Wednesday, April 2, 2014

16 Ways the HIMYM Ending Missed the Point

Full disclosure. I am a recovering romantic. For a long time I thought the love in movies was the same thing as love in real life. I didn't look at women as people I could connect with, but I more looked for that unexplainable spark. That sparks, it turns out, has more to do with blood rushing to your junk than your heart. That spark is lust, not love. Love is the real, challenging connection two people make. It's about finding a person you can spend hours and hours and days and weeks and years with and still find a way to put them before yourself.

But that's not what I want in movies and TV. These are stories, told from a specific angle, with a clear vision of love. This ideal is important. Love is something that needs to be explored. That's why I love -- that's right, still love -- about "How I Met Your Mother." Even in the later seasons when the quality dipped pretty far, the show is about expressing love. Be it romantic love or friendship love, it's a show about finding the people you care about and making sure they know you love them.

Before I rip into it, I want to be clear I have a lot of respect for the way the creators chose to end the show. The finale was their highest rated episode, and two days later, people are still talking about it. The finale gave the fans a lot of what they wanted. They validated fan theories. They closed out all the major story lines.

Like I said in my other essay on this, I have been trying to cut the writers some slack. This show should have ended at the end of Season 7. They kept the crew employed for two more years, and for that, I can never truly be angry at them for whiffing the ending. They chose the well-being of their people over the integrity of the show. It's a tough decision to make, but by the end, you'll see how I think a more experienced producing team possibly could have had it both ways.

Section 1:
The Ideal Seventh Season

#1. Zoey - This entire section is going to be Monday morning quarterbacking. Now that I can see how it played out, I think I can see where the show was heading at the beginning of Season 6 (I'm going to start short-handing seasons to S#). In S8, Abby Elliott played Jeannette, Ted's last girlfriend before meeting the mother. She was a funny character, and Lily had a great line about how behind every crazy girlfriend is a guy giving mixed signals. I wonder if these beats could all have been covered by Zoey.

At the beginning of S6, we find out Ted meets the mother at a wedding, so we know right off the bat Zoey is a distraction. If by the end Ted could have reached the catharsis about Robin that Jeannette helps him reach, she would have at least had a purpose. S7, Ted swears off dating because Zoey was such a disaster. Why this would pay off takes a little explaining.

#2 Quinn - S6 ending with the reveal that the future wedding is Barney's sets up the mission statement for the final season. It's about Barney becoming a human being, finally.

Was anyone else confused when Nora disappeared and this other girl showed up? The worst part of S7 and S8 was the endless parade of wholly unnecessary dating going on. The beginning of S6 declared the start of the endgame, so all the random dating from the first five seasons seemed like a waste. Barney should have played out all these relationship beats with Nora before he relapsed with Robin. He tells Nora the truth, Robin stays with her guy, leaving Barney alone again, realizing how much he truly loves Robin. Since we don't have to fill an entire half season, Quinn becomes entirely unnecessary.

#3 - Nick - I love Kal Penn, but what the hell was he doing there when they had this beautiful story in front of them. In S6, when the guys go bar hopping, Robin meets a guy she had a connection with when Ted bought the red cowboy boots. Ted idiotically swoops in and ruins it by saying they were engaged, but they setup this story where Robin could have found her soul mate, they just have to meet up again. They wasted all the good story beats on Kevin and left Nick with this annoying thing of just being dumb.

Moving a few beats up, we start S7 with the reveal Barney is marrying Robin, we give S7 purpose. It's the final season, and in order for Ted to meet the Mother, the two most damaged people in the world have to find each other.

#4 - The Autumn of Breakups - Instead of spinning wheels for an entire season then pulling it back in two episodes, try this structure on for size.

Ted is dating Zoey. Robin is alone, Barney is still a player, but he has finally faced his daddy issues. Robin finally admits to herself she is ready to take Barney back when Barney meets Nora. She does him right as a friend and hooks them up. Ted and Zoey break up, realizing they are terrible for each other and she is trying to ruin his career. End S6 on the reveal that Barney is getting married. Will it be Nora?!?!?!?!?!?!

S7 opens and Barney has to prove to he's relationship material. Ted swears off dating. Robin runs into Nick. She explains she was never engaged to Ted, and it turns out they're perfect for each other. End the season premiere on the reveal that Barney is marrying Robin. WHAT?!?!?!?

We actually see Nick and Nora (ugh, just put that shit together) interacting with the group. They are perfect in the group, thus creating the archetype for what the Mother has to be, not just perfect for Ted, but perfect for the group. In that way, it gives the whole story meaning. This is why the story is about the group because by understanding the group do we truly understand why the Mother is perfect for Ted. Then Robin and Barney hook up.

We get the same hilarious and heart breaking moment when Barney tells Nora the truth, but before Robin can, Nick proposes. Barney is alone, realizing he truly loves Robin, but he wants her to be happy, so he has to watch her be all happy and engaged to Nick, who unlike Kal Penn, is way hotter than he is. When Robin finds out she might be pregnant, she's still with Nick. It brings her closer to Barney, but when Ted takes it upon himself to cheer her up, he thinks it brings him closer to her. Nick wants kids, that ends, and it becomes tragic, not annoying, when Ted declares his love for Robin. He has no idea what is really going on, and he blows it.

That's when he meets Victoria, and she tells him Robin is the reason he can't find love. And no, they don't start dating again because that was stupid. The part of Barney's final play that made me tear up when it aired was when he said that Ted pushing him to Robin was how he knew Ted had finally let her go. There's the story. Ted is alone. He thinks he loves Robin. He blows it. Victoria helps him realize she is just a distraction, he gives his blessing to Barney. Boom, the wedding arc begins and it's only a half season, not a season and a half.

#5 - The Wedding - Let's say for argument's sake, the divorce is inevitable. For Ted to meet Tracy, Robin and Barney have to have a wedding, that's it. Robin's S9 doubts were entirely founded, but since they had to drag out, they got old. If instead of hitting this nail over and over again, we got little glimpses of Barney going way over the top and not really listening to her. We, as an audience, see the impending doom, but since we're riding the wave of excitement with them, we hope it works out for the best.

Ted has accepted his friends are perfect for each other, and he goes head first into being best man. That is, until the locket. When Ted shows up in Central Park, the locket is already in his pocket. He planned on just swooping in and giving it to her, but when he realizes he might still have feelings for her, it feels wrong. It's during this time of doubt that he accepts the Chicago job.

He does the right thing and gives the locket to Barney. He still has feelings for her, but he is determined to do the right thing. So when Robin sees through the lie and confronts Ted and says they should run off together, this isn't a handful of episodes AFTER Ted lets Robin go. This moment, at her wedding, when faced with a chance to have Robin forever, he convinces her to go through with it, not because it's the right thing but because when she is chasing him, he realizes he doesn't really love her. He has been latching onto the feeling of pining for her. In this moment, he truly lets her go.

The wedding happens. As he watches the woman he thought was the love of his life dance with his second best friend, he decides it's finally time to start being Ted Mosby again. He has been so obsessed with dating, he forgot what it's all about. He remembers the excitement of meeting a woman and the possibilities. He knows she's out there somewhere, so he just lets loose and has fun at the wedding. He catches the eye of the bass player, but he has to duck out and catch his train.

Or maybe the wedding falls apart right there.

Or maybe we get the flash forwards of the divorce early in the episode, so we watch Ted tell Robin that Barney is the love of her life, knowing full well he's not. That kind of tragic comedy would be perfect for this show.

#6 - How He Met the Mother - I really like how they introduced the mother at the end of S8. I would have introduced her as a cliffhanger going into the series finale. While Ted deals with his Robin issues, we see her meeting all the gang and connecting with them. We see the near misses and how she is exactly perfect for Ted. We flash back to how she set Barney straight, and we see her nudge Robin into staying at the wedding. None of her annoying backstory.

None of the old lady pushing him to meet the bass player. He just sees the cute girl, recognizes the umbrella and stands up. Then the montage starts. As he walks over to we get Josh Radnor, not Bob Saget, for the first time narrating. He goes back and puts all the chess pieces in place. All the random stories, all the heart break, all the nights at MacLarens. Every moment of self-doubt, every ride in the Fiero. He had to meet Robin and fall in love with her, not just so she could marry Barney, but so he could grow up and be the man he needed to be when he finally met the love of his life. Only after letting Robin go could he really appreciate what true love means to him. It's not meeting your sweetheart in college, like it was for Lily and Marshall. It's not whatever the crazy thing Barney and Robin have. He is open for the first time not to the ideal of love, but to true love.

They meet. When we see them interact, it's not the thousandth time we've seen them together after a bunch of flash forwards. We don't know where they're headed, only that they have two kids and live in Connecticut. In just that short conversation on the train platform, we know they are meant for each other. It may not be a truly perfect happily ever after, but that is how he should have met the mother.

#7 - The Twist - With this structure, the twist ending could have worked. If instead of meeting the mother throughout the finale, she remains a shadowy figure, killing her off could have been funny. After all that build up, the kids are just like, dude, mom's dead, move on. If we never actually meet the mother as a person, she can remain a plot device, and killing her off would be sort of brilliant.

We get the sweet, satisfying ending, then the show reminds us how absurd the show is. It would never be that easy. In real life, you learn and grow and make mature decisions, but this is a fantastical TV show with time travel and robots and Canadian pop stars.

We realize this entire nonsense story was just Ted kidding himself. He idealizes the mother because she's dead, but really, the story becomes very bittersweet. He convinced himself he loved her more than Robin, but in the end, his kids call him out. He is done grieving, and his mind will finally let go of the guilt of realizing his dead wife is not the one he was meant to be with. After all, in the first season, Ted says he doesn't want the perfect woman; he wants Robin.

This, however, does not work if the mother is a fully realized character.

Section 2:
How They Undercut Their Own Premise 

I've seen most of these episodes a few times. I don't think even a crappy ending will stop me from re-watching this show. With all these re-watches have come some points that I've held onto that, for me, telegraphed what the ending was supposed to be. I read a review that said the ending lacked confidence. They had this ending years ago, and they stuck to it, no matter how much the show changed.

In its current form, the ending renders basically everything from the time Barney and Robin started dating to the end of the show completely useless. Ted meets Robin. They date; they breakup. Robin dates Barney, they get married, he meets the Mother. Why did we stick around for half of season 5 and seasons 6-9? There came a point where this pre-planned ending stopped working, and the writers didn't gave the confidence to see their show had grown so much beyond their original concept. I can see now how this ending has been holding them back. There was so much room to grow, but since they couldn't get past Ted and Robin ending up together, they just kept circling back on themselves.

If their intention was for the romanticisms throughout the show to be red herrings, the show grew way past that point. The show became about Ted's search for true love. There are some specific points the show makes that render the ending pointless. These are not red herrings, these are mission statements that the ending completely shits on.

#8 - S1, Ep1 - "The Pilot" - The show opens with the narrator telling the kids he's going to tell them the story of how he met their mother. Their reaction: "Are we being punished for something? Is this going to take a while?" Seriously!?!?!? This is the reaction of a kid hearing a story about their dead mother?

#9 - S1, Ep1 - "The Pilot" - The pilot ends with a montage, which is why I put the cheesy montage in my ideal ending. It would have paralleled the beginning. In it, the narrator says, "But that's the funny thing about destiny, it happens whether you plan it or not... I was just too close to the puzzle to see the picture that was forming." I can't speak for anyone else, but once it became clear the show was just spinning its wheels to the end, this is what I held onto. When the show still had weight, I didn't think about this much. They show has been stringing us along with this one promise. Once the show is over, you will see the full picture. You will see how all these events form the picture of how he met the mother.

Now that I've gone back and watched the episode. The next line in the narration is "That is the true story of how I met your Aunt Robin." Maybe he was always referring to Robin in the big picture, and it was brilliant, and I misread it like I was supposed to. If that's the case, I'm two years past feeling okay with being dicked around by this show.

#10 - S1, Ep9 - "Belly Full of Turkey" - Ted meets a stripper named Tracy and the narrator says, "And that is how I met your mother." Good job internet for predicting this was the mother's real name. The kids' reaction to this joke is like, oh dad, you prankster, so glad mom wasn't a stripper. If she was dead, wouldn't their reaction be a bit closer to, "Dude, not cool. Can you not make jokes about my dead mother?"

#11 - S2, Ep15 - "Lucky Penny" - The end narration states his destiny was to stay in New York because if he hadn't, he never would have met the mother. Not a big thing, just backing up the assumption that destiny refers to meeting the mother, not banging Robin after the mother's dead.

#12 - S4, Ep23 - "As Fast as She Can" - Stella basically lays out how she left Ted at the altar because she realized she never stopped loving Tony, and it would have been wrong to marry Ted. Just to be clear, the lesson Ted pulled from having his heart broken like this was to totally do this to another woman after she'd had his kids and died.

#13 - S5, Ep10 - "The Window" - The narrator calls the story of how Maggie Wilkes reconnected with the boy next door (Adam) the second greatest love story he's ever heard. This episode is about being in the right place, right time. For Maggie Wilkes, it was about her childhood sweetheart coming to town during one of her very brief windows of singlehood. The second best love story ends with Maggie and Adam growing old together with their children. Calling this the second best sets up the expectation that Ted's story has to be the best. It raises the bar pretty high. From this moment, the twist kind of sucks. We are pegging our hopes on this story.

This show nails the big emotional moments so well. They have to be able to tell the best love story ever... and not a story where the woman dies and Ted realizes he loves the girl he loved before her.

#14 - S8, Ep1 - "Farhampton" - This is a big one for me. This is where the show became about something entirely new. This is where the writers were onto something real, and they should have seen it. This is where the show was telling the writers writing it that Ted and Robin were not meant to be together. At the end, Ted confronts Victoria's fiance about why he was running from their wedding. He says that he is looking for a "lifelong treasure of destiny" but Victoria is "almost the thing that you want, but it's not quite." Ted asks how do you know she's not the one, and he responds that it's "...not something that develops over time. It's something that happens instantaneously. It courses through you like the water of a river after a storm. Filling you and emptying you, all at once. You feel it throughout your body, in your hands, in your heart, in your stomach, in your skin... [and your junk]"

Then he asks if Ted has ever felt this way about someone. Ted responds, "I think so." The finace responds to that, "If you have to think about it, you have not felt it."

At the time, this was supposed to be the beginning of what they thought was the last season. This was the mission statement moving forward. Maybe they meant this as a dodge, or one last challenge to Ted's love for Robin. But that's just fucking stupid. This statement was so much deeper. Ted Mosby is idealized love incarnate. We've watched his heart get ripped out, and deep inside, he is always trying to get back in the fight because "Love is the best thing we do." The universe just said to Ted Mosby that Robin is not the one. Robin is not true love. True love is out there somewhere, and until you stop looking at your childish crush on Robin as real, you will never truly find your "lifelong treasure of destiny."

The show told us and told Ted, without question, that Robin is not the one. Of course, he loves her, but she's "almost the thing" and "almost the thing" is not what will complete Ted Mosby. It can't be.

#15 - S8, Ep12 - "The Final Page (Part 2)" - Step 13 of the Final Play in the Playbook states that if Ted tells Robin about Barney's fake proposal to Patrice, that means he has given Barney's plan his blessing. I know nothing can be that neat, and I agree Ted needed one last relapse. But on the heels of "Farhampton," Ted should have definitely moved on from Robin at this point. This moment should have been a more definitive end to the Ted/Robin story. But they couldn't, because they already filmed that thing with the kids at the end. Imagine how good this would have been if they'd stuck to it.

#16 - S8, Ep20 - "The Time Travelers" - The very fact that Tracy died undercut the single most romantic thing Ted did in the entire run of the show. In hindsight, Ted wishing he could have met her 45 days earlier was a clever way to foreshadow Tracy's death. In the moment, though, the writers clearly didn't know what they had. Ted wishing he could have 45 more days with his long past widow is sweet, but it's kind of cliche.

On the other hand, if she wasn't dead, that moment has so much more meaning. It means he loves her so much that he considers every day before he met her wasted. It means his life lacked all meaning before he met her. It means he spent 15 some odd years with this woman, and it wasn't enough. He yearned for all the days to come, so he could have more. He looks back at his life and imagines each of those 45 days as they could have been if only he met her sooner.

If she didn't die, this moment is a real, deep statement of how lost Ted was before he met Tracy and how she brought his entire life into focus. But she did die, and her death took this amazing romantic moment with her.

Section 3:
Conclu-Wait for it-sion

Carter Bays talked himself into a corner years ago. He said he filmed the ending with the kids before they got too old. He had to say it because in the Internet age people deman answers. And that's the problem. I am officially over "we had it planned from the beginning."

It's a stupid way to run a TV show. Fine, have a plan. But you have to be open to the show growing beyond your original idea. Bays and Thomas are now 10 years older than they were when they wrote the pilot. They are wiser, more experienced. They've had time to really sit with their own characters and watch them grow. Fine, they shot the ending, but that doesn't mean they have to use it.

It would have been so ballsy if Bays had backpedaled and admitted he was wrong back when he shot the ending with the kids. One day after the finale, he could reveal his master plan, and show us how wisely he changed it. Instead of allowing the show to guide him to the end, he boasted about his master plan then let it crush him.

Going back to what I said about the middle seasons being meaningless, by sticking to the original ending, Bays shows his series to be more about audience manipulation than storytelling. Bravo on that front. Just the fact that I'm writing this means he created a beloved series that people want to watch and discuss. I will give him credit for having an artistic vision and sticking to it. The last few seasons, though, have just been about keeping people tuned in. The hints and running gags have long since stopped pointing to a big ending. The flash forwards to the big wedding were just to keep us thinking every episode had meaning.

That's what made the latter episodes even worse. As the show ground along, we hated it, wished each episode were important, and half hour after half hour, we were so annoyed when it wasn't. But the promise of a real, meaningful ending kept our butts in the seats.

The biggest cynical move of all was revealing the Mother at the end of S9. The whole last season was a manipulation. Slowly watching a doomed wedding isn't fun TV. Like I said before, making Tracy a real character, while still planning on killing her off is patently evil. It means they didn't care about the satisfying ending, just bringing us back week after week. They wanted their cake and eat it too.

We could all see right through the manipulation, but there we were with a promise of a master plan. Yes, they were dragging the show out, but in the end, it would be all worth it. Not only was the master plan unsatisfying, it did nothing to justify the manipulation.

I'm over the master plan, in all shows. It's a trick to make audiences forgive bad writing. I'd take that over a show that goes slowly off the rails, like the X-Files. How I Met Your Mother has been tricking me for years, and I used to come out the other side pleasantly surprised, like watching a magic trick. The finale wasn't a magic trick. It's a guy who asks the audience for a twenty dollar bill, takes it from a little kid, folds it, waves his hands around, then runs away with the kid's money.

My only hope for How I Met Your Dad is if they can apologize for this ending, right up front. Because if they think high ratings and Internet buzz are signs their finale's success, they may find themselves more alone than Ted during those weird season 7 episodes.

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