Wish-Fulfillments Dashed: The One Positive Reaction to the Finale of “How I Met Your Mother”
I’ve had an idea in mind that’s been churning for quite some time now, one that’s really come to light with all of the fiery reactions to the How I Met Your Mother finale. It has everything to do with what we expect from the fictional stories we indulge in, and it has quite a bit to do with the emotional roller coaster HIMYM has taken me on over the past few years.
Like most people, I felt like a decade-long love affair was unraveling before my very eyes when, in a few short lines of summary, the Mother was dead — along with an entire season’s of sparse but wonderful chemistry between Ted and Tracy — and both Ted and the show itself rebounded onto the focus they’ve had since day one: Robin.
After all this time spent building up to the Moment? Knowing from the start that Robin would never be the mother? And Ted! How could the unbreakably romantic guy who believed in destiny and soul-mates ever rebound back with Robin after ten years of marriage and six years being a widower? If you’re infuriated by the way it all ended, then just erase it from your memory and replace it with the below “fixed” ending. But maybe, just maybe, if you feel like going on a journey with me, we can ask those hard questions and admit to why this was an ending so in line with everything the show was about that it hurts. Your choice:
Assuming that the video gets taken down at some point, the final sequence remains almost exactly the same, but the mother doesn’t die (reference the actual finale on CBS.com and reorder the images in your head if you need to). Future Ted’s narration ends right at the end of Ted & Tracy’s conversation underneath the yellow umbrella and he says, “That, kids, is how I met your mother.” The train rolls by, obscuring them from view, and we cut to the final throwbacks of everyone in the first episode. It’s a neat wrap-up that secures the premise of the show AND the happy ending, but it winds up being far too clean and abrupt. In short, it’s all our wishes fulfilled rather than our wishes dashed.
Say what you will about the actual execution of the rushed final two-parter; with the amount of plot covered, it could have made up two whole seasons (which might have been preferable to having one single weekend be strung out for even longer). For all of the funky things the show did with time compression and a narrative framework that scattered the story around, extrapolating that weekend makes sense given the premise of the show. In hindsight, all of the most important moments of our lives crystallize. We hardly ever know what those big moments mean to us while they are happening. It’s only in retrospect that we realize their importance. One enormously important weekend could mean everything to us, an entire season’s worth and then some. We could have spent seasons watching a decade’s worth of highs and lows in Ted & Tracy’s relationship, but it’s more satisfying to hear Future Ted drop some wisdom and to see some of their biggest moments together.
A smart man I know once said, “Often that which is wrong for us can actually be an inherently good thing, but in the wrong context or at the wrong time, it can be the absolute worst thing.”
That was always Robin and Ted, a good thing but always at the wrong time. If Robin had a change of heart too early, Ted never would have met Tracy and he never would have had kids. If Barney had never married Robin, then she and Ted might have gotten back together sooner. If Ted had never become a teacher, he never would have met Cindy OR Tracy. All throughout the LONG history of this show are a series of incredible “what if?”s that all lead to this pristine, culminating moment when Ted finally meets Tracy. It was wonderful. It was perfect. The Universe was aligned.
Like everyone, I had heard the rumors that the Mother might be dead in the future. I had dismissed them as rubbish, and everything in the finale was wonderful up until the montage where Future Ted (no longer Bob Saget!) began to lament how necessary it is to never waste a second with love. In the span of 20 minutes, Ted met Tracy, they fell in love, they married and had kids, and then she died. I was livid. I literally tweeted about slapping the makers of the show.
— Corey Plante (@CoreyIsAFox) April 1, 2014
But I’m digesting that ball of hatefire little by little.
The final beat of the show is Ted casually chatting with his kids about how it’s time for him to move on from the adorable, dead Mother because he “has the hots for Aunt Robin”? Then he shows up with the blue french horn to finally woo Robin with her terrible haircut!? Are you KIDDING ME!? It was too abrupt, too insensitive; for our Schmosby, who preached that Loving was the most important thing we could do and that destiny was guiding us all, to forsake his wife and love someone else just felt so wrong. Wouldn’t he be one of the heroic types to always stay faithful until his dying day? On paper, it’s only natural for a widower to find love again after six years. I couldn’t blame anyone for doing that, but I could blame Ted, especially if it’s with Robin. And the fact that all of this is dumped upon us like an emotional hurricane in a matter of minutes? Ted and his kids had six years to grieve. We had six seconds.
What truly struck an angry chord in me was that all along the show exists in a universe in which we explicitly know that destiny and love are real, but the finale violated that. Future Ted is there on the other side, narrating us through all the ups and downs with all the retrospective insight that comes with his age and experience. We know that Ted meets the mother and has kids with her. Those are facts. What’s also heavily implied is that they all live happily ever after. We’re set up to expect the neat, rom-com happy ending because it’s implicit within the very framework of the show. I wanted the ultimate message to be that true love is not only real, but that it lasts forever. I wanted to get my own ludicrously romantic world views validated, not trampled on!
What the millions of outraged fans weren’t counting on during the finale was that the ending would pay more respect to the running themes of the show than the premise itself.
So ask yourself: what is How I Met Your Mother really about?
It’s not just about Robin. It’s not just about how Ted met the mother of his kids. And it’s not about the dozens of other girls that Ted hooked up with over the years.
How I Met Your Mother was always about the collision of Ted’s romantic naiveté with the real world. What better way to show that then for Ted to lose Tracy, and to show us how he copes? Life is what happens when you try to make plans. Ted has such a hard time over the years because he’s struggling so hard for perfection, for ideas of what he thinks he wants, projecting cosmic significance onto things like lockets, umbrellas, and painted instruments because he constructs them into symbols in his mind. The entire final season is about him letting go of this ridiculousness, and about letting go of Robin. When he’s fully emptied himself of all the baggage he’s accrued over the years, the Universe tosses him a bone and allows him to really, truly fall in love for the first time.
What I’ve come to realize since the airing of the finale is that Ted becomes an entirely different man by the end of the show. He’s no longer the melancholic romantic he started out as. He’s clearly still romantic enough to steal the blue french horn in a grand final gesture, but he’s grown into much more of a pragmatist. Along the bumpy road of life, you can’t really plan everything. You can’t really plan on anything, really. Terrible things happen to us, and all we can do is make the best of it with the time we are given. At every step of the way, the real world was slapping Ted in the face, begging him to wake up and change. Giving up on Robin was the final hurdle, and he was given that dreamy romance he’d always hoped for with Tracy as a direct result.
In the short time that he and Tracy did enjoy together, it was constantly about real life catching up with their lofty, romantic plans. Children before marriage. A small ceremony instead of a giant castle. No hot air balloon. There’s a reason why Ted mentions the fights they had, the sleepy Sunday afternoons, and the 5 A.M. Christmas mornings: that is what love truly is. Love isn’t the storybook romance that young Ted or any other lover of rom-coms wishes it to be.
Love is making the conscious choice — much like what Robin and Barney did — to devote yourself to somebody as much as you can for as long as you can. Love is deepest in the hardest of moments when, stripped of all the passion and romance, it becomes as black and white as a choice of yes, or no. Am I in this for the long haul, even when I don’t feel like it all the time? That’s what Ted realized that weekend at Barney and Robin’s wedding, a lesson that he took with him into his marriage and beyond. Love is an act, a choice, and a more mature Ted says that it’s the greatest thing we do not because it blinds us or inspires us, but because it makes us better people when we willingly sacrifice and give ourselves over to someone else.
Would that lesson be as righteously felt if, in the very end, the kids rolled their eyes at their long-winded father for taking up so much of their time, and Tracy strolled in, plopped down on Ted’s lap and gave him a big kiss? Then the four of them would go eat pot roast or something? Even the “fixed” ending has the quality of sappy, romantic-comedy perfection that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy. What do we ultimately get from that, though? It pollutes our expectations and even more importantly, dilutes our conception of love.
When we watch HIMYM, we watch because it’s light-hearted and fun, because we miss our own youth and the times when all our friends were sitting together in our favorite bar just goofing around. HIMYM functions as wish-fulfillment for the viewer who doesn’t want to lose his core “group” of buddies. I remember I started watching HIMYM a few months after I graduated from college. I was single, depressed, and frustrated. I didn’t even get a job until I was already into season two. I missed the dorm rooms and dive bars and silly dares every weekend. Above all, my single self identified so strongly with Ted’s romantic idealisms. All I wanted to see was for it to all work out perfectly for him, if only so that it might convince me that the same could happen to me.
For 9 seasons HIMYM glorified that youthfully foolish lifestyle, but it was at its bravest and smartest when it broke free of that mold and got serious. That scene where Barney meets his daughter for the first time? Or how about that final confrontation with Lily and Robin in the apartment, when life has finally caught up to them all and The Group has all but dissolved? We’ve all got to learn these lessons one way or another. Better to have a show be honest about all that rather than give us false hope.
The story was ultimately about Ted’s growth as a human being, how he learned to see love in a more mature, realistic way. Growing up doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your childish hopes and dreams, it just means you have to let go and stop expecting perfection. When you cling to perfection and try to control your life, you only wind up disappointed. Ted realized that, and came to use his energy in the best way possible to enrich his life and the lives of his wife and children. In a way that was the ultimate message for his kids: always hope for more out of life, but never expect it all.
The ending to How I Met Your Mother frustrated me to no end, and rightfully so. But what would you rather have: a show whose memorable finale pushes you outside of your comfort zone where you reflect on the nature of love and life OR one that simply reinforces your lofty hopes and dreams?
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Bonus 2: Vulture.com published an interview with Josh Radnor, the actor who plays Ted, and his most valuable response was as follows:
The pilot sets up Ted as this very romantic and idealist guy who believes in “the one.” Do you think the ending and the show as a whole validated Ted’s worldview?
There are different ways to be romantic. A 27-year-old romantic is different than a 52-year-old romantic. He never seems to lose his sense of optimism or that things will work out in the way they’re supposed to. But who knows? There’s that six-year gap after the mom’s gone. Who knows what’s going on with him? But I think he’s one of television’s great optimists. It’s in keeping with the character that he doesn’t seem to be someone who’s resigned and has kind of just turned inward. He’s clearly a good dad. He’s clearly trying to impart some great lessons to his kids. Then his kids give him a little kick and try to take care of him. Ultimately, it’s a really loving cycle they established.