Editor’s Note: When Jaime came to us with the idea for this post, I laughed and laughed and laughed some more. “You KNOW how I feel about the HIMYM finale, RIGHT?” It’s been two years and I am STILL angry. True to my word, I’ve never gone back and watched an old episode since the finale aired. (I never did get around to having a bonfire with my DVDs though.) I still quote it and reference it fairly often, but it is always with a sense of melancholy (“Ugh, remember when that show wasn’t dead to me?”). Needless to say, I was very curious about what Jaime would have to say regarding loving something that I personally find to be indefensible. I may vehemently disagree with him but he raises many points that are valid. YOU DO YOU JAIME. It’s the Head Over Feels philosophy after all. Thank you for your bravery in owning up to this. It actually made me want to watch the show again.
But I won’t. How can I watch something that no longer exists? 😉 -Kim
It’s been two years since the end of How I Met Your Mother, and I think it’s finally safe to admit it: I loved the finale. Whew! I said it.
Had I come out with this opinion when it first aired, I likely would have received a barrage of angry tweets—but hopefully some of the backlash fires have died down by now, and we can talk about where it worked, where it didn’t, why it was doomed from the get-go, and the idea that while it may not have been the ending that most fans wanted, it was the one that Ted’s story needed.
Why Most Series Finales Stink
Series finales are a dangerous TV tightrope for writers: they have to keep their balance between pleasing the fans and successfully completing their character and story arcs. If they lean too far in one direction, they fail, and either end up with a beloved, pandering mess that betrays the ethos of the entire series, or they end up with a tight storyline that leaves behind an angry mob of devoted watchers. Serving both the fans and the arcs is the trick; the stakes are high—there can only be one finale—and so are the expectations, particularly for shows that have been on for several years.
Every show approaches the conundrum a little differently:
Seinfeld gave fans what they wanted by using the final trial as a way of parading every guest star or catch phrase they’d ever used on the show; at the same time, the trial itself was the direct result of years of the gang’s horrible selfishness. The story demanded that there be consequences for their years of bad behavior, and landing them in jail was narratively perfect.
Parks and Rec dropped all pretenses about caring about serving the series-long storyline arcs when they jumped into the future. From a storytelling perspective, the show absolutely should have ended at the end of season 6 (because, you know, that ending was about the triumph of the entire Parks Department, and everyone within it); instead, it slogged on for another year, and ended with a finale where every character magically lived happily ever after in their own personal paradises. While it was easy to walk away from the series finale in a good mood, the last episode completely abandoned what made the show great: small moments of zaniness in the most mundane of settings.
The Community finale—one of my favorite half-hours of television ever, period—prioritized character arcs over fan service, but respectfully. By constantly asking questions throughout the episode, like Annie’s “If I were a character in a TV show, and I was in my sixth year of community college, at some point, wouldn’t the audience start to feel sorry for me?”, Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna wrote a closing that ultimately got us to want the characters to move on. Where they could have spent the time taking a victory lap through side characters and paintball—*cough, cough*, Community season 4 finale, I’m looking at you—they instead prioritized their character storylines in a way that openly explained why that was the best choice.
Now, on top of the challenge of writing a good series finale, ending a show becomes exponentially more difficult when the entire premise of the show is based on solving specific mysteries for viewers. LOST was based on the implicit promise that we would someday find out exactly what was happening on that damn island. The Fugitive finale set ratings records based on the promise that we would discover the truth about the one-armed man. Arrested Development kept viewers in suspense for three years, promising answers to questions like: was George Sr. innocent? And if so, then who was sabotaging the Bluth family? When fans have been watching one of these “I want answers, dammit” shows for years, the finale has far more gravity (and pressure upon it) than a typical TV show.
So in this context, the HIMYM finale was doomed from the start: forty minutes was never going to be enough time to do right by fans, provide character closure, and deliver the epic romance we’d been waiting nine years for.
Where the HIMYM Finale Worked…
But like I said, I think they gave us the ending Ted’s story needed, and actually did do right by the fans too—so let’s get into all of the reasons behind this opinion. (It’s OK to get a head start on writing angry response tweets if you want to start now.)
Ted’s entire narrative arc was based on a consistent pattern: his heart was constantly pulling him in directions that his head was unwilling to admit he wanted, and the most meaningful moments of the show were interactions of someone pointing out this hypocrisy to him. It started in season one: Ted was in a cab on his way to Robin’s, and his head was literally unable to cope with admitting his feelings for Robin, so he imagined Victoria there, explaining it to him. And while it wasn’t always about Robin—he did, after all, spend a season denying his feelings for Zoey—we did repeatedly see Ted acting on feelings he wasn’t willing to acknowledge, and the members of the gang took turns calling him out on it.
Sometimes, watching this pattern play out was endearing—in “Home Wreckers,” it’s Marshall who knows that Ted is going to keep the house he bought, before Ted does. In “The Slutty Pumpkin Returns,” it’s cute to know that Ted is more into the idea of their romance than the reality. And other times, it was sad to watch how this flaw held him back. In “The Autumn of Break-Ups”, Victoria is more aware of Ted’s feelings for Robin than Ted is (technically for the second time). By the end of the series, it had almost become a trope: Ted has feelings / Ted acts on his feelings / Ted denies having said feelings / Ted’s actions cause conflict and leave him single, again / someone points out to Ted the feelings he was acting on.
So from the perspective of his character arc, what needed to happen was for Ted to one day admit his feelings in a way that led to happiness rather than conflict. For Ted to have learned any kind of lesson in the series, he needed to be placed in a situation where he could follow his heart before he denied it. The final version of the trope needed to be: Ted has feelings / Ted acts on his feelings / someone points out to Ted the feelings he was acting on / Ted admits said feelings / Ted’s admission leads to him being romantically happy.
And that’s what happened. In the final moments of the finale, it was his kids who were in the role of pointing out Ted’s hypocrisy to him—obviously the action of telling nine years of stories about Robin spoke to his feelings about Robin. And instead of denying it to the point of unhappiness, he finally admitted it, and acted on it. Finally—finale! finally!—Ted was saying to another character, “You’re right, I’ve been acting on feelings I haven’t admitted, so now it’s time to admit them and act on them even more.”
What’s more, ending it this way gave the kids a major function in the structure of the series. For nine years, they served as ornaments. Had the show ended any other way, there would have been no reason to include them at all—the show would have held up if you cut those parts out—but in the end, we saw why they were there all along. They were there to be the agents of closure on his arc.
…And Where It Didn’t.
So: that’s why it needed to end that way. But…the finale itself was far from perfect, and did a lot of disservice to anyone who wasn’t Ted. Let’s talk about that.
At the risk of sounding like an apologist, it’s important to point out here that there was never supposed to be a ninth season. The showrunners were caught off guard by the renewal, and the concept of capturing Barney and Robin’s wedding weekend in an entire season was an awkward solution to having to draw out the show for another year. Which is all to say that the finale inherited that bad decision, and in many cases, that ruined the chances at satisfying closures for anyone who wasn’t Ted.
Let’s focus on the finale’s biggest sin: Barney and Robin.
The most common outcry about the finale was that it was awkward to spend an entire year preparing for Barney and Robin’s wedding, if it was only going to last all of 15 minutes. And that’s fair.
For me, however, the issue here is one of pacing, rather than events. I had no issue accepting that Barney and Robin weren’t right together in the long-term: throughout season nine, each of them had cold feet so many times that I was actually surprised when they went through with the wedding. It didn’t surprise me when they started having problems, and it didn’t bother me when they split. What did bother me was that it happened so quickly in the finale; there was so much ground to cover that the few scenes we saw of their deterioration as a couple felt dismissive. Again—the finale was doomed by how much they needed to accomplish in 40 minutes, and it was left to reconcile the bad decision of season nine’s premise, but nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that there must have been a better way to split them up than the passing nod that we got.
Instead, we saw both Barney and Robin reset to their season one character arcs: he needed to get over womanizing, and she needed to find happiness by balancing her career and her personal life. And again, the pacing problem reared it’s ugly head—if more time had been spent on them re-learning these lessons, I would have bought in, but to get them from reset to fully realized growth in one episode was too much. (As a side note: they should have taken a lesson from You’re The Worst, which paused before the first season finale to travel back in time three years. As a plot device, this allowed the audience to better understand each character’s long-term arcs without disrupting the flow of the finale. Imagine how much better the HIMYM finale would have been had we gotten an entire episode to understand how Barney and Robin fell apart! Then we could have gotten rid of the ridiculously racist “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra.”)
And while Robin’s path in the finale on some level represents a step forward ideologically (I grew up in the era when Murphy Brown was allowed to be a news anchor, so long as each episode’s story constantly focused on her struggles with balancing a career with her desire to be a good mother), I didn’t see the need for her to explicitly be so unhappy and incomplete. While Robin was the primary agent for one of the big lessons of the show—friendships evolve, and they’re a lot more work after your 20s—it seemed cruel to paint a picture of Robin as being so empty. Isn’t it more likely that she would have found new friends while missing her old ones, rather than spending her life as a lonely spinster?
“Kids, This Was Never About Your Mother.”
In the end, I’m able to get over my disappointment about Barney and Robin, because the finale played one last card that made it brilliant. The finale placed the audience in Ted’s shoes—it pointed out to us that we were far more emotionally invested in the five main characters than we were in Ted’s relationship with Tracy.
The kids’ job was to say, “Look at your actions—your actions show that this was never about our mom, it was about Robin (and your three other friends, and incidentally, every woman you banged in your 20s).”
So we have to look at our own actions as the audience: tuning in each week, staying on board for nine years—we’d been acting more on the desire for closure for the five main characters than we were to learn about the mother. Like Ted, we may have insisted that we were watching to learn about the mother, but our commitment as viewers spoke to caring much more about the gang. And we got endings for each of them.
I spent a lot of time being frustrated with the finale, and every time I watch it, I still can’t help rolling my eyes through major portions of it. I get over this, partially, by watching the last three episodes at once–because episode 22, “The End of the Aisle,” is the start of the show’s goodbye, and Marshall and Lily renewing their vows is really the last proper scene they got together. (This makes me feel better about how little they’re featured in the last two episodes.) But as endings go, I got what (I didn’t know that) I really wanted: closure on the five main characters, and a realistic portrayal of how life goes on after an era of close friendship. How I Met Your Mother was always brilliant at grounding it’s silliness with emotional realism (I’ll never forget the death of Marshall’s father), and the last episode did that.
How do YOU feel about the HIMYM finale two years later? Still angry? Have you softened towards it? Did you ALWAYS like it? Let us know in the comments!