Monday, March 31, 2014

How I Met Your Mother Series Finale Review: "Last Forever" - Endings and Beginnings

Ted and Tracy together at last in "How I Met Your Mother"

I am not a “that finale ruined the last X years of the show for me” kind of person.  I swear, I’m not.  In fact, I’m generally very forgiving of series finales, even the controversial ones.  I loved most of the Lost finale even if I thought the actual plot was a bit of a mess.  I wasn’t totally sold on the Battlestar Galactica finale but it hit enough emotionally satisfying beats for me that I could ultimately enjoy it.  When it comes to finales, I don’t need every plot point wrapped with a neat little bow.  I don’t need numerous callbacks to the show’s best running jokes.  I just need emotional closure that feels earned and to feel like the ending of the show is appropriate to the seasons that came before it.  And while the How I Met Your Mother finale actually almost did one of these things it only managed to accomplish that feat by taking back every single thing the show has spent the last nine years telling us.

“The Mother was dead to begin with…This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

Looking back, it was obvious.  It was plainly obvious that this wasn’t the story of how Ted met his kids’ mother.  It was the story of how he never got over their Aunt Robin.  We’ve seen countless times that Ted has never been able to leave Robin behind.  Even in the week before her wedding he searched far and wide for the token he thought could win her back.  Sure he backed off at the last second, but the intent was still clear.  And it was clear that Barney and Robin couldn’t last.  Their relationship was just too volatile.  I mean, they spent their entire wedding weekend fighting over every little thing and while I appreciate the callback to Barney’s vow never to lie to Robin this wasn’t a relationship built on trust and respect.  It was a relationship built on narrative convenience.   It was easy to put the two together so they did it, logic be damned. 

What is most infuriating is how my rage over this finale revealed how much I was actually invested in these characters and how quickly and meticulously the writers dismantled that investment.  I discovered that I actually liked the idea of Barney and Robin as a couple.  Well, too bad, because we’re going to break them up before the first commercial break.  I discovered that I was really invested in the Mother, but apparently Bays and Thomas decided that I didn’t need to see any stories between when they got married and when she died except for a ten-second narrated scene of her in the hospital.  I discovered during this finale that I wanted to see these characters find love and happiness.  Instead we got divorce and death.

There’s nothing exactly wrong with death and divorce on a sitcom.  After all, this is a show about friends in their 30s moving into their 40s and these are things that happen.  Friends break up.  We lose family members.  But HIMYM was not a show based on pain and loss.  Sure we saw these things occasionally, most notably in the death of Marshall's father.  But fundamentally, it was a show based on, above all else, the idea that love matters.  That love is worth the wait.  And maybe that’s the story Bays and Thomas were trying to tell.  That the love between Ted and Robin was worth the wait.  It was worth eight years of going back and forth.  It was worth a marriage to the wrong man and the death of the right woman.  All those things were worth going through to get to the point where Ted could stand on Robin’s stoop, blue French horn in hand.  That’s the moment they wanted (clearly since they wrote and filmed it eight years ago), but here’s the thing, if you want that moment you don’t call the show How I Met Your Mother.  You call it How I Moved On From Your Mother (h/t Ryan McGee).  You don’t spend nine seasons bringing two couples together only to rip them asunder in the last forty minutes.  That’s not fair play.  It’s not earned storytelling.  It’s a trick played on the audience.  It’s saying “Ha Ha! You thought you were watching one thing when it was really another.  Joke’s on you!”  And maybe the joke is on me.  But, as I said before, I don’t want my finales to be clever.  I want them to be emotionally satisfying.  And when you spend nine years (at least one in earnest) getting me to invest in a certain storyline, I’ll be upset when the rug is yanked out from beneath me.

I think that Bays and Thomas really did want us to see this as a happy ending.  The kids (who are obviously the audience surrogates) tell Ted that they’re on board with him dating Aunt Robin.  After all, “it’s been six years.”  But for us it hasn’t been six years.  It’s been thirty seconds since we got confirmation that the Mother, this character we’ve been investing the last 22 episodes in, is dead.  Even if that particular plot development was implied a few weeks ago and heavily hinted at throughout the evening, you still need to give your audience time to digest.  You don’t just get to drop the character with a thudding “and then she died, but I got over it.”

I could go on, but I think I’m going to stop.  I got my point across.  This was a series finale that fundamentally betrayed everything the show had been about for nine seasons.  It took characters and relationships that it had built over that time and meticulously deconstructed them for no other purpose than to pull one over on the audience.  This is not an objection to the individual plot points.  I think they could have served perfectly well had HIMYM been canceled after its first season (when this ending was apparently written and filmed) and Victoria would have been the mother.  But as the culmination of nine seasons worth of storytelling, they failed to bring closure to the series they had created.  Perhaps HIMYM can serve as a warning to all future serialized storytellers that the ending you have at the beginning might not be the one you need in the end.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and amateur television critic.  You can email him at tytalkstvATgmailDOTcom or find him on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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