Picking up the pieces of How I Met Your Mother's finale

"We'll always be friends. It's just never going to be how it was. It can't be. It doesn't have to be a sad thing. There's so much wonderful stuff happening in all of our lives right now, more than enough to be grateful for. But the five of us hanging out at MacLaren's being young and stupid? It's just not one of those things."

On various social media channels Monday night, it must've seemed like the "group of white people hanging out" sitcom equivalent of The Red Wedding had just gone down. The finale of How I Met Your Mother inspired wildly vitriolic reactions, from righteous indignation to calls for CBS boycotts—that now threaten to undercut the legacy of a good-to-great sitcom about young people living, loving, and learning in New York City.

From the moment it debuted back in 2005, How I Met Your Mother was the most stylistically ambitious sitcom on CBS, sandwiched between The King Of Queens and Two And A Half Men, two other multicam sitcoms that feel positively archaic by comparison. I didn't find the show until a few years later in college, when I procrastinated for finals one winter by demolishing the first few seasons of the show. When it wasn't a surefire renewal for CBS, How I Met Your Mother was adventurous and uproarious, the feisty upstart with familiar faces (Jason Segel, Neil Patrick Harris, Alyson Hannigan) and a then-volcanic chemistry between Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders. But the dodge at the end of the pilot—Ted referring to Robin as his kids' "Aunt"—threw a wrench in the proceedings. Sure, it helped prevent HIMYM from feeling like just another Friends. But it forced the show to keep kicking the eventual solution down the road, finding new ways to keep them apart, even though Bays and Thomas shot an ending in the early goings, as a failsafe in case the show got cancelled.

My relationship with the show has been tumultuous, oscillating between total devotion and utter hatred. I often joked to friends that the most abusive, manipulative relationship of my life has been with How I Met Your Mother. I quit watching the show at multiple points over the last three years, but every time, I came crawling back. I became a fan of the term "pot-committed," so invested in the outcome of the story already that I was now destined to watch through to the end. Though Ted is much maligned, and properly identified as the least likeable character in an ensemble of comedic riches, I identified both with his plight of romance over everything else, and with certain quirks of his personality. (I had to memorize the opening lines to Dante's Inferno in Italian during high school. It stuck.)

Supporters of HIMYM will say that as the seasons wore on, and Ted moved from Victoria to Stella to Zoey back to Victoria again, with all the short-term possibilities in between, the conceit of The Mother isn't really the focus of the show, that instead it's about how Ted, Marshall, Lily, Barney, and Robin lived together in New York for five years, participating in various escapades, and being there for the big moments. For Ted, that was perpetual heartbreak as he sought out romantic partnership—even as his career as an architect inexplicably flourished in the background. Marshall and Lily weathered a rocky path to marriage, and started a family. Robin jumped through the hoops of New York news reporting, slowly rising through the ranks, with a stated goal of working internationally. Barney found his dad, and barely softened when paired with Robin, a choice which can be pointed to as the start of HIMYM's decline, when the impossibility of Ted ending up with Robin reached a critical mass and it became a waiting game of female guest stars to see who would be The Mother.

If there is one element I can unquestionably praise about "Last Forever," it's that Carter Bays and Craig Thomas swung for the fences. This is an incredibly ambitious sitcom finale, probably the most daring since Roseanne. Now that Robin and Barney have tied the knot, the show is free from that narrative constraint, and like water bursting through a dam, the show surges ahead in time to visit the characters throughout the next decade, rapidly catching up to the Bob Saget narrator "present" in 2030. The timespan of this final hour covers new jobs, five births, two weddings, a divorce, and a death.

The entire season built toward the Barney/Robin wedding, with characters swooping in to convince both characters that they were making the right choice. Then after ten minutes at the reception, and one farewell scene that seems to exist only to allow the cast members to say goodbye to Ted on camera, it's onto the ever-quickening timeline, which in some way represents how time seems to just slip away. There's no use covering up what happens here: Three years after the wedding, Barney and Robin get divorced. At this point, Ted and The Mother have a daughter together (which meant they couldn't get married in a French castle), and Lily is pregnant with her third child.

The most salient point here is that Lily makes everyone promise that this divorce—which negates all the focus given to it over the course of the final season, and in events dropped like bread crumbs years ago—won't break up the group. On one hand, she's had two children, and her job meant that she and Marshall spent a year in Rome away from everyone, so she should know firsthand how life tends to intervene. But on the other, she's expressing an easily relatable desire for strong bonds with the people that shared common, rambunctious experiences over nearly a decade in the same place. Fast-forward to the Halloween party before Marshall and Lily give up the apartment, where a dejected Robin leaves early because "the gang" is now a married couple she never sees, her ex-husband is hitting on slutty partygoers, and Ted, the man who used to pine for her and she could have been with, has a child with another beautiful woman. Robin expressing regret at Ted's stable happiness is the first inkling that something has gone sour.

In its best moments, the HIMYM finale yearns badly to resolve the narrative issues of the "white people hanging out" sitcom. I'm not a big fan of Friends, and I didn't particularly have any emotional connection to that highly watched finale. But at the very least, "Last Forever" confronts the problem of this sitcom subgenre trailing off into an ellipsis, with suggestions for each character riding off into the sunset. Lily's insistence that everyone needs to stick together, and her inability to combat the inertia that draws people apart at various times in their lives.

I'm from the Bay Area. Most of my best friends from growing up now live in San Francisco, while I live in Chicago. Not to be a buzzkill, but it's often hard to see and hear about a group of people I know better than anyone else while I'm thousands of miles away with my own group in another city. We can't control the directions that life takes people, whether it be to keep them in a city as part of a group of friends, or scatters them to the wind. Maybe people stay in touch, maybe they don't. As "Last Forever" wore on, I found myself thinking of all the good friends I had throughout college and beyond that have peeled off of my social circle. This is the best HIMYM's finale got, examining what happens to people as they grow older, how they naturally drift, and how that's expected and okay. It's just too bad that instead of dwelling on this sentiment, the show had to go back to the plan Bays and Thomas have had for Ted since the pilot.


"Even then, it what can only be called the worst of times, all I could do was thank god, thank every god there is or ever was or will be, and the whole universe and anyone else I can possibly thank. That I saw that beautiful girl on that train platform, and that I had the guts to stand up, walk over to her, tap her on the shoulder, open my mouth, and speak."


Last year, when Cristin Milioti popped up as the Mother, buying a train ticket to Farhampton, I was overjoyed. She originated the Marketa Irglova role in the stage version of Once, and had an insanely memorable guest appearance on 30 Rock. And lo and behold, she became the cornerstone for How I Met Your Mother's final-season resurgence, because of her chemistry with Josh Radnor and effervescent demeanor.

But here's where the narrative gambit of the season-in-a-weekend begins to break down. Nearly everyone initially balked at the news that Bays and Thomas would frame the final season (at least most of it) at Barney and Robin's wedding. Hints had been dropped over the course of the previous season that Robin and Barney would walk down the aisle together, but the idea that it wouldn't be a dedicated arc, and instead the entire foundation for the final season seemed like a risky proposition.

Then the crazy flashbacks and flash-forwards starting piling up, as HIMYM careened from the past (where several of the gang ran into The Mother), to the wedding weekend (where The Mother pops up to interact with Lily and Robin), to Ted's future courtship with The Mother, the eventual paths of other ancillary characters, and even sidestepping to fill in "How Your Mother Met Me." This structure turned out to be a way for the show to do a deep dive, explicating the weekend as indicative of past, present, and future for these characters. And it turned in some emotional milestones, as Ted finally once and for all let Robin go, his maturity and acceptance that he's not that guy anymore the final sign that he's ready to meet The Mother.

But that nagging ending shot all the way back in the early seasons rendered all of this development moot. Taking in the whole season now, the choice to overload a wedding weekend and imbue it with a season's worth of stories seems like a bad idea in light of how many years got packed into the finale. It probably would've been a better idea to go through with the wedding, then see how Barney and Robin deteriorate, how the group grows apart, and how life brings Ted and Robin to an entirely uncalled for precipice once again.

The Mother's name is Tracy McConnell, and her "first" scene with Ted, huddling underneath that yellow umbrella, is without a doubt the best scene in the finale. It justifies all the buildup, because the spark is immediate, based on a shared history they begin to uncover together. But Tracy's story is ultimately a tragedy. Her boyfriend died young, and she spent years wandering aimlessly through life wondering where her place could be without the other half she believed would be there for life. Then she met Ted, fell in love, had two kids before getting married, got sick, and died 10 years after they met—dying young just like the man she didn't think she'd ever get over. That's a woefully tragic arc to take place in one season, with a ton of development cramped into one hour, for a character that has carried the weight of mystery for nine years. Milioti was wonderful for the entire season, but for the show to yank back all the progress made to reach this point of happiness, only to kill her off (with only a cursory dialogue-free scene to show her hospital stay) did her a disservice out of fealty to an ending written long before the story kept growing beyond the original scope.

At times, it even seemed like Bays and Thomas provided direct rebukes to fan wishes by circuitously torpedoing exactly what they wanted.

Oh, so you think putting Robin and Barney together was contrived, the embodiment of the show turning downhill in its later seasons? Well here's a couple seasons of dating, breakup, elaborate courtship and proposal—with a handful of genuinely affecting episodes to win over a good amount of the doubters—then an entire season spent at the weekend of their wedding, followed promptly by a divorce that invalidates a lot of the time spent at that wedding.

Oh, you think that despite stating at the end of the pilot that she's known to Ted's kids as "Aunt Robin" that he should end up with her anyway? Well, here's a herculean plot to demonstrate that it's precisely Ted realizing that he wants Robin to be happy and he's not the grand gesture guy who kept pining for her that leads him to the mother of his children anymore—he's actually matured through the pain, at a glacial pace. But then we'll kill off the mother and have his kids—who have not only sat through a generous portion of their father's sexual history but a relatively detailed account of "Aunt" Robin's as well—be the ones to enthusiastically point out that he's "got the hots" for her still, and then make a grand romantic gesture that dovetails with the first season finale.

This is what you wanted, isn't it? ISN'T IT? Look upon what ye have wrought with pressurized expectations, ye fans, and despair.

And yet…I still can't completely hate "Last Forever." The turns in the final few minutes, from the montage and voiceover that downplay Tracy's death, to the kids vociferously insisting to 2030 Ted that he "totally has the hots for Aunt Robin," to that final shot of Ted, blue French horn in hand, making the second Very Big Mistake fans hoped the show wouldn't make—they all left a bad taste in my mouth. But it only felt natural for a show I always battled with in my mind to end in a way that didn't go down easy.

It's saccharine for it to come to this, but life isn't perfect. How I Met Your Mother isn't perfect. It never was. I never wanted it to be, despite a few glorious seasons and numerous resurgent peaks during the late-season decline. And I'll remember it better than other shows because instead of making me feel unbridled joy, it caused me to sit and consider a wider range of emotions than most shows elicit from an audience. Be as angry or satisfied as you want that the finale felt like a betrayal, or a triumph of narrative daring. The point of How I Met Your Mother to me is that without the extremes and everything in between, life is less fruitful.


Stray Grand Romantic Gestures

• On the season 6 DVD, there's a feature called "What We Know About Your Mother" where Ted reveals a few things about the Mother that hadn't yet come up in episodes of the show. One of those tidbits: Tracy's favorite flowers were lilacs, one of which Ted gave her on the night they met. The flower attached to Ted's tux at Barney and Robin's wedding? Yep, a lilac.

• I was also really disappointed at the way Lily seems to admonish Robin for steering into her professional success. Sure, she doesn't see these friends as much, but she's a globetrotting journalist doing important work that she wants to do. Surely she has plenty of life experiences that she cherishes.

• "Much of what I do does not make me cry." That's Jason Segel, expressing Marshall's positive attitude about a job he hates, that seems all-too accurate about Segel's actual feelings about sticking it out through the end on How I Met Your Mother when he wanted to move on.