How I Met Your MacGuffin: Examining the (un)satisfying, (un)surprising, (un)moving, and ultimately uneven series finale of ‘HIMYM’

TV LOOKOUT

Well, more than two full weeks removed from the very last episode of one of this generation’s most beloved, longest running sitcoms — I’m speaking of course about How I Met Your Mother — and as promised, we can say with certainty that main character, narrator, and hopeless romantic Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) finally met the mother. Of course, a bunch of other things happened as well during the finale (more on that later, as narrator Ted would say), some of which were met with cheers, some were met with tears, and others, as had to happened, were met with jeers.

With a finale that was long-in-the-making — 208 episodes, in fact — “Last Forever”, the title of the two-part series ender, was destined to be an emotional episode. But seeing as the hour-long final installment had to deliver, once and for all, on the show’s titular high-concept premise and framing device while also wrapping up the series and its characters’ arcs in neatly-tied bows, creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas had a lot to take care of to bring Ted’s meandering tale full circle, full stop.

Whether Bays and Thomas succeeded or not is a divisive matter of opinion among fans, so much so that I am torn between saying that they did succeed and saying that they didn’t. Certain aspects of the episode were magnificently done, but others left me, well, a bit cold.

I’ve watched the show since the summer of 2009, shortly after the Season 4 finale aired. This was well before the majority of people were binge-watching shows via Netflix streaming; I actually blind-bought the first three seasons and dove right in. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s safe to say that the How I Met Your Mother series finale was both a tough project for Bays and Thomas to put together and a tough project for fans of the show to fully accept. No ending is going to be perfectly satisfying, but our hope with any show we love is that the finale is comprised mostly of well-executed ideas.

But the instant reaction to the last episode of How I Met Your Mother made me especially unsure whether this was a finale to remember or one to forget. Some loved it; others were quite visibly pissed off. So the question here, particularly for those still wrestling with their thoughts on the finale (which I actually didn’t catch until a few days after it aired), what did the creators get right, what did they get wrong, and what should we just let slide? Let’s take a quick look at the key events of the finale by taking a peek at how each main character’s (or set of characters’) arc was brought to a conclusion. Needless to say, spoilers abound for those who haven’t yet seen the finale.

We’ll start with…

The Mother (a.k.a. Tracy McConnell)

Given the name of the show, I suppose it makes sense to start things off with the titular Mother, who, in this final episode, we come to know as Tracy McConnell. A figure of bittersweet mystery and endless intrigue for 8 seasons, Tracy (Cristin Milioti) is a woman we fans have gotten to know well during the course of Season 9. Milioti’s chemistry with Josh Radnor’s Ted grew stronger and stronger as the season continued on — and really, her chemistry with the entire cast was really well mined — which makes the wrapping up of her admittedly short arc extremely bittersweet. It was hinted at a few episodes before the finale, but Tracy, after spending the better part of a decade with Ted and the gang (intermittently of course), passes away from an illness, leaving behind the couple’s two kids.

On the one hand, I can understand why Bays and Thomas chose this route for the character: it allows them to give Ted’s children the mother they need while also allowing them to indulge a bit and give Ted another woman to actually end up with (more on that later). But given how everything has progressed through Barney and Robin’s wedding, through Ted finally meeting Tracy (in a fantastic meet-cute no less), and through Ted and Tracy’s relationship together — a love built on a lot of great little moments, as we’ve seen — it’s a bit hard to see things play out this way. Many fans, myself included, have really come to like Milioti’s character, and to see her and Ted’s lives together play out in fast forward for the duration of the episode only to be brought to a day when she has already been dead six years isn’t the way we wanted her character’s arc to end.

Lily & Marshall

Ok, sure, I’m cheating by going two characters at a time with this one, but come on, Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel) have pretty much been a single character on the show since its inception, save for the time they spent broken up. Ever since they got back together in Season 2, and even in Season 9 when they were separated by half a country, the pair have been conjoined by an ampersand (&) or plus-sign (+) more so than simply the word “and.” With a second child added to their family troupe and another on the way, the Eriksen’s have quite literally outgrown the old apartment and opt to move to somewhere with more space. And Marshall, after passing on a judgeship in order to move to Italy for Lily’s sake, accepts a judgeship in Queens, where he and Lily can truly settle down.

As by far the most stable characters of the group, Lily’s and Marshall’s arcs are no surprise; the pair have always wanted to be parents, and Marshall has sought a judgeship for some time. It’s only right that these two get what they want, and really, it suits them (and the finale itself) quite well.

Barney

Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin (Cobie Smulders) got married in May 2013, and soon after, Robin’s newscasting career really took off. This meant, for Barney, a lot of jet-setting to exotic locations, but also a lot of sitting around while Robin worked-worked-worked. And so, after three years, the pair amicably chose to divorce, though they attempted to stay friends. But as many of us know, a couple opting to get back together as friends, as Barney and Robin once called it back in the day, isn’t always easy. As Robin continued working hard and finding joy in her career, Barney was busy reverting back to his old self, living the life of a proud bachelor with the help of, you guessed it, the Playbook. But in the quest for a perfect month — bedding 31 girls in 31 days — Barney gets one of them pregnant. Upon meeting his daughter, he vows to change his ways, to be a good father for baby Ellie, the new love of his life.

While I really take no issue with the way things played out for Lily and Marshall, I’m again a tad miffed by Barney’s arc. We spent the better part of 3 seasons watching Barney progress from overly-proud-bachelor to man-ready-to-settle-down, and we became even more invested in that journey when we found out Barney’s future bride-to-be was Robin. But after the couple’s divorce, all of that was so quickly undone, only to be just as quickly mended upon the birth of his child. If this played out over the course of a season, or even just flash-forwards in a few episodes, it may have worked, but the way the episode plays out makes it all feel a little rushed and contrived.

Robin

As mentioned above, Barney and Robin got married in May 2013, and were amicably divorced within three years because of her blossoming newscasting career. As has been the case since the show’s inception, Robin has always been the type to put her career before her love life, and she continues doing that even after she thinks she’s found “the one.” But as her ex-husband goes back to pulling schemes on uninhibited women, Robin realizes the group is no longer a good fit for her: it consists of, well, her ex-husband pulling schemes on uninhibited women; Lily and Marshall and their growing brood; Ted, whom she says she “should have ended up with”; and now Tracy, the mother of Ted’s child. It’s not a good situation for Robin, and so she dives further into her career and begins pulling away from the group, as we were told would happen a couple of seasons ago. Robin’s life is filled with happiness, but also with regrets, and it seems the biggest one is that she let Ted get away.

For the longest time, through so many ups-and-downs and backs-and-forths, it was obvious Robin was Ted’s version of “the one that got away.” But while it was always easy to accept that a piece of Ted always yearned to be with Robin, it was never quite reciprocated that Robin was, in fact, the one pining for him after all this time. Just like Barney’s arc could have worked if given more time to breathe, so could Robin’s; but to see her, in the course of one episode (it spans a number of years but the short time we’re given makes it seem much quicker) marry Barney, divorce Barney, focus intensely on her career, back out of the group, and then come back around to Ted felt, well, a little contrived as well. Robin has always been a bit of a careerist, and so to see her so quickly switch from career-dedicated to love-motivated doesn’t really feel like the Scherbatsky that I thought I knew.

Ted

Lastly, we’ve got Ted, the head honcho of the group and the show’s main protagonist. It took a long time for Ted to finally meet the mother, to become the man he needed to become to be ready for her, but by golly, the pair finally met. We’ve seen Ted and Tracy interact before, often very sweetly, and they seem like the perfect pair. What do we learn about Ted in the show’s last hurrah? Well, he’s basically the same hopeless romantic he always has been. Prepared to move to Chicago, Ted instead decides to stay in New York because, well, he has a date. Marshall is convinced he’s going to be hurt again, but Lily thinks otherwise, and she’s right: this time, it’s different. Fast forward a couple of years, and Ted and Tracy are planning their wedding, until — surprise! — they find out Tracy is pregnant. It isn’t until 7 years into their relationship that they finally tie the knot, and they have four happy years together (which produced another child) before Tracy got sick and passed away.

Six years removed from Tracy’s death, in 2030, we see Ted telling his children the story of how he met their mother. He’s finally finished. But they are convinced there is some motivation behind it — after all, the main female lead in the entire story isn’t their mother, it’s a woman they know as Aunt Robin, whom Ted dated and thought was the one and has been in love with ever since, despite doing his best to keep his thoughts of her as no more than friendly. So Ted, the hopeless romantic that he is, has been telling this story in order to gain his kids’ permission to ask out Robin one last time. And of course, they grant him their permission — after all, they love Aunt Robin! Ted shows up at Robin’s doorstep with nothing else in his hands but a blue French horn. And presumably the pair lives happily ever after.

—–

Some of what you’ve read above is surprising; some isn’t. Some is satisfying; some isn’t. But does it all work? Mm, no, not really. In fact, it’s sadly very uneven.

It’s not so much that the mother dies, or that the primary object of our intrigue, whose identity we tried to decipher for the better part of a decade, turns out being the ultimate MacGuffin. After all, despite the show’s title, How I Met Your Mother has never really been about the mother at all — it’s about Ted and his group of friends, about their lives in New York, their loving and losing, their ups and downs, and all the lessons they’ve learned throughout the years. That Ted doesn’t end up with the titular mother isn’t truly all that problematic.

The bigger problems are: #1) that several huge character developments are entirely undone, and #2) that the pacing of the final episode, combined with the overall length of the show and especially the way the final season was drawn out, doesn’t allow the audience to partake in the deep emotional journey that the main characters experienced.

Regarding problem #1 above, we’ve spent the past few seasons watching Barney and Robin prepare themselves for a life together, Barney giving up his bachelor ways and Robin caring less about her career and more about love. But the pair end up divorcing because Robin chose to continue advancing her career, which leads to Barney continuing his womanizing ways. And then, almost at the drop of a hat, Barney is ready to lead a more honest life again because his out-of-wedlock daughter has been born. Robin’s ability to give Ted another shot in 2030 makes sense — a lot of time has passed, and perhaps she’s ready to actually settle down this time — but because of the pacing of the episode (problem #2), the conclusion here feels rushed. She and Ted have tried, tried, and tried to make it work, and now we are supposed to believe it actually can? I want to, but it’s hard.

Really, a Ted-and-Robin pairing was mostly expected, in some form or another, as the chemistry between Radnor’s Ted and Smulder’s Robin was always uniquely strong, even when compared with Lily and Marshall. But after so many will-they-or-won’t-theys, I really started to wish Bays and Thomas would put their relationship to rest and let them both move on. If HIMYM ended after five seasons, my issues wouldn’t have been so pronounced, but after spending nine years with these characters, even I — a hopeless romantic myself — was urging Ted to just give up already.

And when it comes to Ted and Tracy, we’ve spent this entire season getting to know Mrs. Mosby, and as soon as she and Ted really begin having a life together, well, she’s gone. The group developed some amazing chemistry with Milioti’s Tracy, and she seemed the perfect match for Ted — yeah, I’ll admit it, better than Robin — so it’s hard to so quickly accept that she is gone and Ted is back to chasing after Robin. But that’s the ending we’ve got, and it’s the one we have to live with — though Bays and Thomas have promised an alternate ending for the Season 9 and series box set DVDs.

Here’s hoping that ending is a bit more even and a bit more satisfying than the one we got.

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