ALERT: Spoilers. Lots of ’em.
Exactly two years and one day ago, CBS unleashed the world’s worst April Fools’ Day joke. It was watched by 12.9 million viewers, a record at the time. It was the perfect bait-and-switch: Lull you in with a false sense of complacency, then rip the rug right out from under you without warning.
I’m talking, of course, about the series finale of “How I Met Your Mother.”
It’s no secret that this finale is one of the most divisive in TV history, right up there with “The Sopranos” ending mid-sentence and “Dallas” perfecting the “It was all a dream” trope.
(If you didn’t know that’s how those shows ended by now, sorry. Spoiler alert, I guess.)
The show ran for nine seasons, which was probably two seasons too long, but when you had to wrap up as many loose ends as “HIMYM”’s writing staff did, that’s understandable.
“HIMYM”’s finale was an affront to its viewers and to the very notion of character development, two things that the show historically treated with more care than Marshall treated his beloved Fiero.
And its fans had good reason to love the show (myself included). It was a sitcom on CBS, but it fit none of the standards for a CBS sitcom. “HIMYM” subverted the sitcom genre and carved out a new spot for non-linear storytelling in TV shows. It could make you laugh, cry and think about your life all in the same episode. It even employed different camera setups, switching between multi-cam and single-cam, rare for a network home to “Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men.”
Its relatability was nothing new, though; many articles have been written about how “HIMYM” was simply the new “Friends.” And indeed, it was. The show even recognized that and made fun of it early on.
All straight, white protagonists? Check. New York setting? Check. All of the protagonists live within walking distance of each other? Check. Do they all hang out at their favorite bar together after work? Check. Do they all have easily-definable character traits? Check.
The characters’ defining traits—Marshall and Lily’s solid relationship, Ted’s hopeless and naive romanticism, Barney’s skirt-chasing with a touch of humanity and Robin’s jet-setting, career-driven life were all things we could count on to never change.
And for the most part, they didn’t. If they did change, they were nuanced and subtle changes, much like how real people change in real life. Barney didn’t suddenly become a more in-depth character overnight; it took a few meaningful relationships for him to realize he wanted to be married. Lily and Marshall aren’t the perfect couple; they lie and deal with the same issues as any couple who has been together for that long would deal with. And we learn that Robin, in one of the series’ most painful episodes, is the way she is because of how she was raised and because she learns she can’t have kids of her own.
It sounds dumb to say this about a TV show, but the friends that I watched this show with felt like we knew these characters, and for about four seasons, we would gather together at someone’s house to watch it religiously every Monday.
“HIMYM” became a way of relating to ourselves and to each other- my college friend group has its own Barney, its own Marshall and Lily, its own Ted, its own Robin. Sometimes, depending on which stage of college/life we were in, we were all of them at once.
Which is why, when we all gathered at my friend Austin’s house (our own little McLaren’s) to watch the finale, we promptly got our little hearts ripped out.
We watched what we thought was the perfect ending for all of our characters, until the second half of the finale. Then we learned Robin and Barney, whose wedding was the entire point of Season 9, got divorced after three years. Robin moved away for work and Barney became a dad to a newborn daughter after he tried to sleep his way through a “Perfect Month” (which was arguably one of the more realistic outcomes of the finale; with as many women as Barney’s slept with, it’s a wonder he didn’t knock up some poor girl years ago). Marshall and Lily had Kid #3 while Marshall became a New York state supreme court judge. And, in the moment that should have ended it all, Ted finally met Tracy in the rain after Barney and Robin’s wedding.
But no! The final thirty seconds reveal that the whole reason Ted was actually telling this 9-year opus to his increasingly fidgety kids is because their mom has died (of some mysterious sickness the show doesn’t even bother to explain) and he secretly still wants to bone their Aunt Robin.
“This story is about mom, but she’s barely in it,” one kid tells him.
“It’s been six years, you should move on,” the other one says.
So, after a season where we spend all but two episodes on a three-day time period (Robin and Barney’s wedding), we race through the next six years in 30 seconds? Maybe there’s some commentary there about how life moves fast and slow and seems to be zipping by and at a standstill at all the same time, but the last half of a series finale is not the time to employ that rhetoric device.
The finale ripped up years of characterization, backstory and jokes to selfishly fit the writers’ conceit that Ted and Robin should be together. The titular mother got barely a season of screen time before she was unceremoniously killed off to fit a plot point in a show that was full of character moments.
Naturally, readers were pissed.
Someone even re-cut the ending to make it more palatable, but 20th Century
Fox took it down because of copyright infringement.
Even today, if you search “#HIMYMFinale”on Twitter, you get these results:
Really, we should’ve seen it coming. The finale went to great pains to insert a scene at the beginning that “flashed back” to the first season of the show, when Robin was still new to the gang (even though it was filmed in present day). Lily tells Ted and Barney that the only reason either of them would get to sleep with Robin is if one of them married her, and that once Robin was in the gang, she was in forever. A contrived, telegraphed scene that didn’t need to be there, other than to reinforce Ted’s love for Robin.
Writers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas explained the finale as their way of saying that life is unpredictable, our stories are constantly changing, and relationships are ever-evolving.
Two years later, I kind of get it. Life is unpredictable. You move on from old relationships, you lose touch with some of the friends you had in college, kids get in the way, etc. And people change. The character traits you knew in someone five years ago aren’t the same character traits in that person you know now. But people don’t change as drastically in the ways they were so contrived to be in this finale. By ending the show the way they did, Bays and Thomas essentially gave the finger to the audience and tainted the show’s legacy.
Maybe in the real 2030 the finale will have aged better.
Two years later, it’s not looking promising.