Why How I Met Your Mother’s Controversial Finale Was A Perfect Ending

It’s been five years since How I Met Your Mother’s ending, and about time the controversial finale was reevaluated. What made Carter Bays and Craig Thomas’ CBS show stand out from other inheritors vying for Friends crown was its purposed premise; this wasn’t just a string of adventures involving twenty/thirty-somethings in New York City, it was the romantic story of how Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor in the present, Bob Saget in narration from 2030) met the mother of his children. But that put an increased onus on the ending compared to other friendship-coms.

The final season of How I Met Your Mother was already an extended finale, following the gang in the days and hours leading up to Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin’s (Cobie Smulders) wedding – the foreshadowed day of the meeting – with the Mother (Christin Miloti) Rozencrantzing through Ted’s life. But, then, the final episode took the audience way beyond, charting the years to come: after Ted met the mother, Barney and Robin divorced, Barney had a child, Marshall (Jason Segel) became a judge, Robin drifted from the group, Ted got married and, a few years after, the mother died. After jumping back to show the long-teased meeting of Ted and Tracy, the show concluded with the kids in 2030 convincing Ted to move past their mother and pluck up the coverage to ask out Aunt Robin.

Few TV endings receive quite a strong reaction as How I Met Your Mother’s. The backlash was so swift and strong that the showrunners even released an alternate ending on home video that completely edited out the two biggest points of contention: the killing of the Mother so soon after introduction, underscoring the show’s ultimate victory with sadness and regret, and Ted then moving past her in – for the audience – a matter of minutes to go back to Robin, a character who’s spent the last few seasons building towards Barney. That ending is unchallenging and effective enough thanks to the base show, yet something’s missing – How I Met Your Mother’s true purpose.

The development of How I Met Your Mother’s ending makes the whole thing more complicated. While at first how Ted actually met the Mother wasn’t defined – when it was originally a thirteen-episode order, that honor could have gone to Victoria – both of the major twists were written in stone back in 2007, at the end of season 2: as Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie, who played Ted’s kids, would soon visibly age, the producers decided to shoot their side of the ending dialogue immediately. This locked How I Met Your Mother into an ending centered on the mother’s death and their father ending up with Robin only 20% of the way through its run, allowing very little leeway. Even as the show moved characters in different directions – Robin and Barney being the biggest – the endgame loomed large.

This is often cited as an undisputed stamp on the ending, that How I Met Your Mother’s rigid conclusion rendered any of its post-season 2 development moot. While it’s true that, as much as fans will often praise showrunners having a detailed plan, in practice that can be as damaging as freewheeling, that the show still took characters in natural directions shows this was never a restriction. And all of that ignores one bigger point: How I Met Your Mother’s finale is, actually, quite brilliant.

How I Met Your Mother’s Finale Breaks The Group – Because It Had To

The first half of How I Met Your Mother’s two-part, bumper-length finale offers up a classic sitcom trope: saying goodbye to the primary set. From Friends to The IT Crowd, this has always been a popular way to underscore the episodic events of previous seasons and allow characters to reminisce about good times long gone. Except for How I Met Your Mother, it comes much later and tinged with sadness.

By 2016, Robin and Barney are divorced, Ted has a daughter and Marshall and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) are planning to finally move to the suburbs. Robin comes to the customary Halloween/flat leaving party, but having drifted from the others since her breakup, feels incredibly out of place and, intercepted by Lily when trying to leave early, declares the gang over: “We’ll always be friends. It’s just never gonna be how it was. It can’t be. And that 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 – that’s just not one of those things. That part’s over.” That stereotypical final shot of the apartment is of Lily – in a white whale costume while pregnant with her second child – dispirited by what’s been lost.

The notion that the gang wouldn’t stay the same had been seeded throughout the show. In season 7, Marshall and Lily’s initial move to the suburbs highlighted growing distance, while Kevin’s tirade about the group’s dependency in “Mystery vs. History” broke down the illusion of sustainability. Season 8’s “The Time Travellers” (a very important episode we’ll come back to) further highlighted how, 45 days before Robin and Barney’s wedding, everybody was now on their own, segmented life tracks. And season 9’s “Gary Blauman”, the third-to-last episode of the whole show, ended with 2030 Ted admitting how people drift through life.

How I Met Your Mother’s finale brought a crushing realization about even the strongest of friendships; that life changes in ways we can’t control. In the end, the gang do stay close for the big moments – culminating in Ted and Tracy’s wedding day – but the journey they take is one rooted in harsh reality, highlighting how the rose-tinted sense of permanence traded by ensemble sitcoms is unfeasible. It’s the natural endpoint for a show that was always acutely aware of its true nature that sets up a more subversive ending to come.

The Robin & Barney Problem

At the core of the group’s breakdown is Robin and Barney’s divorce: three into their marriage, Robin’s hectic work schedule puts a strain and, after a drunken night in Argentina, they decide to break up. Splitting the pair up is necessary for the prerecorded ending’s Robin twist (they were only brought together due to Neil Patrick Harris’ and Cobie Smulders’ chemistry in spite of the unavoidable breakup), but that it happened after making the entire final season about the couple’s wedding – and all the doubts and learning that comes with it – is a key point of contention.

This is the trickiest part of the finale as it represents a complete reversion of the past six seasons – Barney first slept with Robin in season 3’s “Sandcastles in the Sand” and carried a flame for her ever since – and passes core development on to shock events; in the end, Barney only truly calms down when meeting his daughter from the 31st one night stand of a “perfect month”. But, all things considered in the execution, it’s fair to say much of the hyperbole sidesteps the rather frank delivery.

The first half of the How I Met Your Mother finale is rather tightly on this aspect, giving the marriage time to show its faults before any big reveal, and it’s folded into the bigger sense of the group changing over time. There’s again that character-logical realism. And, more than just setting up Robin as Ted’s future wife, it also lays down the ending’s core thesis. As Barney says, “This isn’t a failed marriage. It’s a very successful marriage that happened to only last three years.” It may be a joke, but it doesn’t look like Bays and Thomas are being flippant.

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