*SPOILER ALERT!* The final episodes of CBS’s How I Met Your Mother aired this week, and the reaction of many fans and critics has been... dramatic. Some Twitter users claimed their lives were over, the last nine years of their lives were a waste, and that the show’s writers had betrayed them. Apparently, by having Ted end up with Robin, many feel that the final episode wasn’t true to the story or the characters. To these people I say: What show were you watching? I seem to be in the minority, but I believe that the finale of HIMYM was moving, romantic, honest and really great.If you were a fan of the show, then you already know the set-up: it opens in 2030 with Ted telling his children that he is going to tell them the amazing love story of how he met their mother. Only, the first episode, and the proceeding 8 years, is instead about how Ted meets and falls in love with Robin. Robin is presented as the focus of Ted’s affections, and their relationship frames the entire show. It’s no accident that Ted’s Amazing Love Story™ begins on the day that he meets Robin. Ted had other loves in his life before Robin (e.g., Karen), and Ted had been living his life in New York for a while already, but that’s not where he begins his story. For Ted, the story begins (and ultimately ends) with Robin.
In the final moments of Season 8, we finally saw the titular Mother. Played by Cristin Milioti, Tracy is cute and sweet and funny, she likes coins and Renaissance Faires and plays the bass, and is all around the perfect culmination of all the things Ted wants in a woman. I honestly didn’t expect the show to be able to introduce the character so late in the story and still make me care about her, but they really did. (Indeed, the mother’s likability is a testament to the (sporadically) great writing and great characters that Bays and Thomas bring to the show, and their inherent ability to make us truly love and care about their characters.) And when we see through flash-forwards that she gets sick and eventually dies in 2024, it’s very tough to watch, knowing that Ted will lose her.
But, that’s not the story that the show has been telling. It’s not about how Ted put aside his love for Robin and stayed with Tracy forever. All the title promises the audience is that he will meet their mother, not that things are perfect or even that they stay together, just that they meet. In the episode “How Your Mother Met Me” (ep. 916), we see Tracy’s backstory and learn that she had a man in her life that she loved who died when she was 21, which left her believing that she’d had her great love and there was no one else for her. It’s another 8 years before she meets Ted, and they fall in love. There is a touching speech in the last few minutes where Ted describes his commitment to loving Tracy completely forever, and it is clear that he did, and still does. So when she dies, Ted spends the next 6 years raising their children, and over time, comes to realize that he has feelings for Robin again. And so he tells his now teenage children the story of how he met their mother, which is actually the story of how he loved and lost Robin, in a veiled attempt to gage how they would react to him asking her out. This is the real story the show has been telling us for years – that while he loved Tracy, Ted also loves Robin.
I think the negative reaction to the finale can be traced directly to Ted and Robin Fatigue: we’re all just kind of sick of hearing about it! Over the last few years, Ted has gone from charming romantic to desperate loser, as he professes his love for Robin again and again, and she repeatedly turns him down. But Ted’s love for Robin (and her on-again/off-again love for Ted) is undeniably a constant in the show. It comes up in every single one of his major relationships, it’s been addressed in every season of the show (increasingly so in the last two seasons). Robin is inescapably the center of Ted’s story. Everything—including their collective failed relationships—revolves around the Ted-Robin dynamic. In that sense, the finale truly validates Ted and Robin’s on/off love affair. In fact, had the show ended “under the yellow umbrella”, it would have invalidated much of what had transpired over the last several seasons. The last scene perfectly complements the rest of the series because knowing that Ted will eventually be with Robin again makes his desperate pining for her seem much less sad.
If I have a complaint about the finale it is here, because the last episode simply doesn’t give the audience enough of a reason to believe that when 52 year old Ted shows up at Robin’s window with a blue French horn, that things will be any different than the last 6 times he told her he loves her. Their problem is often one of timing. But she smiled, and the audience (and Ted) have hope.
Admitted, the finale is not without its issues. One of the biggest problems is that it bites off more than it can chew, attempting to cover 15 years in only 44 minutes. There is definitely an argument to be made that the last episode should have been the ninth season, rather than spending 24 episodes on the story of Robin and Barney’s wedding, and then literally five minutes on their inevitable divorce. But, once again, that’s not the story the series has been telling. Neither is it the story of Lily and Marshall, or even Barney and his surprise baby (one of the sweetest moments of the episode), who are all sort of shuffled to the background for the ending. There’s always more story to tell, but the show can’t go on forever.
I think an interesting element of the finale is the loss of the always-present narrator. Up to this point in the story, the voice of future Ted has always been provided by Bob Saget, and his narration has been rife with alterations and forgotten specifics, and peppered with references to how Ted won’t include certain details in order to edit the story for his audience, his children. But in the finale, there is no narrator, no artifice, nothing to intervene in telling it just as it happened. The story gets more “real” because, for the first time, we see what actually happened, without Future Ted as a filter.
The most important point—and the point that critics of the finale seem to be completely oblivious to—is this: How I Met Your Mother is not about how Ted meets the mother. It never was. In over two hundred episodes, the mother appears only a handful of times. Moreover, her unseen presence throughout the show (as narrated by Ted) is nearly always only tangentially-related (at best!) to whatever is happening in Ted’s life. Rather than being the climax to which the show was building, the mother is rather what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin: “a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot.” (Wikipedia)
Many fans were clearly expecting a schmaltzy sitcom ending, like Friends, where everyone is happy and together and laughing and you can go away from it thinking their lives are perfect. But despite being one of the few remaining shows on TV to deeply embrace the traditional sitcom format (multi-camera, open sets, laugh track, etc.); HIMYM was always better than its peers. Its eccentric and idiosyncratic humor was always tempered with genuine emotional realism. The show never shied away from acknowledging that life isn’t always easy or fun, and sometimes you drift apart from your friends. That people die, and it’s sad and painful, but you remember them and move on. And, yes, that you can love two people in your life without being unfaithful to them or their memory. It’s perhaps the least sitcom-y sitcom ending I’ve ever seen, and for that, it’s something special.