Curtain Call: How I Met Your Mother finale is more half-baked coda than conclusion

Curtain Call is a new series of articles on Backlog Adventures taking a look at the finales of the most popular shows of the last twenty years. In addition to asking if a finale works as a conclusion to the series, we’ll be looking at the mystique and emotional manipulation that comes along with the concept of a series finale, and if the finale in question ultimately serves the greater good of its show’s legacy. 

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I’ve never seen a community turn so sour than the minutes preceding How I Met Your Mother’s 2014 finale. The ninth and final season of the perennial CBS hit was a divisive topic of conversation in social media and the show’s Reddit subthread. News broke late in the eighth season that the cast was asking for a Friends-esque payday to return for another season and fans were left wondering what stories were left to tell, outside of the obvious one in the show’s title.

All of this led to a final season that is almost a bottle episode in nature: An entire 20+ episode season focused on the three-day weekend of Barney and Robin’s wedding. At first glance the concept is equal parts intrigue and disaster, with my initial thoughts at the time asking how they’d fill so many episodes without resorting to outright filler content.

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In this respect I give the show runners credit: How I Met Your Mother was a series that leveraged continuity and history with intelligence and wit, something not often found in the modern sitcom. This might be due to the fact that Ted’s story — and the story he tells throughout the series — is all about fondly looking back on the past and reveling in the sanctity of personal stories and in-jokes.

In that regard, season nine’s biggest strength is filling episodes that don’t push the main plot with more backstory set in the past and even more call-backs to beloved characters, jokes, and moments.

Season nine is a fine collection of episodes, but ultimately suffers from a lot of wasted time and potential. I’d be more willing to forgive How I Met Your Mother for so much wasted screen time if it isn’t for the fact that the two-part finale is a constant, stinging reminder of the filler that came before.

The Mother

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By far the best thing about the final season and HIMYM’s finale is Ted’s future wife, brought to life by the charming and brilliant Cristin Milloti. The constant worry throughout the series was that The Mother would be a hollow, one-off scene, or worse: stunt casting with a famous actress.

I have to imagine that the plans for the mother were a carousel of changes, given that the show almost ended more than a few times, with initial plans for Sarah Chalke’s Stella to end up as the titular character.

As these things go, plans change and feelings evolve as a show is given time to hang around just a little too long. I will paraphrase Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight: You either die a beloved show or live long enough to see your show become a twisted vision of what it should be. Firefly will always be loved because the show wasn’t given a chance to spurn viewers, while shows such as Dexter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (more the former than the latter) went on past their creative expiration dates, twisting and decaying into something unrecognizable as the original show.

I mention all of this because The Mother should have been the ‘jumping the shark’ moment; a much-hyped and already beloved character brought in to solve everyone’s problems and be perfect, all without earning the trust of the viewer.

Somehow, beyond expectations, The Mother avoids this ‘Mary Sue-esque’ ending, becoming the best thing about the last season and the finale. Tracy is the core strength and weakness of the last season, as so much of the plot hinges on her, yet viewers know so little and see hardly any of her.

Much of this is fixed with the Tracy-centric episode How Your Mother Met Me, giving Tracy the background and pathos she deserves, as well as charming me for eternity with her rendition of La Vie En Rose.

Yet, the biggest misstep of the last season — minus a few touching and well-done fast forward scenes where Ted and Tracy’s life are fleshed out — is that The Mother is largely absent. She’s always floating in the periphery of the plot, but never steps up and becomes a fully-formed character in the same way as the main cast.

Which leaves the finale to do most of the heavy lifting, crushing those last two episode’s ability to give everyone the send-off deserved.

The Finale: In which everyone is just sort of there, waiting

The finale’s worst mistake is that the Ted we see in most of the finale is not the same character throughout the series. This post-Tracy, self-assured Ted is one who is less character and more flawless, ‘happily ever after’. The Ted present for the last season is still a conflicted individual who has mostly given up, ready for a new start and learning from his past, haphazard mistakes.

This is to say that in the finale Ted has no central conflict to work out, despite being at the core of the episode. The viewer knows how his story turns out — minus one thing, which we’ll get to — and instead opts for this weird post-script where we see each of the main characters slowly fade into the background. Showing the main cast through the following years in and of itself isn’t a bad plot device, but it literally serves as a reminder that season nine was a waste of time as they slide Robin and Barney’s divorce into play.

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I wish part one of the finale had actually been the first episode of the season, setting up that the end-result of wedding weekend was always going to be divorce and hurt feelings. Instead, the show spends 20+ episodes telling a specific story, only to dump out the baby with the bath water and show that nobody has learned anything in the process.

Robin and Barney are back to square one, Marshall and Lily never truly resolve their own issues in a realistic way, and Ted is sort of just “there”, happily awaiting for Tracy to die of White Lady Disease in a voiceless montage with minutes to go in the finale.

Actually: Let’s stop and talk about that.

The Death

The thing most people know about the How I Met Your Mother finale is that The Mother dies in a rather underwhelming way, just before Ted’s kids tell him that “six years is long enough” and that he should ask out Robin.

After rewatching the entire series again recently, I see that the eventual Robin/Ted connection is far more seeded and present than I thought at the time of the finale. That said, the move still rings hollow, with Tracy becoming nothing more than just another girl in Ted’s life that pushed the plot of him ending up with Robin forward.

This result was unavoidable, and stems from the show’s insistence that history and continuity stands tall above all rational storytelling. When the series first began the creators filmed footage for what they wanted the finale to be, which includes the weird, stilted footage of Ted and Tracy’s kids telling Ted that he should move on.

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This means that the Robin/Ted angle was always the final play. This is a problem because as the show matured and progressed a number of holes get blown in the Ted and Robin relationship, making it hard to believe that they’re supposed to be destined for one another somehow. Telling a story about how Ted became the man he needed to be for Tracy is one thing, but is then thrown to the side at the last minute so that the show could book-end with Robin still feels hollow and short-sighted, even upon multiple viewings.

The fact that Tracy dies the way she does sends mixed signals, giving the impression that the story was never really about Tracy and Ted, and she was no better to the plot than Victoria, Stella, Zoey, or even Jeanette. Tracy was just another lesson Ted apparently needed to learn so that he could end up with Robin.

In light of Tracy being such an awesome character, this entire arc falls apart, leaving viewers such as myself feeling as if season nine was a waste of time, telling a story that didn’t need told.

But, hey: At least the wedding was nice, right?

The Legacy

How I Met Your Mother is tough to watch now, knowing so many of the set-ups, inside jokes, and hallowed memorable moments are all in service of a finale that falls flat. That said, I don’t feel like the final season or the finale fails as a summation of the parts that made up How I Met Your Mother.

As I’ve grown older I relate more and more to the finale’s message that memories are something to hold on to, but not something to live within. The scene where Ted and Tracy worry that they know each other’s stories is something that rings true to my own marriage, but is something that, in my opinion, should be celebrated. We all grow old, move on, and learn more about life as we go. Never should anyone mourn the lost days of youth, because it was better to have them at all than to never experience them in the first place.

That is the ultimate legacy of How I Met Your Mother and the finale: Our lives are a series of tales and moments, but they are not what define us as people. I don’t think that HIMYM suffers from lasting too long and decaying into something unrecognizable from the original vision, but I can’t help but think that the show does a disservice to fans with an ending that feels more like fan fiction than an actual conclusion.

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Want to discuss this topic? Disagree? Leave a comment and let’s talk. Otherwise: Join us next time on Curtain Call, when we take a look at Dexter: Portrait of a Lumberjack.

Will Harrison

@DoubleUHarrison

Will is a freelance writer and reporter in Austin, Texas that has appeared in Unwinnable Magazine, VideoGameWriters, and Venture Beat. He is also the gaming critic for the Toledo Blade, a daily newspaper in Toledo, Ohio and a staff writer for Curse and Twitch’s Gamepedia. His wife and two cats keep him sane above all else.

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