Tuesday, April 1, 2014

On Second Thought: Revisiting the How I Met Your Mother Finale

All complaints aside, this scene really was amazing.

I had a, let’s say, “negative” reaction to last night’s finale for How I Met Your Mother borne mostly out of what I felt was a destruction of what the show had been for the last several years – an attempt to return the series to where it was in season two, at the creative height of its run.  For the record, I still believe in that interpretation, that the finale was a misguided attempt by its creators to fit where the show was now with the ending they had conceived and filmed in 2007.  But as I gave it more thought today I kept coming back to the fact that I very much enjoyed many of the scenes in the finale* and that there were many ideas packed into the episode that, given more space from the need to wrap up seventeen years’ worth of plot in forty minutes, actually were worth exploring.  So I tried to divorce myself from the resentment caused by the episode’s final twist** and figure out what the episode was trying to say about love and death and hope and family.  What I realized is that “Last Forever” was a noble attempt to really change the way we think about love that was destined to fail because of decisions made years ago.

* If they had put the scene at the platform between Ted and the Mother at the end of any other episode I would have called it my favorite scene of the series with only the two-minute date possibly excepted.

** I have had this happen before where my expectations for an episode significantly colored my initial reaction.  In this case, thanks to the predictive powers of the internet, I realized the twist was coming right about when Robin and Barney announced they were getting divorced and spent the rest of the episode dreading that conclusion.

I wrote on Twitter last night that if every decision we make leads to an alternate timeline, then somewhere there is a universe with a perfect HIMYM finale, but that we were surely in the darkest timeline.  Upon consideration, however, we may not have been that far from the perfect finale after all.  The individual elements could have made for an amazing, if somewhat morose, season of television.  Notice that I said “season” and not “episode,” because where “Last Forever” fails is in trying to cram seventeen years of character development into two episodes.  Parceled out over twenty-two episodes, there’s no reason these elements and developments couldn’t have been successful.

Imagine with me our alternate universe, in which the final season of HIMYM is not set almost entirely at Barney and Robin’s wedding, but instead takes place over the course of the seventeen years in between the wedding and 2030.  The first three episodes of the season are set at the wedding, sparing us some of the weaker episodes of the season like “whose mom makes better scrambled eggs.”  Episode four is essentially “How Your Mother Met Me,” except it ends with Ted and Tracy meeting for the first time on the Farhampton train platform in the same beautiful scene we saw last night.  Critics and fans alike immediately laud it as one of the series’ finest half-hours, though perhaps lamenting that it all had to be in one episode.  Episode Five: Ted moves to the suburbs and has his first date with Tracy.  Episode Seven or Eight: They return to Farhampton where Ted proposes and they learn Tracy is pregnant.  Episode Nine: Barney and Robin divorce.  Episodes Ten through Twelve:  Barney’s a lout again and Robin can’t handle it so she leaves (all this has happened before…).  Episode Fifteen: Barney’s daughter is born and Ted and Tracy get married.  Episode Eighteen: Tracy gets sick.  Episode Twenty: Tracy dies.  The series concludes with Ted (and the audience) getting a proper grieving period before he runs into Robin again in the finale and the two have the chance to potentially reunite again.

It probably wouldn’t be a perfect season, but it’s filled with stories worth telling, contains all of the major beats Carter Bays and Craig Thomas had in the season finale and, most importantly, it gives the show the time to properly explore the two big themes they seemed to be trying to get across last night: Nothing lasts forever and there’s no such thing as a One True Love.

One of the parts where “Last Forever” was strongest last night was in its portrayal of the lives of no-longer-young adults.  As friends pair up, have kids, move out of the city, and take new jobs, they tend to fall out of each other’s lives bit by bit.  Nights are spent on homework and PTA meetings instead of at the bar or the strip club (except for the eternal man-child Barney of course).  You start to see your friends only on the big occasions: Births, deaths, weddings.  These things happen.  We grow.  We evolve.  And while the distancing of once-close friends is sad, it’s also a necessity, so that we can find the time to bring new things into our lives.

Sitcoms are largely about stasis.  Relationships may change and characters may leave, but for the most part the show at the end is largely the same as the show at the beginning.  HIMYM tried to be different.  They tried to show how much people change and grow and how that growth can cause even the best of friends to drift apart.  Unfortunately, the show didn’t spend an entire season exploring that idea, they stuffed it all into one hour and it got lost in the rush to cover every plot point.

The other Big Idea that “Last Forever” tried to discuss was perhaps its most controversial: There is no such thing as One True Love.  Where the series finale fell the hardest was in its rush to dissolve Ted’s and Robin’s respective relationships in order to give them a happy ending together.  It left the impression that the writers didn’t respect those marriages.  They were merely waypoints on the two characters’ journeys toward each other.  I don’t think that’s what Bays and Thomas intended, though.  I believe they were trying to make the argument that love doesn’t follow the rules of romantic comedies.  Sometimes you learn that the love of your life in 2013 is not the love for your life in 2017.  You discover that the man you love in 2017 is unavailable to you.  Sometimes the woman you love more than anything in the world is unjustly taken from you and you get lost in your stories.  But even if those loves couldn’t last forever, on occasion the universe will throw a bone your way and let you fall in love all over again. 

It’s not an idea that’s often explored, especially in sitcoms, where characters are often brought together but rarely split apart.  But in the real world things are usually not so simple as “Boy meets girl and they live happily ever after.”  Couples break up and spouses die.  But it’s nice to imagine that even in the face of heartbreak and loss there might be another True Love out there waiting for us.  It’s a beautiful, touching idea that would be well worth discussing on television (and very well may have been at some point).  But it’s an idea that needs an entire season to explore, not a single episode.

Ultimately, HIMYM took a huge chance in its series finale.  It explored two difficult themes that are more often left to dramas than sitcoms – themes that it had dabbled in for nine years but had never committed to completely.  It could have been a home run.  But what made the show miss so badly was its slavish devotion to ideas hatched seven years ago.  Bays and Thomas wanted to put Ted and Robin together and they didn’t want Ted to meet the Mother until the very end of the series.  Unfortunately reconciling those desires with the story they wanted to tell meant trying to kick off two separate relationships simultaneously, which was bound to leave one of them feeling empty. 

“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.”

It’s been said in the wake of the finale that ambitious shows are often treated more kindly by history than those that go out with “just another episode.”  Perhaps that’s true.  Perhaps people coming to this show in future will know the twist in advance and look more kindly on the journey.  I used the above paraphrase of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol last night as a quip but maybe it’s true.  Maybe understanding that the Mother was dead to begin with will make this story wonderful.  There’s been a lot of vitriol and venom spewed at HIMYM in the past twenty-four hours.  And while I agree that the show failed in execution, I have to applaud its audacity.  Bays and Thomas may have struck out with their finale, but they went down swinging for the fences.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can email him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or find him on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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