“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you find you get what you need.” -The Rolling Stones
Endings are hard, so it’s no surprise that some people who be disappointed by the ending of How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM). But the sheer vitriol and magnitude of the negative response has to be somewhat surprising. How I Met Your Mother was, at its best, as good as any sitcom ever made, and on the whole, much better than most of what was or is on TV.
But the negative response of the ending… it just showed that, in the end, the show was never about The Mother. But that was obvious from the beginning. The twist at the end of the pilot could be written off as a way to get attention, but as the show continued to focus on Ted and Robin throughout the first season, it showed that Bays and Thomas were going after something other than a meet-cute story.
No, HIMYM was never about The Mother. Nor was it really about Ted and Robin, or about any specific plot. It was about that time in your 20s when the future stops being a world of infinite possibilities, and the real choices about who we are have to be made. It was about how we don’t always get what we want, don’t always want what we get, don’t always know what we want, and have to decide between those things we think we want and what we really want.
In the end, the major perceived failings of the finale had nothing to do with the finale itself, and more to do with the last two seasons of the show. However, while HIMYM might have done a better job with the episode requirements they were given, the economic demands of broadcast television required that the show be stretched on too long. Most shows that make it to 100 episodes are forced to limp on to 200, whether it makes narrative sense or not. Once HIMYM pulled itself off the cancellation bubble with the two minute date, it was destined to flail for storylines in the last few seasons. That, however, was CBS’s fault, not HIMYM’s.
Given that, there was a sense that the show forced us to invest in the Barney and Robin relationship, which is true, but only to a point. While their final courtship lasted two years of real time, it was really only a few months of the characters lives. The objection that the show spent two years investing us in that relationship, only to see it torn apart in twenty minute neglects that, in show time, the investment was 2 months, and the teardown was three years. Besides, what were we really investing in if we were investing in Barney?
Barney was always going to be the most problematic character in the show, and that was a fault of casting, not execution. NPH, as incredible as he was, was miscast for the role of Barney. You can see in the early episodes that the character was written for a Charlie Sheen type of actor, with the character being a sort of comic relief, an unrestrained id to act as a counterpoint to the evolving other characters. It was only through Neil Patrick Harris’s inherent charm that Barney became something more.
The problem, though, was that the show always coasted on NPH’s charm, rather than invest in Barney’s character. Barney’s evolution never felt real because NPH always wore the Barney character as a kind of suit, and so that we always saw the good guy NPH under the Barney character. So when the show spent time hinting that the Barney/Robin coupling would not work out (the locket, Barney’s continued duplicity, Ted’s story paralleling Robin’s story during Ted’s engagement to Stella), no one was inclined to believe it, partly because of narrative convention, and partly because NPH would allow some of himself to shine through and reassure everyone.
Barney was often considered the best part of the show, but for the story that HIMYM wanted to tell, he was the worst. If NPH had played Barney more like the way he played “himself” in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, no one would have rooted for a Barney/Robin happily ever after, nor been surprised when it failed.
In the end, Barney didn’t get what he wanted, or what he thought he wanted. But no one did – that was the point…
Marshall starts the series wanting to be an environmental lawyer, married to Lily. Over the course of the series, he has to choose to delay the first desire to have the second, when he chooses to work for GNB to pay for, among other things, his wedding. Later on, he’s able to return to his dream, only to learn that it was something less than he expected. But he gets a new dream – being a judge – that he has to then let go for his wife. He gets all the things he wants, in the end, but there is no chance that the 27-year old Marshall at the beginning of the series would’ve chosen the route taken.
Lily wanted to be an artist. The first time she pursues art, however, forces her to give up the other thing she wants – Marshall. Eventually she has to accept the compromise of being an art buyer, and again it puts her marriage in jeopardy.
Robin wanted to be famous, and she wanted to travel the world. She also wanted Ted, but she couldn’t have both. Later, after giving up on being with Ted, she still wants the close community of her friends, but finds that doesn’t fit with a life that takes her all over the world. You can easily interpret that Barney was a compromise for Robin – a way to take part of her community with her around the world by settling for the one member of the group that would be willing to go with her, and wouldn’t be giving up their own dreams to do so.
And ver the years, Ted’s pursuit of what he thought he wanted – a romanticized, movie-ish type of love story that ended in two kids and domestic bliss – prevented him from getting what he really wanted or seeing what he really had. In the end, Ted got what he wanted, the architecture career, the great love, the kids, but only after he stopped chasing them. And then, like the rest, the version of what he wanted is never what he would have guessed. At no point did he think his happily ever after would only last ten years.
So in the end, for everyone, it was never about happily ever after as much as happy ever after. None got a perfect future, but they all got futures in keeping with their true desires. That’s very different than the normal sitcom ending. But it is a truthful one.
Some other (random) points:
1. One person noted that Robin was willing to invest in her 5 dogs, but not Barney – The dogs (along with Luke’s comment that Aunt Robin comes over for dinner fairly regularly) are meant to indicate that Robin’s itinerant days are over.
2. If the show ends with Ted meeting the Mother, then what is the point? If it really is about him meeting the Mother, then the story no longer makes any sense for him to start with meeting Robin. It would, at best, start with him finding the yellow umbrella, or him starting at Columbia.
3. There seems to be a misunderstanding about Ted pulling a trick on us. Ted really did think the story was about how he met Tracy. But Ted has never been a reliable narrator, nor a character fully in tune with his actions. He may have thought he was telling a story about the Mother, but it was obvious he had Robin too much on his mind.
4. Many commentators noted that Ted’s kids reaction to their mother’s death was callous. This seems to miss the point, which is that they, of course, knew their mother was dead before the story started. They’ve had 6 years to come to terms with that. And they’ve been subjected to a story that has nothing to do with their mother. Our emotional discovery isn’t theirs, so there should be no expectation that they would be choked up by the same things that might get us as viewers.
5. Everything else aside, Carter and Bays deserve some kudos for picking two perfect songs for their final scenes. Everything But the Girl’s “Downtown Train” and The Walkman’s “Heaven” were both melodically and lyrically perfect fits for meeting the Mother and chasing Robin.
6. A much-smarter-than-me-friend also posted on the finale: http://crypticphilosopher.com/2014/04/how-i-met-your-mother-finale/