Stand up comedian - improviser - writer
  • The Great Distraction: how How I Met Your Mother has been quietly brilliant since day one

    Wed 02 Apr 2014  ·  1:50AM


    Throughout my life, I have seen relatively few finale episodes for sitcoms. Those that I have (Frasier, Friends, Scrubs, The Office, etc) have been fairly typical in their desire to tie up all the loose threads, move the characters on in their lives (new couples, new houses, new jobs, etc), and they have satisfied the fans’ long term devotion by doing so. Other sitcoms have been unceremoniously cancelled without an ending, or, in some cases, simply don’t have a “finale” episode, such as Fawlty Towers.

    Last night however, after nine years of great episodes, intricate flashbacks, flash forwards, a pineapple incident, a goat, a cockamouse, and so many quotable bro-isms, How I Met Your Mother came to an end. But in doing so, it revealed itself to be one of the most poignant, meticulous, and cunning sitcoms to have ever existed.

    For eight of its nine seasons, HIMYM kept viewers enraptured with its central mystery – who is the Mother of Ted Mosby’s kids? – until she finally appeared (played by Cristin Milioti) at the end of season eight, buying a train ticket to Farhampton, to play bass guitar at Barney & Robin’s long prophesied wedding. However, this – one of the greatest mysteries in modern television – was revealed in the finale to be the show’s greatest piece of misdirection. We shouldn’t have been asking “Who is the Mother?” The question we should’ve been asking is, “Why is Ted telling his kids how he met her?”

    HIMYM has always been a show about one man’s pursuit of happiness; his desire to find his soul mate, so he can start living the life he’s always dreamed of. Yet the show was never afraid to reflect the truth about life; that terrible things happen to good people. Ted was left at the altar; Robin is unable to have kids; Marshall’s father dies before meeting his first grandson; Barney discovers that his father abandoned him; the Mother’s (who we now know is called Tracy) first fiancé, Max, dies on her 21st birthday, years before meeting Ted, etc...

    Yet the finale brought with it two of the biggest shock-twists yet: after a whole season leading up to their wedding, Barney & Robin get divorced just two years later, and by the time Ted starts telling stories to his kids in 2030, Tracy has died from an unknown illness, six years prior. Both revelations come out of nowhere, like a sucker punch to the heart as you realise the full extent of the latest tragedies to strike the characters you’ve grown to love.

    It’s almost needless to say this, but such a controversial twist had Twitter immediately in uproar. Many fans – perhaps the majority – hated these revelations; many were outraged that an entire season had been “wasted” on the wedding build up, only for the newly-weds to be divorced in the following episode, but many more were furious that after such a long set up, Ted didn’t get a happy ending with the long-awaited Mother. I feel that their reaction shows the power of the show; despite only appearing in the final season, and with relatively limited screen time, the fans loved Tracy as the Mother completely (with many calling her Ted’s perfect match). This led me to the realisation that while their hatred of her death was primarily directed at the writers (with many calling it a betrayal of both the fans and the characters), what they were actually feeling was grief, and perhaps even fear. Their grief is for the death of a character that they’d grown to love in such a short space of time, and fear, due to the fact that, in this usually safe, escapist, light-hearted world of sitcom, these characters weren’t immune from the unpredictable nature of tragedy.

    So why has Ted been telling the story? If this hasn’t been about the long, arduous journey one must travel towards their infinitely happy ending, what on earth has it been about? The answer to this question is what the “Who is the mother?” distraction has been masking, and – after having said relatively little for nine years – it’s Ted’s kids who spot the deception, and reveal the final twist.

    After six years of grief, sorrow, and loneliness, Ted has been trying to gauge whether Penny & Luke would be ok if he were to start dating again, and more specifically, if they’d be ok with him dating... Robin.

    And suddenly, it all makes sense. From episode one, the whole show hasn’t actually been about the Mother, but about a widowed father who hopes for a second shot at happiness, and is asking for the blessing of his kids. Why else would the story have started with Ted meeting Robin, and not the mother herself?

    If the show had taken the typical sitcom route, the final episode would’ve featured all the characters coupled up, happy and beaming, before Ted wraps up by saying, “and that’s How I Met Your Mother, kids.” But then you’d have been left with a question – why did the story start so far in advance of their meeting? Why did we go through the first eight years, when none of it had a direct impact on how they met? This way, we know it’s because the story was never about that; it’s really about two old friends, who can make each other happy after each suffering a terrible heartbreak.

    One of the Twitter arguments that the finale prompted (and which was responsible for much of the sense of betrayal), was the suggestion that this meant Ted settled for Tracy, and would rather have been with Robin all along. I couldn’t disagree more. Ted loved Tracy more than anyone he’d ever dated – more than Victoria, more than Zoey, more than Stella, and yes, more than Robin. He had two kids with Tracy, he married Tracy, he moved into his dream house with Tracy, and was ultimately devastated when he lost Tracy. If you doubt that, go back and look at Josh Radnor’s performance in the flash-forward part of “Vesuvius” (Season 9, Episode 19).

    At this point, we didn’t know Tracy’s ultimate fate (and unlike others, I failed to spot the significance of these scenes at the time), but the characters did. Tracy’s passing comment about “What kind of mother misses her own daughter’s wedding?” causes Ted’s eyes to flood with tears – clearly, something’s not right. In retrospect, it’s now obvious that this trip to the Farhampton Inn (the place where they met, where they got engaged, and where Tracy went into labour) is to be their last together, before her illness progresses too far. They even use the moment to claim one final victory – they now know all of each other’s stories, and have thus both survived long enough to become an old married couple. But have no doubt about it, Ted – with Tracy’s help – is putting on a brave face; masking the absolute, soul-crushing desolation he’s feeling within, due to the unpreventable, imminent loss of the love of his life. There is no “settling” here.

    On the other side of this coin, is the issue brought about by Barney & Robin’s divorce. Hadn’t Barney changed? He was married to Robin after all – why couldn’t they live happily ever after? Wasn’t he ready to settle down with one woman, after years of womanising? No. The truth is, after years of aiming to make his every endeavour legendary, Barney’s marriage had proved to be just too ordinary; too much like a thing that normal people do, and Barney can’t bear normality. Marriage had trapped Barney in a cage that had happiness out of reach; everything he needed to identify himself existed outside of the cage, and travelling the world to live alone in hotel rooms while Robin worked was stripping him of his happiness. No one woman could make Barney settle down, but one girl could.

    The almost inevitable revelation that one of his MANY hook-ups had resulted in a pregnancy seemed to spell the end of Barney’s happiness, once and for all. Surely, a family is far too ordinary to be legendary? But Barney and James never knew their Dads growing up, so when confronted with his new-born daughter for the first time, Barney stares right into the face of one legendary adventure he’s never experienced before – fatherhood. Barney immediately knows that Ellie Stinson is to be the love of his life, and his one true happy ending.

    And so, with Robin divorced, and Ted widowed, the kids piece together the true purpose of their father’s story – to explain that while he loved their mother completely, he once had another love that might be able to make him happy again now. The kids agree that after six years, they don’t want him to be alone anymore; they love Aunt Robin (as they’ve always known her) and have often spotted the chemistry between them. “Call her,” Luke encourages.

    “Ok,” Ted replies.

    “Do it,” urges Penny.

    “I am,’ says Ted.

    “Good,’ Penny states.

    The kids beam, as Ted picks up the phone, and starts to dial, only to return it to the receiver. “Or...”

    The show ends by coming full circle: Robin gets home with her dogs, only to have a caller at the door below; she looks out the window, to see Ted – suited up – and carrying with him a blue French horn. Robin smiles, and starts to cry – after all these years, and a terrible heartache each, the pair are finally able to offer each other a shot at happiness.

    And then it’s over. Deeply controversial though it is – and outright hated by some fans, I’m sure – How I Met Your Mother’s finale is the culmination of a superb piece of storytelling. It demonstrates the true beauty that television is capable of, but rarely given the chance to do; it’s what happens when you allow a group of artists to carry out their plan to tell a story with a real beginning, middle, and end. It elevates a show that once looked like a rehash of Friends, into an in-depth study of life, loss, love, and fatherhood – the journey one man takes in his relentless pursuit of happiness – in spite of every setback – for both him, and his family.

    Yes, a few details go unanswered (e.g. Was Ted’s Love Solutions match Tracy after all? Who is Thirty-One, the mother of Barney’s daughter? Etc...), but ultimately it doesn’t matter. How I Met Your Mother has raised the bar, and if more shows had this level of planning and foresight, then maybe they too would be considered Legen... wait for it... dary.

    High five!