From the moment the wonderful, audacious, cleverly unique pilot aired back in 2005, there was almost no chance How I Met Your Mother was going to be able to stick the landing.
The concept was bold. It was sitcom brushed with mystery. Friends with a touch of Twin Peaks. There would be lots of humor along the way even without the hideous, canned laugh track, but the heart of the series would be Ted Mosby’s attempt to meet the woman with whom he was destined to spend the rest of his life. We met womanizing Barney, couple-since-college Marshall and Lily, and fledgling TV reporter and charmingly Canadian (mined often for comedic gold, eh?) Robin. It was New York, it was a bar, it was a group of friends in their mid-to-late-20s figuring out who they are and what they want to be. It was slap bets and playbooks and wingmen and career changes and kids and failed relationships and, even once, being left at the altar.
It worked so well for three or four seasons, when the writing was crisp and it was about the journey rather than the destination. The casting was spot-on, taking established stars Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan, up-and-comer Jason Segel and virtual nobodies Cobie Smulders and Josh Radnor and turning their 22-minute exploits into something we wanted to be a part of.
But, as the show kept avoiding its own mortality and earning renewals, the characters never quite lived up to the actors portraying them. Barney wasn’t just a serial dater but a misogynistic dickhead. Robin was proudly independent and career-oriented to the point where she was unwilling to allow a man to be an equal part of her life. Marshall and Lily were the most real, but spent large chunks of seasons 4 through 8 as caricatures of their former selves. And with every neurotic, overbearing decision he made in each subsequent relationship, it became kind of obvious why Ted was still single.
The love triangle between Ted, Robin and Barney was one of HIMYM’s central arcs, but it became painfully clear that neither of those pairings would ever realistically come close to working. Robin didn’t, and as we later found out, couldn’t, have kids. Ted wanted a family. Barney wanted to be promiscuous and never settle down and continue to be a serial liar. Yet here we were, in one final, unnecessary season, an entire 22-episode structure dedicated to the 48 hours prior to Robin and Barney’s wedding.
I had checked our mentally on the show three or four seasons earlier. I was introduced to HIMYM sometime in the third season, binged to get caught up and was totally invested until it became clear around Season 5 that there was no reasonable end in sight. If ever a show was in desperate need of a defined end date, it was this one.
Yet there were still moments that kept me and millions of others around. The episode where Marshall’s father died was one of the most touching and difficult moments I’ve ever seen on television, regardless of genre. It felt real and, while a punch to the gut, turned into an interesting arc that would follow Segel’s character through the rest of the series.
Those moments were fleeting, but the promise of – at some point – finally meeting the mother was the ultimate hook. As annoying as Ted Mosby was, I was invested in how his story ended. He wasn’t going to be happy with someone who had a little bit of room for him in her life, like Robin. He needed someone whose life was completed by his quirky presence. He needed his soul mate.
He needed the female Ted Mosby.
The final episode of Seinfeld’s seventh season was notable for (1996 SPOILER ALERT!!) George’s fiancé, Susan, dying after being poisoned by licking toxic wedding envelopes, but it also had an interesting plot involving Jerry. He met his apparent soul mate in Jeannie Steinman, played by Janeane Garofolo, and found out almost immediately that they had everything in common. But after realizing that he can barely stand himself and certainly couldn’t spend the rest of his life with the female version of himself, Jerry breaks off what became a sitcom-quick engagement.
Obviously Seinfeld’s complete surrealism makes it a bit hard to compare it with HIMYM, but Ted, all along, needed his Jeannie Steinman – a person who would laugh at his jokes, finish his sentences and even dress like him. And in what should have been the saving grace for a show that had overstayed its welcome, creators and showrunners Carter Bays and Craig Thomas found her.
Instead, it was – as Parks and Recreation’s once-great Chris Traeger would say – LITERALLY the show’s death knell. (In fact, this basically sums up a reaction I’d have had upon Bays/Thomas telling me the HIMYM series finale plot).
Segel will go on to be at least a somewhat bankable movie star – he already is in some ways – but the prominent HIMYM cast member that does the biggest things going forward might just be the last one cast.
Cristin Milioti was introduced in the final moment of Season 8 and was a newcomer to virtually everyone who hadn’t seen her on stage in Once or couldn’t remember her from a few brief appearances late in The Sopranos. The reveal of the mother of Ted’s kids provided a little hope for Season 9, which turned into an otherwise completely unnecessary mess leading up to a Barney-Robin wedding that would result in divorce just 20 minutes into Monday night’s series finale.
Her scenes, though, were almost entirely phenomenal. She had excellent chemistry with Radnor, but it was more than just that. Her presence, fleeting as it was, was a shining light and a pleasantly scented Yankee Candle in a series that had permanently ventured into a musty old attic. She interacted glowingly with each of the four main characters besides Ted, but it was the show’s 200th episode, ‘How Your Mother Met Me,’ that gave us the most rewarding glimpse of what Milioti could bring to the table. She gave us not only a reason to care about the show again but a reason to care about Ted. She seemed too good for him but a perfect fit at the same time. The narrative structure of the show had been rushed to the point where we didn’t get much of her, but each appearance she made in the final season made me long for the happy ending we’d seemingly been promised nine years ago.
And then Monday night happened.
It wasn’t hard to see coming. We knew, going into this series finale, a few things.
1) As hinted four episodes earlier and deeply implied as being the fate of The Mother, a woman isn’t going to be around to see her daughter’s eventual wedding.
2) For a sitcom, this show (Marshall’s father, The Mother’s own previous love) isn’t afraid to drop a death bomb and unlike, say, Seinfeld, it ain’t gonna be for the sake of uncomfortable laughter.
3) The show was practically beating us over the head with Ted/Robin “Will they or won’t theys” for years, up to and including the second-to-last episode.
4) The ending – at least the part with Ted’s two teenage kids – was filmed in 2006 to keep, for continuity’s sake, with the actors’ ages.
But surely – CERTAINLY – they wouldn’t actually KILL the mother, right? Yet that’s exactly what happened. That was the decision that was made as early as when Carter/Bays pitched the pilot more than a decade ago and definitely no later than the midst of the second season, when they apparently only conceived of an ending that sees Ted and Robin together. You know, for CONTINUITY’S sake. This meant Carter/Bays thought three things.
1) We thought Ted and Robin belonged together despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary for literally nine seasons.
2) We’d think they were so freaking clever for teasing us in the pilot with “Robin is not the mother,” which while technically true, wouldn’t preclude her from being the one Ted ended up with.
3) We wouldn’t be invested in the mother as a character.
Wrong. Wrong. WRONG.
I’d checked out on Barney long ago. His moment of redemption in the finale, when he has a supposedly touching scene in the hospital room with his daughter – the result of an oopsie pregnancy after he had sex with 31 WOMEN IN 31 DAYS – was bullshit. I’d buy Barney’s life being changed by being a father if they’d allowed a viable lead-up and shown seeds of change over time. Nope. Instead, Barney’s final season arc went like this:
1) Be a complete horndog asshole up until the moments before wedding Robin.
2) Make fun of the fact that Marshall and Lily, the lone semi-believable couple on the show outside of Ted and The Mother, had failed or struggled to keep their marriage vows.
3) Realize Robin is about to leave you for Ted and suddenly make a promise to always be truthful.
4) Lie, get divorced.
5) Have lots more sex and do nothing but look upon women as sexual objects.
6) Have a daughter and suddenly become THE GREATEST DAD EVER.
Robin, meanwhile, was always the least interesting character on the show. It was pretty clear that she was deeply invested in her career, which was all well and good, and that’s how it should have gone. When she walks out that door in Marshall and Lily’s apartment at the Halloween party, she should have never been seen again. She should have gone on to become a famous international newscaster in somewhere other than New York, where the emotional pain of dealing with the friends she doesn’t see and the two romantic interests she can’t avoid were too much to bear.
As for Ted, I didn’t care as much about his happily ever after as I did for The Mother, who we found out late in the finale was named Tracy McConnell. Shortly thereafter, she’s in a hospital bed, stricken presumably with liver cancer, having attempted to drink herself to death after spending too much time around Ted and his insufferable friends.
Her death was glossed over in about 30 seconds, but I’m really glad we all got to spend 30 minutes earlier this season on such heavy plot devices as “Will Barney successfully have his rehearsal dinner in a laser tag arena?” “Will Marshall stop to get pizza in Chicago with the random black woman who’s driving his rented Hummer across the country?” And my personal favorite, “Why is Billy Zabka here?”
Life isn’t always happy endings and sitcoms don’t have to be, either. But the story of HIMYM from the start was how Ted Mosby found his, and we have nine years of evidence that Robin wasn’t it.
Carter and Bays might have thought it was in 2006, but things change. The idea of The Mother character kept folks around, and when they managed to cast the perfect actress for the show and for Ted, their perfect ending needed an audible.
That exit might actually have been legendary.