Alan Sepinwall provides the afore-mentioned account of what led the writers to fuck it up, but still gives a no-holds barred beatdown to the episode and it’s delightful to read.
Other good reviews: Jezebel, NPR, Time.
*it also helps that I came to it during the sixth season and caught up. I concede that if I had been watching since 2005 I may have grown more impatient.
**great politics there, HIMYM
***which Sepinwall skewers perfectly:
Which led to the most awkward interaction of past and present footage since Tony Soprano’s final conversation with his mother.
****ie: disregarding the season with James Franco’s annoying brother. Also, this is a rhetorical device more than anything. I have watched that episode so many times that I’m not far off being able to list the main narrative beats it hits. Still, the point stands, if less elegantly – I have no desire to watch “Last Forever” again.
PS: Wanted to preserve the neat ending, but I feel like some of the successes of the finale have to be acknowledged, just not in the main body because that would add nuance to my rant. So; Father Barney was great, every single scene with Ted and the Mother together was great, Ted’s goodbyes were lovely, I really liked that they got a group shot of them in the booth to echo the finale, Lily’s white whale costume was ridiculous and great, “be cool lady, damn” was the best line, and that little photo-montage before the credits was really sweet, if horrifying. Though I’m not sure if I can really credit the show with that so much as the crushing passage of time and mortality.