The Point of Fiction, Wish Fulfillment, and HIMYM Reflections
What’s the point of fiction stories anyway?
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories — an essay that predates anything to do with Hobbits — he intimately discusses the “fairy story” as a literary form, which we by extension might just call “fantasy” for simplicity’s sake, or “speculative fiction” for over-complication’s sake. In a broader sense, we might as well even assume that pretty much all of fiction can fall under this umbrella. No matter how outlandish the tale, be it of Hobbits and Orcs or Wizards and Floo Powder, or even something more mundane, fiction is meant to be both vastly different from and intimately similar to real life:
Fairy-stories may invent monsters that fly the air or dwell in the deep, but at least
they do not try to escape from heaven or the sea. – Tolkien
There has to be an inherent logic to the universe and an honesty from the creator of that world. Consistency of universal truths and realism in the psychology of characters make us forget we’re in a “fake” world. Characters become our friends. Their dreams become our hopes. As Tolkien theorizes it, we go on a journey into this other world and experience all the problems the characters contend with, both on a personal and global level. We escape from the problems of our everyday lives and invest in something entirely different. It’s a cathartic enterprise, to plop down on the couch and care only about how Walter White will manage to protect his family from himself, rather than panicking about making your rent on time or getting anxious over your mounting student loans. You run away from your real problems and trade them in for sword and shield, or wand, or maybe just Frances Underwood’s rowing machine. Pick your poison.
We travel into this imaginary world with new eyes, and turn back to look into our world from the outside in, rather than be consumed by the everyday momentum of bills, taxes, and timed appointments.
Sure, plenty of people just fill up their minutes and hours with mindless binge-watching. Every now and then we just want to pass the time, but even then when we are passively leaving our own cares behind, our subconscious is still getting wrapped up in a different world.
So the ultimate point becomes something we might call “wish fulfillment.”
Wish Fulfillment: The Success and Final Failure of “How I Met Your Mother”
We engage with fictional media for any number of reasons: escapism, something to fill the time, etc. but more often than not we watch certain things as a form of wish fulfillment. How I met your mother has always been about appealing to our dreams. Hopeless young romantic men, frequently scorned in a society where aggressive is the
new permanent standard of masculinity, see their own naive charm in Ted’s love of romantic poetry and belief in true love. We know he succeeds in finding “The Mother” – that much is clear about the gimmicked premise of the show. This is a story told in retrospect, a roadmap so that we might see how Ted finally fulfilled his destiny and reaffirmed his beliefs in the power of love. We wanted to watch Ted win at this, because for all the scorn the idea of a soul mate attracts, we all know that we dream it to be true, if only to confirm to us that magic is indeed real.
How I Met Your Mother was always about a story detailing how the adorably naive and romantic Ted Mosby reaffirmed his belief in destiny by meeting and marrying his soul mate…that is, up until the show ended it’s 9-season run on March 30, 2014. Here come the **SPOILERS**.
Despite the guise of the main premise, How I Met Your Mother began with a story about Ted and Robin. At the very end, we come full circle right back to that. Ted’s incessant pining over Robin grew to be a bit grating at times, particularly in the show’s final season when it stands to interfere with Robin and Barney’s marriage. But in true Ted fashion, he bit the bullet and did the right thing, letting Robin go so that she and Barney could marry. If he hadn’t, then he never would have met Tracy.
I take less issue with the logistics of the final reveal on paper than I do with the actual execution of it. Plenty of couples separate these days, and widows remarrying or at the very least finding love again is far from unheard of. Ted was with Tracy for 10 years before she died and only began telling the story after another 6 had passed. In the end he even had his children’s blessing. How could we ever judge him for not wanting to remain alone? We couldn’t. But he’s not just any guy. This is Schmosby we’re dealing with here, the hyper-romantic, soulmate-seeking romantic whose narration throughout the course of the series had been leading him to one place: the Mother. The dramatic reveal of exactly how Ted met the mother was strung out over the course of 9 long seasons. The suspense only grew and grew, particularly when all of the little threads were woven into this tapestry of his destiny.
So we waited for the big reveal. We endured a wedding that was stretched thinner than a microcrape (like what, three seasons total!?) that it collapsed and compressed in the last half hour of the entire series in a scene no longer than two minutes. Seriously, How I Met Your Mother opted to brush past decades worth of plot in the final minutes after spending 45 minutes on a wedding reception that ended in splitsville?
Much of this article is strung together from ancient (or one-year plus) thoughts I had back when the series finale actually aired. In retrospect, I think the finale had a lot of realism that I can appreciate, but at the same time, so many of us watched HIMYM for years because it gave us that respite from reality. Mosby was a character we could root for because we wished we were still so hopelessly romantic. He reminded us all that to love was and always will be one of the most important things we can do. Love is never just a noun. It’s always a verb. It was the idea of Tracy before he had ever even met Tracy that kept Ted going for so long.
To have the final note be that it was ALWAYS about Robin just felt a little bit cheap, which is obviously why everybody freaked out way back then. It has a lot to do with the internal logic of what’s going on. HIMYM was always pitched as the story of Ted, this hopelessly romantic character fighting to keep his idealism alive. Rather than have the happy ending we all hoped for, the finale undid every version of love the series had by either divorce or death, and it did both in the final twenty minutes of the entire series. Nobody signed up for a sad finale. We signed up because we wanted that feeling of wish fulfillment, to be transported to a place where fairy tale endings could still happen. Instead, we got the rug pulled out from under us.