WARNING: The below contains no shortage of spoilers for all nine seasons of “How I Met Your Mother,” up to — but not including — tonight’s series finale.
The classic Shakespearean delineation between comedy and tragedy is a simple binary: The stories that are tragedies end with a high body count, while the stories that are comedies end with a wedding.
CBS’s long-running sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” which ends tonight, technically falls into the category of the latter; the entire ninth season has taken place over the 72-hour period surrounding the wedding of Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin (Cobie Smulders).
But tonight’s finale might still have a body count: A great deal of evidence points to the Mother (Cristin Milioti) being dead by the end of the episode.
The premise of the show — architect Ted (played by Josh Radnor, with Bob Saget providing the voice-over of Future Ted), telling his young-teens kids the epic tale of how he met their mother — has been stretched over the years to cover a range of stories and creative devices.
There have been flashbacks, flash-forwards, even quick glimpses of alternate universes, but unlike “Lost,” the show lacked a set end date to propel the mystery of the Mother forward until the end of Season 7.
Thus, the premise wasn’t the only thing stretched, as that reveal was delayed for so long that some one-time enthusiastic fans grew frustrated (some of whom did give up on the epic-length tease).
But now that the finale is here, and all is about to be revealed, much evidence points to that reveal containing one of the harsh realities of life: That everything, even a love story that’s been built up for nine long years, has to end.
It’s not a rare thing for a sitcom to contain tear-jerking scenes, whether they come from a breathtakingly romantic moment in the rain for Ross and Rachel of “Friends” or the stunned cast of “NewsRadio” coping with the tragic real-life death of actor Phil Hartman.
And in that tradition, “HIMYM” has never shied away from its own tragedies: A major arc of Season 6 revolved around Marshall (Jason Segel) coping with the death of his father, and in the genuinely heartbreaking “Symphony of Illumination” in Season 7, Robin confronted the fact that she would not be capable of having children.
When the show was at its best, it was incorporating major life events faced by not just 20/30-something white Manhattanites, but the general population in with the catchphrases and in-jokes. Certainly the loss of a wife would fall into that category.
What points most damningly to the Mother’s demise is a bittersweet scene that aired just a few weeks ago, in the episode “Vesuvius.” During a flash-forward to Ted and the Mother celebrating an anniversary several years after Barney and Robin’s wedding, The Mother makes an offhand comment: “What mother is going to miss her daughter’s wedding?”
At which point, Radnor breaks into tears — just the way you might, if you had just been reminded that the mother of your teenage children won’t be alive to see their weddings.
Milioti is quoted as saying that rumors of the Mother’s death are “crazy,” but as EW points out in the piece linked here, that’s not an official denial.
Meanwhile, creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays were “tight-lipped” during a recent PaleyFest panel wrapping up the show’s run. There is one inevitable truth of series television: To preserve a twist or reveal, creators and cast actively lie to audiences all of the time.
The one thing known for certain, at this point, is based on a fact revealed recently. The final scene of “How I Met Your Mother,” according to the creators, was shot well before Season 9, due to concerns about the kids aging out of the roles (television writers, it seems, have learned a valuable lesson from Walt on “Lost”).
Thomas and Bays have thus technically known how the series will end since 2006, as that scene was completed then, thus freeing the child actors from the pressure not to age and also freeing up The Daughter (Lyndsy Fonseca) to play a leading role on The CW’s “Nikita.”
But Milioti was not cast until the end of Season 8; they didn’t always know who would play the Mother. So unless plans since then have changed, there’s no way Milioti could have appeared in that 2006-era scene.
It is possible that she could be included via voiceover or technology trickery, which “HIMYM” has never shied away from exploiting. Just last week, shots of guests attending the wedding included some apparent digital compositing to bring together the season’s many high-profile guest stars, including Tracey Ullman, Tim Gunn, John Lithgow, Ray Wise, Patricia Clarkson and Taran Killam, for a series of dialogue-less cameos.
But to rely on CGI to construct the show’s grand finale threatens to create a feeling of cheapness — not to mention that everything about the premise supports an ending at least tinged with death. After all, it’s all too believable that Future Ted is using the time before or after the Mother’s funeral as an excuse to tell the story of how he met her.
It is less believable that he would spend nine years doing it, and that he would include some of his more poorly behaved moments and bad decisions, but these things happen when you’re CBS’s Monday night anchor and you keep getting renewed.
The number of TV shows of this length that have ended gracefully is not terribly long, and even the most creatively daring still draw controversy. However, for the fans who reveled in the in-jokes and felt comfortable with the tears, the greatest tragedy of “HIMYM” won’t be Schrodinger’s Mother, but the fact that the show is ending at all.