Well, here we are at the series finale of “How I Met Your Mother,” and I have a review of everything that went down, coming up just as soon as I post the Boner Joke of the Day…
Kids, let me tell you a story about the time I asked the creators of “How I Met Your Mother” if they regretted the decision to end the pilot with the “Aunt Robin” line. This was January of 2006, midway through the first season and shortly before “Drumroll, Please” would introduce Victoria, who was Carter Bays and Craig Thomas' back-up Mother plan in the event the show got canceled after only a season. I was at CBS' press tour party, and I talked with Bays, Thomas, Pamela Fryman, Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders about the palpable chemistry between Ted and Robin, and whether in hindsight the pilot's closing line was one twist too many.
When she played a scene with Radnor, Smulders said, “magic happens, chemistry flows, fireworks get set off. I can't explain it, but it's kind of meant to be – and obviously not.”
“We love watching Josh and Cobie together,” Fryman said. “It's like, they'll do a scene and we'll get misty and say, `Can you do that one more time? We want to see it again.'”
“I don't know,” Radnor said. “They're clever writers, so we'll see what they come up with.”
Bays called the notion that the two wouldn't end up together “heartbreaking.”
And then after Thomas insisted, “Robin's not the mom. We're sticking by those guns,” Bays said something very interesting, and that kept coming back to me as “Last Forever” went on and it became more and more clear that the two of them had actually gone through with this horrible, horrible plan for the Mother to be dead in 2030, and Future Ted to be telling this long, largely non-Mother-related story to his kids because he and Aunt Robin were going to end up together.
What Bays said was this: “I feel like with great art, you have to create constraints for yourself. You look at The White Stripes, they only want to have a guitar and drums, so they have to make all their music around guitar and drums. We have to make all our comedy around what the narrator says.”
And as I thought of that quote, and as I remembered that they shot the kids' reaction to the end of Future Ted's story way back in season 2(*), my anger over this terrible, misconceived, ginormous middle finger to the fanbase very, very briefly turned into sympathy for Bays and Thomas, because I realized they had become victims of their own damn cleverness.
(*) Which led to the most awkward interaction of past and present footage since Tony Soprano's final conversation with his mother.
Because they wanted to make their pilot seem unpredictable enough to catch the attention of a CBS development exec way back in the script stage, they added the Aunt Robin gag at the end. But they couldn't have known at the time just how good Radnor and Smulders would be together, how much the fans would want to see them be together, and how hard it would be to come up with another pairing that equaled it. (Though in isolated moments before Cristin Milioti turned up, Victoria and Stella sure came close.)
Then once the Ted/Robin sparks became too powerful to ignore, they began looking for ways around the trap they'd set for themselves in the pilot. As Bays noted, they were bound by what the narrator told us, and as Thomas insisted, Robin would not be revealed to be the kids' mother. But there was nothing in that narration that said that Ted and the Mother still had to be together in 2030. And that gave them an out, and another opportunity to be clever. Because they knew the kids were aging, they could film their reactions now, and save them for whenever the show ended – which, at that pre-Britney Spears phase when “HIMYM” lived perpetually on the bubble, seemed like it could be in another year or two at best – and they would be all set, and their fans would be happy and impressed by both their forethought and creativity.
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. They just didn't count on any of the following:
1. The show would improbably turn into one of the longest-running comedies CBS has ever aired, which would force them to stretch out Ted's story forever and a day, and then to do insanely stupid things like spending the entire final season on the run-up to Robin and Barney's wedding – a wedding that, by the way, would be undone before the very next episode was halfway over. And that unexpected length would force them to revisit the question of Ted and Robin's feelings for each other (or lack thereof) so many times that even the fans who once cared deeply about them would grow tired of the idea.
2. It would turn out that Radnor wasn't the only co-star that Smulders had absurd chemistry levels with, and that the fans would for a time get more deeply invested in the Robin/Barney 'ship than they were in Robin and Ted. (In that way, you can look at the toxic nature of Robin and Barney's second relationship not as the creative team screwing up, but of them trying to kill all interest in the combo so we'd be on board for Future Ted and Future Robin, in the same way that they eventually made Stella, Victoria and Ted's other love interests horrible so that we wouldn't want them over either Robin or the Mother.)
3. The show would be such a big hit by the end that CBS would order one more season than originally planned for, which would turn the Mother from someone we saw for five minutes in the finale to someone we would get to know over an entire season. And worse, as played by Milioti, the Mother would turn out to be by far the best thing to happen to Ted, or the show, in years. Suddenly, they had conceived of an entire season in which she would disappear for long stretches, and die at the end, even though the only thing many of the remaining viewers wanted was more of her, and the happiest of endings for her and Ted.
But they were bound by the rules they had made for themselves. They had a plan. They had to stick to that plan.
And the result of that plan was among the more maddening things I've seen in the finale of a show I at one point loved.
And kids, I know from anger-inducing finales. I literally wrote a book about a bunch of shows that featured them, and that book featured candid quotes from their creators about how little of those series were planned and how much was created on the fly. Those quotes angered many fans of those shows, who used them as further evidence for why they hated the endings, and for why no show should be allowed to improvise major story arcs ever.
And if any good can possibly come out of this “HIMYM” finale, I would hope that it is the end of this belief. Because so much of what was terrible here was terrible because Bays and Thomas had a very specific vision for the ending of their show and would not – or, perhaps, after they filmed the kids' reactions, could not – deviate from it. And based on the initial reaction I've seen to the episode, it's going to forever sour the opinion many fans of the show had for it, no matter how much they may have enjoyed “Slap Bet” or “Ten Sessions” or “Swarley.”(**)
(**) And that's not even counting what sort of impact this is going to have on “How I Met Your Dad” if CBS picks it up, because Bays, Thomas, Emily Spivey and Greta Gerwig are going to spend every waking minute answering questions about when the Dad is going to die.
Because this was horrible. This ignored everything that had happened between Ted and Robin, between Robin and Barney, between Ted and Barney and, especially, between Ted Evelyn Mosby and Tracy McConnell, all because once upon a time, this is what Bays and Thomas wanted to do.
They had plenty of opportunity over the years to course correct. They could have at some point accepted that the Robin/Barney coupling made Future Ted/Future Robin not only moot, but annoying. They could have introduced the Mother sooner and just made her a part of the gang – and every single moment this season in which Milioti was allowed to interact with the regulars (either in Farhampton or in the flashforwards) suggested that they could have pulled it off, easily. Hell, even at this late hour, they could have recognized what they had in Milioti and accepted that that old bit of footage with Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie would remain unseen forever (or, at worst, be a special feature to lure people into buying the complete series box set), and that the fans would get over not seeing the kids react to the end of this endless story.
If “HIMYM” hadn't been as great as it was in its early days, or as great as it could even be from time to time more recently, I wouldn't care this much. I wouldn't be as angry as I am. But there kept being moments in this final season, and throughout this final episode, that reminded me of what the show is capable of, and it only filled me with more despair that we were clearly heading towards the ending I feared was coming ever since “Vesuvius” aired. How, I wondered, could the same two men who wrote that great scene where Barney met his daughter for the first time be so tin-eared in this other area? How could the same writers who absolutely, 100% nailed the moment when Ted and Tracy finally meet on the train platform not realize that they had already undermined it by spending so much of the finale on the dissolution of Robin's marriage and her leftover feelings for Ted? How could they not see the happy, satisfying ending that was staring them right in the face, and instead do… this?
I can imagine Bays and Thomas back in 2005 or 2006 trying to figure a way out of the narrative straightjacket they created for themselves in the pilot, and maybe even doing a High Infinity upon coming up with this solution. I can even imagine that moment being so euphoric that it blinded them to a lot of what was happening on the show over the remaining 7 or 8 years. Back then, maybe it was a great plan. Back then, when I was talking to them at the press tour party, if one of them had asked me to turn off the tape recorder and promised me off the record that Ted and Robin would somehow end up together, I'd have been feeling some euphoria of my own. But stories change. Characters change. Shows change. And plans have to change to accommodate that.
This plan didn't. So instead of a bumpy final few years being redeemed by a finale that at least resulted in our hero winding up with a woman we all liked, and who seemed a perfect match for him, we have a finale that turns the title and narrative framework of the show into a case of Bays and Thomas following the letter of the law rather than the spirit, without the slightest bit of recognition that Ted and Robin had become toxic for each other by this season. They and Future Ted promised us that we'd be getting the story of how Ted met the kids' mother, but all along she was just meant to be a distraction from the real story – like the kind of misdirection Barney uses in his magic tricks.
And the problem is that at a certain point the misdirection became vastly more entertaining than the illusion it was designed to facilitate, and as a result we just wind up feeling tricked, and annoyed, and wondering why we went along with all of it, when we should have known from the very first episode – from the Aunt Robin joke that got us into this gigantic mess – that this was a show that would not hesitate to make us feel tricked. And once upon a time, when we and “HIMYM” were younger, that was fun, but at a certain point, like the idea of Barney Stinson still having a Playbook in his 40s, it's just sad.
What did everybody else think? Last week, I wrote that whatever the finale brought, we'd always have the classic repeats, but will the finale make you less likely to want to see those repeats in the future? Do you now hate Future Ted's kids for rolling their eyes at the beginning of the story about their saintly dead mother? Did all the callbacks to the Cockamouse and the hanging chad costume, etc., make you all misty-eyed with nostalgia, or did they only frustrate you all the more given what the show became later? Is there anyone who actually liked the ending, and if so, why?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org