Almost exactly eight months ago, the ninth and final season of CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother” came to its long-awaited conclusion. As the show had promised since the very beginning of the series, the series finale finally showed Ted (Josh Radnor) meeting Tracy (Cristin Milioti), the future mother of his children. It only took 208 episodes and about twelve dozen close calls, but “How I Met Your Mother” did it, finally letting Ted and Tracy meet-cute under a yellow umbrella in the rain.
The story didn’t end there, however. Tracy, a quick montage revealed, has been dead for six years in 2030, and the true point of 2030-era Ted rambling to his increasingly bored children was to test the waters regarding their thoughts on “Aunt Robin,” Ted’s longtime off-and-on love interest (Cobie Smulders) with whom Ted was apparently always meant to end up.
People were pissed.
Of course, that’s not unusual for a series finale — sticking the landing is one of the hardest things a show ever has to do. For one thing, the terms are sometimes impossible to dictate, thanks to an abbreviated season, unexpected cancelation or lack of renewal. And even when the show has some sense of control over its ending (or at the very least, a little bit of warning), it then has to measure up to fan expectations, which can be even more brutal than the critics. “Lost” had literally three years to work up its conclusion, and people still got pretty mad.
Over the last 40 years of television, the only universally beloved series finales are the last episodes of “M.A.S.H.” and… Wait. It might just be “M.A.S.H.” Oh, and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” “M.A.S.H.” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” That’s it.
While some level of disappointment and dissatisfaction always accompany that very last role of the credits, there are a few finales that are considered full-on failures, and the general consensus is that “How I Met Your Mother” is one of them. But after eight months of thinking about “Last Forever (Parts 1 and 2)”… Maybe it’s time we tried to forgive it.
Reasons to Still Be Mad
In writing this, I’m not trying to argue that “Last Forever” was perfect. But the finale’s biggest flaws, to me, aren’t really found in the Ted/Tracy/Robin storyline. Instead, what annoys me upon rewatching is the treatment received by the other half of the ensemble.
The biggest crime the finale perpetrates is that it undercuts one of the major defenses fans of the show would use in support of weaker seasons — especially weaker seasons that drifted away from the original premise. Saying that “It’s a show about friendship and growing older — it doesn’t really matter, who the Mother is or whether Ted eventually ends up with Robin” loses a lot of weight as an argument when that’s literally all the last minutes of the finale are about.
The thing is, when “HIMYM” was at its best, it really was a show about friendship and growing older — transitioning through tough moments and life choices, with the help of the family you’ve formed on the path towards adulthood.
The “Star Wars” jokes, the Slap Bet, the pineapple, Puzzles the Bar, Robin Sparkles, “Haaaaaaave you met Ted?” — none of these things played a major role in helping Ted eventually procreate. Yet all of those moments number amongst the show’s most classic, thanks to the ensemble.
As members of that ensemble, forever-in-love Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) get sidelined more than they deserve by the final episodes, as they often functioned as the show’s beating heart (especially when Ted’s was broken). However, thanks to several flash-forwards to the future, we know that they enjoy a relatively happy and prosperous life through middle age.
It’s really Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) who gets the most screwed: As the show’s resident shallow lothario, from the very beginning Barney as a character had the clearest opportunity for growth, and some of the strongest pre-finale episodes of Season 9 had to do with Barney discovering a new level of maturity, in preparation for marrying Robin.
However, in “Last Forever,” Robin and Barney get divorced and Barney backslides spectacularly into his old ways. Until, that is, Barney has a daughter by a forever-unseen one night stand — being a father cures him of his lothario nature and maybe literally fixes him as a human being? We never know for sure, because he pretty much vanishes from the show afterwards; an unsatisfying coda to a character whose most affecting moments were a major part of the show’s emotional core.
So Lily, Marshall and Barney get shortchanged. But what about the others?
You Had to See This Coming
I first began to suspect, at some point during the show’s eighth season, that the reason Ted was telling his children the story of how he met their mother was that their mother was dead. (My theory that she would be revealed as dead during the finale was actually the first thing I ever wrote for Indiewire, in an article which ran the morning of the series finale.) I was actually nervous about being wrong (though as a fan of the character I wouldn’t have minded too much), but felt comfortable with my guess because not only was there plenty of evidence to support it, it felt tonally in line with the show.
“How I Met Your Mother” had dealt plenty with grief before — the two big examples being Marshall’s father dying of a heart attack and Robin discovering that she can’t have biological children — and while revealing that the Mother was dead the whole time was a bold move, it wasn’t out of line for a show that, despite being a sitcom, had driven me to tears on multiple occasions.
So maybe that’s why I was surprised, at the level of vitriol the “HIMYM” finale received, vitriol which seemed to break down into two separate concerns: People didn’t want The Mother to be dead, and people didn’t like the bait-and-switch that the ending represented.
To the former point — yeah. Death sucks. And there is perhaps a level of cruelty to killing Tracy just as her story in the past catches up with us in the present; it gives the character an ephemeral quality, as if she wasn’t ever real. Just a character in the stories of others, rather than the real star of the show.
But here’s the thing about that: I can think of no better depiction of what it’s like to lose a friend or loved one. Because when someone who mattered to you passes away, in large part that’s what they become — the works they created, the memories they left behind. For Ted and his children, Tracy has been gone for years. But she is real and alive, in these stories. Because that’s now where she lives.
As for the latter. it is true that what occurred was a bait-and-switch: We believed we were being told one love story, and actually we were being told another. After falling in and out of love with Ted and Robin as a couple for nearly a decade, being genuinely unsure who to root for — especially when Tracy entered the scene — that final scene, in which Ted runs to Robin with a blue French horn, felt just a little bit like emotional whiplash. Had Ted and Robin really earned a happily ever after? After all, was that really the story Ted had been telling his children, all these years?
What Makes It (Potentially) Great
The concept of an unreliable narrator in fiction is often belabored to the point of boredom (in fact, I bet the words “unreliable narrator” just now gave you an uncomfortable flashback to high school English class). But in many respects television is only beginning to scratch the surface.
The current standard-bearer is Showtime’s twisty domestic thriller “The Affair,” but “How I Met Your Mother” was also a pioneer, as the show made regular use of its framing device to create both quick gags and deeper cuts, including in-jokes that stretched over years. (For example, Ted’s inability to remember which of his birthday parties featured him having a fistfight with a goat.)
Ted is presented as relatively infallible, as narrators go — when he’s telling his kids something that doesn’t match up exactly with reality, the show calls him out deliberately on that point. Until the finale, when the entire premise is turned on its head.
It all comes down to that last scene between Ted and his kids, which — in case you didn’t know — was filmed in part after “How I Met Your Mother’s” Season 2 finale. The filmed part was, very specifically, the shots of Ted’s kids (Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie) telling Ted that they knew their widowed father was only talking about their mother because he wanted their approval to date Robin.
The decision to film that scene in advance was made because Fonseca and Henrie were aging out of the roles, but the result was that for nearly the entire run of the show, creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays have known exactly how they wanted their show to end.
Unfortunately, the ending they ended up with in 2014 didn’t perfectly match up with that original concept, perhaps because Tracy was integrated too well into the final season. The best proof of that is the fan-cut, then tacitly-approved alternate ending which removed any mention of the mother’s death and instead featured Ted and Tracy, alive and together.
Plenty of “HIMYM” fans would have been satisfied with Ted finally actually meeting Tracy and living happily ever after. However, thanks to that early commitment to what is still the official ending to the show, Thomas and Bays did pull off one of television’s more exciting series finale twists.
From Ted’s perspective, he was telling a love story driven by fate as much as coincidence, a love story where the happy ending, for him, was the two children who wouldn’t exist without it. However, when Ted’s children tell him what story he’s actually been telling — the story of why he and Robin should be together — they make the storyteller fallible, removing his authority over the narrative just as it comes to a close.
It’s a bold move that puts “HIMYM” on a unique list: the series finales that actually surprised us. For some, that surprise was a disappointment. But disappointment is expecting that a life has only one love story, that happily ever after only happens once, that surprises, good and bad, happen along the way. “How I Met Your Mother” was never perfect. But then again, whoever said life was?