Spoilers for the series finale of How I Met Your Mother follow:
I do not want to dwell on all the things I hated about the How I Met Your Mother finale.
I do not want to dwell on how, as I wrote before, introducing the Mother — farewell, Tracy McConnell, how briefly we knew you! — then killing her off to pair Ted and Robin, would be and was a mistake. Not because HIMYM owed us a happy ending, or any particular ending, but because it made the entire series an elaborate fake-out, setting up an elaborate story that was not, in the end, what it purported to be about.
I do not want to dwell on how this finale — from all reports planned long ago — was essentially a failure in the confidence of HIMYM’s storytelling. Creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas clearly regarded the pilot’s ending twist, in which we learn Ted’s romantic interest is “Aunt Robin,” was a problem to be solved, or fixed. This ending screamed lack of confidence that the show could change, that the audience could come to accept anyone but Ted and Robin together in the end.
I do not want to dwell on how, therefore, this ending was a powerful argument that — criticisms of finales like Lost’s notwithstanding — it is not necessarily the ideal thing to “have it all planned out from the beginning.” Not if that plan is so rigid and locked-in — say, with lines of ending dialogue recorded years in advance — that they can’t allow for organic growth and surprise. Stories change over nine years, characters do, people do. And people did over the course of HIMYM — only to be wrenched back over the course of an hour, because that was the Plan. That show you followed since 2005, it turns out, was the longest retcon in the history of retcons.
I do not want to dwell on how, even if you accept the long-telegraphed ending twist, this was just a clumsy, emotionally disjointed hour. It did, befitting the show, take a narrative risk, cramming decades of story into 60 minutes. And a lot of it worked, powerfully: Barney melting as he looked into his daughter’s eyes, Ted and Tracy realizing their fate on that train platform. But in a rush to change and rechange the characters, nothing had the chance to land.
I do not want to dwell on how Barney matured, became a jackass again, then rematured (but we never had time to learn anything about his baby mama). I do not want to dwell on how we had, by my rough guess, about 45 seconds to learn Tracy’s name, see her meet Ted, mourn her, and get the hell over her so the kids could laugh it off and tell their dad to get out there again so we could return to Status Quo 2005. (For the audience, it was How I Met, Then Quickly Moved Past Because Remember She Was Not the Original Love Interest, Your Mother.) I do not want to dwell on how it all ended with a surprisingly unmoving reunion, some clumsy editing of Future Ted and the kids, and wigs.
I suppose by this point I have dwelled on the things I hated. Sorry.
But it’s because what I loved about the show came before it.
If the HIMYM finale ate it big, it did at least, fittingly, aim big. The show premiered in September 2005, back when we were seeing the first of many dramas that would try to emulate the nonlinear, time-jumping trickery of Lost. As it turned out, strangely enough, HIMYM, a romantic comedy, was easily the most successful of Lost’s spiritual heirs — beginning with a mystery, jumping around in time, relying on the viewer to pay close attention.
It succeeded where so many dramas failed, maybe, because it wasn’t about the tricks. All the narrative dancing was in service of showing who its central characters were and would come to be. The philosophy of HIMYM was: if you want to know the story of who a person really is, you’d better sit down, because it’s going to take a while.
The same structure that made HIMYM so much fun and so emotionally absorbing for so many years, though, meant it was placing a gigantic up-front bet on its final episode. It’s hard to argue that it’s all about the journey when the destination is right there in the title.
And you know what? Intellectually, maybe that destination did make sense. Couples do divorce. (It makes sense — maybe the most sense of anything in this finale — that Robin was actually not necessarily in a place to get married to anyone, and that she could be perfectly happy with her career. Part of me hopes that she and Ted date but never move in or marry.) People take years to find themselves, people drift apart and come back together, people die too soon. A great series could tell those stories and lay out those complicated, hard truths. The problem is, that is not the series that How I Met Your Mother was for the previous nine years. It was just the series it tried to force itself to be for its last hour.
The series that it was, though, was and remains pretty great. (Mostly. It fell off toward the later seasons, and it turns out the last year was largely a stalling exercise.) And much of that, fortunately, was still here. The chemistry between Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan was still delightful (and she was a sport dressed up like the sperm scene from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex). Cobie Smulders was spirited to the end, Neil Patrick Harris got to show genuine dramatic chops, and damn if Josh Radnor and Cristin Milioti didn’t throw off sparks.
The finale may have blown my night, but it won’t spoil my enjoyment of HIMYM retroactively. Because — to me, subjectively — the search for the Mother was not really what this story was about. It was the title, yes, the hook, but it was the shaggy-dog story that got us from there to here. If that superstory mattered much more to you than it did to me, of course, that’s totally legitimate — and maybe to you this was the perfect resolution, or something that destroyed the show entirely and forever. Me, I’ll be mad at this finale for a while, but in the end, it was a bad hour of TV, at the end of many, many good half hours of TV.
I’m going to remember it, in other words, in the way HIMYM wanted us to believe that Ted remembered Tracy. Sometimes something you love dies terribly, and you move on. And you just have to remember everything that you loved for as long as you could.