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What Went Wrong With the Finale of “How I Met Your Mother”

[No spoilers here, although some will undoubtedly appear in the comments.]

I’m not a big sitcom guy these days. I can count on one hand how many sitcoms I tune in for. How I Met Your Mother was one of them. I didn’t start watching it from the beginning. In fact, I was barely aware of the show until I started catching cable reruns on the weekends in 2011. I fell in love with the characters and found myself watching it more and more, catching up on everything I missed on Netflix. I found Ted, Barney, Lily, Marshall, and Robin all relatable in their own ways, and even when an episode’s plot would go off the rails, the emotions at its core would remain authentic. And while I’ll admit that Ted’s plotline quickly faded to the background for me in favor of all things Barney, the show’s conceit, that future Ted (inexplicably voiced by Bob Saget) is telling the story to his children of how he met their mother, and its inherent mystery remained compelling to me on some level. With every new woman Ted dated, I wondered if this, finally, would be the woman he winds up with. She never was.

Then, at last, the mother appeared briefly at the end of season 8, although really she didn’t become a character until season 9. We were shown the mother meeting each of the gang separately, all leading up to the big moment when she and Ted would meet. In between, we were treated to flash-forwards, Lost-style, to their courtship and life together. It built an expectation that the last episode, maybe even the final scene of the last episode, would bring it all together in the sitcom equivalent of a harmonic convergence.

And then the final episode came, a two-parter called “Last Forever,” and it was seriously disappointing. Some people liked it. Most hated it. A few, like author Chuck Wendig, seemed personally offended by it. It’s not hard to see why. The finale is wildly problematic, but its biggest narrative fumble is that it marginalizes the mother completely and makes her irrelevant to the story.

This marginalization is demonstrated perfectly in a scene at MacLaren’s, the bar that has been the characters’  home away from home for nine seasons, where the gang asks the mother to take a photo of them all in their favorite booth. So they all sit together for the picture, and the mother stands away from them and takes the photo. I kept waiting for one of the characters — and really, it should have been Ted, her fucking fiancé — to say, “Hold on a moment, you should be in this picture too,” and get someone else to take it. But the writers obviously cannot imagine such a thing, and so the photo is taken to commemorate the moment without the mother even in it. Later in that same scene, the gang makes a toast that’s all about Ted and how it’s been a long, hard trip to this moment of lasting coupledom, which is sweet, except nowhere in the toast do they even mention the mother…or even say her fucking name! IN A TOAST TO THE HAPPY COUPLE! AND SHE’S SITTING RIGHT THERE!

It is clear that to the writers the mother literally does not matter, except as the source of Ted’s children. This irrelevance is further borne out in the final minutes of the episode, which succeed not only in negating everything the show was building toward, but also nine seasons’ worth of character development. I really liked in the episode before the two-part finale when Robin wonders if she should be marrying Ted instead of Barney, and Ted tells her, “I’m not that guy anymore.” No, scratch that, I loved that scene. It was character development at its finest. Ted has moved on. Emotionally, he’s ready for what’s coming next. Bravo, writers! And then they fuck it up at the end of the finale with the most tone-deaf few minutes the show has ever, ever had. Ted hasn’t changed or grown or learned, the writers seem to be saying. Ted is pretty much exactly the same as he was from the start. Mother? What mother? Thanks for watching.

This is what happens when you plot out your finale nine years before and then rigidly adhere to it without allowing room for spontaneity, character development, or the ability to change your mind when you realize something else might work better. In the end, How I Met Your Mother, which I had been very close to calling one of the my favorite TV comedies ever because of its intricate and clever plotting, closed out its story with a lazy contrivance that left a bad taste in my mouth. One that’s very hard to forgive.

Edited to add: Some kind soul on the Internet has edited their own version of how the finale should have ended, and it’s a thousand times more perfect than what we got.

4 responses to “What Went Wrong With the Finale of “How I Met Your Mother””

  1. Michael M Jones says:

    I didn’t watch the finale but I heard about it.
    That video definitely seems like a much better way to wrap up the story, and it will be my personal canon, inasmuch as such things matter. 🙂

    • Nick says:

      Story does matter to us as human beings. We tell each other stories all the time: in books, movies, TV, theater, anecdotes between friends. We can’t live without narrative. On some level, we need it. So does this matter in the long run? Maybe not, but it does matter.

  2. Tom Scholte says:

    Heard there will be a alternative ending on the dvd of How I Met Your Mother. I think the directors did know really well it wasn’t a possibility to leave no one behind with a bad taste. Hopefully, the alternative ending will be the ending you, me, and a lot others were hoping for. Can’t give a final review about the finale without seeing the alternative. Let’s wait and keep calm, who knows what that ending might be. 🙂

    • Nick says:

      I heard about the alternate ending on the DVD, too, but I feel like it’s too little, too late. This is the ending they chose to show millions of TV viewers, and it was awful. The problem is that they tried to have it both ways, to have Ted meet his destiny but still get to be with Robin, and in order to make that happen they had to punish several other characters, including Barney and Robin getting divorced, Robin becoming estranged from the group, and the mother dying off-screen of some unnamed disease. (One Internet comment I saw put it perfectly: “She died the way she lived. Off-screen.”)

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