First of all, I feel like I need to explain something. As a general rule, I do not have a strong opinion on How I Met Your Mother. I don’t think anyone does, it’s just not that kind of show. How I Met Your Mother, as per the genre tradition of “attractive white people talking in a bar for nine straight seasons,” is not the sort of show that anyone really thinks about beyond it being a source of conflict-free entertainment for 20 minutes when deciding what to watch with your family.
I also want you all to understand that this isn’t me dismissing the show. I enjoyed it! There were episodes that I rank as hilarious (“Slapsgiving” is the first that comes to mind), and some that are genuinely moving (the breakdown of Lily and Marshall’s relationship at the end of the first season, and later the death of Marshall’s father, were particularly affecting). All I’m saying is that, had the show decided to end “predictably,” no one would have complained. No one expected, or even wanted, a twist. Because, again, it’s just not that kind of show.
And yet, here we are. Very much in the “Bad” column of 25 Years Later’s “Art of the Finale” series. In fact, it was the first finale that came to my mind when we were looking for worthy candidates. This, and the finale of Gossip Girl, but that’s for another day.
For now, let us have a quick recap of what actually happened in the final episode, just in case you’d forgot: Ted, our narrator, finally meets the future Mother of his children (a bass player named Tracy, played by Cristin Milioti) following the wedding reception of Barney and Robin. The show then proceeds through a series of flashbacks and forwards to show the future of the group. Ted decides to stay in New York to be with Tracy. Robin’s career as a broadcaster takes off, putting a strain on her marriage to Barney. Eventually, Barney and Robin get divorced, and Ted and Tracy get married and have children. Following his divorce, Barney regresses to his “womanising” until one woman gets pregnant and leaves him with the baby, at which point he immediately stops to become the perfect dad. Robin reveals that she still is in love with Ted. Eventually, Tracy dies due to illness, and the narrative catches up with “Future Ted” of 2030, whose children deduce that this whole nine-season-long narration was all so he can explain that he’s still in love with Robin. They give him their blessing to pursue Robin and he runs to her apartment in a mirror of the pilot episode, carrying a blue french horn. The show closes as the two share a look.
How I Met Your Mother was a sitcom, to be sure, but it was also one that played with, and was heavily influenced by, romantic comedies. That’s not a bad thing. I love romantic comedies—both the good, Nora Ephron kind, and mid-budget “classics” like What’s Your Number starring Anna Faris and Chris Evans. I love their formula, and how comforting they are. You know how they will end, you know all conflicts will be resolved and nothing truly bad will touch these people beyond moderate embarrassment at a fancy party. Romcoms, along with ridiculous action movies, are my go-to comfort viewing, and I love them for it. So the fact that How I Met Your Mother was in large part a romcom was not an issue for me. I liked the focus on the romantic lives of the characters, and the endless meet-cutes between Ted and various women. I liked the fun on-again, off-again aspect of Barney and Robin’s relationship, and the loving nature of Lily and Marshall’s (relative) stability.
I expected and wanted How I Met Your Mother’s final episode to comply with those tropes, setting the show up for lazy Sunday afternoon viewings on E4 or Netflix when in state of uncaring boredom. Yet what I got instead was a forced version of the tropes, as Craig Thomas and Carter Bays imposed their decade-old vision on a show and characters that had since evolved. It makes no sense to me, and is borderline offensive, that the titular “Mother” was so readily dismissed and killed off, despite the fact that she was ostensibly the point of this entire show. This was particularly galling after Cristin Milioti gave a charming, sweet, and warm performance as Tracy for the last season. If she was going to be brushed aside, why make her into an actual character in the first place?
It ultimately felt like she died at the altar of bringing the story “full circle.” She needed to die to give Ted a reason to be telling his kids this whole story, and she definitely needed to die so that Ted could have a guilt-free way to pursue Robin in the final moments of the show. But the problem (aside from the insidious misogyny) is that this represents a misunderstanding of what it actually means to bring a story “full circle.” It doesn’t just mean that things return to exactly as they were at the beginning of the story. There’s more nuance involved than that. Dan Harmon, creator of Community and co-creator of Rick and Morty, understands that, and has been extremely vocal in articulating what this type of trope actually means. He argues that the final stage, as per Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, is to “return” to the starting position but, and this is important, “having changed.”
If a narrative comes “full circle,” reminding the audience of where these characters started, it has to be to emphasise how things have changed. But in the case of How I Met Your Mother, we’re left with this vital question: have things changed? Because the implication at the end of the show is that Ted has moved on (again) from someone he believed to be his one true love (again), and has reverted to the same hollow grand gestures of sentiment that defined his biggest mistakes throughout the show. That doesn’t read as a happy ending, nor a particularly comforting one. It reads as the story of a man who refuses to learn from his mistakes, and perpetuates a self-destructive cycle in the blind hope that it’ll somehow work out this time. To be fair, this is at the centre of much of the show’s comedy. Ted’s refusal to learn from his mistakes and his blind belief in destiny is his central flaw, so in that respect, the finale is clearly in keeping with the rest of his character (if you ignore literally all character development throughout the show, which this finale does for all its central characters).
Grand, sentimental gestures are often placed at the emotional climax of romantic comedies—Harry running through New York to apologise to Sally at midnight on New Year’s Eve, Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister knocking on each and every door in a ridiculously long street searching for Martine McCutcheon, Mila Kunis arranging a flashmob to Semisonic’s “Closing Time” to convince Justin Timberlake she’s actually in love with him (I told you, I love romcoms a whole lot). Done right, these moments can be funny, charming, and make the audience a little bit weepy (at least in my case, on occasion). It’s pretty clear that this is what Thomas and Bays were going for in the finale, somehow forgetting that they’d spent nine whole seasons having their characters talk endlessly about why those gestures are ultimately shallow and aren’t indicative of anything except narcissism. To revert to a grand gesture in the show’s final moments undermines the rest of the show, including the hilarious moment where Ted is rushing into a marriage with Stella. (“What colour are her eyes?” asks Marshall. “…Beautiful,” replies Ted hesitantly. I laugh every time.)
At best, the show’s final twist—that Ted has essentially held his kids hostage listening to a long, rambling story about his early thirties in order to ask them permission to date their “Aunt Robin”—negates any attempt at thematic consistency for the rest of the show. At worst, it suggests that everything in the world exists to satisfy the romantic whims and nostalgia of one man, with all his friendships and romantic relationships subsumed within that. It’s the post-Friends reevaluation of Ross Geller on an entirely new scale, and one with more than enough textual evidence to support Ted Mosby’s pop cultural reputation as a “nice guy” who isn’t really all that good a person.
The bigger question regarding the finale of How I Met Your Mother is one that is extremely simple: why did they bother? I certainly haven’t been able to passively enjoy the show since the finale. Every time I try to put it on Netflix while doing other chores, I get distracted by anger, viewing the entire story through the lens of the show’s final moments. I don’t think that was Thomas and Bays’ intention when writing it, but that’s the show’s legacy. Ultimately, my theory is that because, in the “Golden Age” of television, series finales are supposed to be grand occasions that come with one final twist, Thomas and Bays were convinced that this is what was needed to ensure the show’s longevity.
But that just makes me sad, if I’m being honest. The series finale of Lost is my joint-favourite series finale ever (the other one being Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It worked because there was thematic, and genuine sentiment behind the choices. When Christian tells Jack that the reason all of the survivors are gathered together in the “flash-sideways” world before ascending to what comes next is because their time spent on the Island was the most important part of their lives, that feels right, it rings true. Jack lies down in the jungle and lets himself fade into death in a mirror (or “full circle”) to the show’s first episode, but he has changed—materially and, more importantly, spiritually. He’s found a home, a family, and a purpose on the Island, and gave his life protecting that. It emphasises the extent to which he’s changed from the show’s opening moments.
But not every show has to be Lost. It’s okay to end quietly, if that’s what your show requires. Bojack Horseman articulated this idea in its transcendentally brilliant episode “Free Churro.” Its titular character says that the tragedy of sitcoms is that there’s always “more show,” until there isn’t. He argues that, despite all the grand gestures, nothing can truly change on a sitcom because the show carries on regardless, and so a status quo must be maintained. But that doesn’t have to be tragic. It’s okay to suggest that life continues for these characters much the same as it did throughout the rest of the show.
The appeal of a show like How I Met Your Mother is its static nature. As with the romcoms it drew inspiration from, there’s a formula to be adhered to, and that’s okay. How I Met Your Mother was not a show that needed to be two steps ahead of its audience, and the idea that it needed to justify its charming framing device (the narration from Future Ted) with some kind of twist ending is absurd. A series finale is the writing equivalent of a romcom’s grand gesture—it’s big, exciting, and if it doesn’t work, it rings hollow. The finale of How I Met Your Mother doesn’t read as a hopeful ode to love, but rather a retread of old mistakes, and an affirmation that good, fulfilling structure to a story requires far more emotional intelligence than simply grabbing for whatever imagery will remind your audience of what they enjoyed 10 years ago. For all our passive enjoyment of the show, we deserved better.