I’m still not over the How I Met your Mother finale, and now that I have a whole soapbox here I may as well tell the world. This mostly came up because since I’ve been home more often this year, I’ve cycled through my background shows more quickly, so I’ve added HIMYM to the rotation. There may be some opinion thrown in here, so I guess this can’t be seen as a fully legit criticism, but I’m cool with that. I just don’t feel like I’ve gotten it off my chest yet. To keep from rambling I’m gonna try to package my grievances into three main points.
What you see above is an image of the shows most iconic character Barney Stinson (played by Neil Patrick Harris) from season 1 (left) and the ninth and final season (right). Aside from some age and production value there’s not much difference between these pictures, and if you compared Barney in episode one to Barney in the final episode there wouldn’t be much difference there either. That’s where the consistency problem comes in.
Most of the story of this show is leading up to the wedding between Barney, who starts out as a playboy, and Robin, who starts out as someone who values a career over relationships. Neither one was specifically interested in love, kids, or marriage. If you remove the frame of the main character Ted telling his children how he met their mother, the story is basically the tale of how Barney and Robin got together, and what their friends were up to along the way.
Well, you may be wondering under what circumstances these two would get married. Nope, not Vegas (or AC). It was character development! Throughout the course of the show they do both have relationships, and they did have one with each other, and almost did a second time. They were both even engaged to other people at one point. It was through these external relationships that they were able to grow into people that are ready for a permanent commitment. He had to be able to ask, and she had to be able to say yes. They were very well developed, and consistent with the lessons they learned, and experiences they had right up to the finale.
The tl;dr for the finale is that Barney and Robin get divorced, and years later Ted ends up with Robin (a whole other can of worms). Honestly, from a narrative perspective them getting divorced isn’t my problem (it is from the perspective of an audience member though!). People get divorced, people change, circumstances change, but people don’t usually devolve for no reason!
The reason given for their divorce was that Robin was basically choosing her career over Barney. There are many problems with this, but the most important one is that she’s already changed. Not only has she chosen love over her career, or better still learned to balance the two, but she has even had her heart broken by someone who chose their career over her when she chose them. They spent nine seasons truly developing her as a character, and in one episode they took her all the way back to the first episode. It doesn’t make sense for her to neglect her relationship for her career given the way the story played out. And hey, after their divorce Barney went back to being a playboy. Pretty much permanently, until he had a daughter, so I guess he got his memetic comeuppance at least.
The story can go where ever they decide for it to go, as long as how it gets there makes sense. How Barney and Robin get divorced is frankly bullshit, and an affront to their characters, and the entirety of the story leading up to that point, because it goes against all of those things without any reasonable explanation. The overall setting of the entire last season is the 5X hours leading up to their wedding, at the venue barring some flashbacks. It’s the equivalent of the “It was all a dream” troupe. They grew as people, and ended up together over the course of 207 episodes. Sike! No they didn’t.
Set ups and payoffs
As a writer I’ve heard of Chekhov’s Gun a lot. If you haven’t, to put it much less elegantly than Chekhov himself, ‘Don’t include unnecessary details; If you include something it needs to matter. The reason this is important is because the writers for this show know this. The tale told in episodes 1-207 episodes are masterfully, and meticulously woven. Many things are both set up, and paid off. There are so many little details, and sequences that hold so much significance. From start to finish (minus the actual finale) this story makes use of every thread. There are no loose ends outside of those left by the finale.
For example, at one point Ted was warned not to try to date the doctor performing the laser removal of a tattoo he got because of the rule ‘Don’t poop where you eat’. After all was said and done Ted stated that if they managed to get together, if they don’t work out “It won’t be because of some stupid rule”, because people break up for an unending list of reasons. Fast forward a few months, and the doctor Stella leaves Ted at the alter for her ex, because Ted invited him to the wedding, something Stella opposed as a personal rule. “Don’t invite exes to your wedding.”
Given the amount of things that are paid off, both short and long term I know the writers know very well how to write a good story. That’s why the finale is so upsetting, because almost none of it had any foundation narratively. Even if it is possible for it to have happened like it did, it wasn’t established in the least.
Probably the only set up/payoff issue that’s bigger than Barney and Robin’s divorce is the Mother’s untimely death. That’s right! 8 seasons of building up this mythical stranger that overpowered Ted’s seemingly unflappable obsession with Robin, only for her to die so that he can end up with Robin anyway.
As with B&R’s divorce, I understand, people get sick and pass on. Not many couples have the luxury of not being torn apart by mortality. My problem is that in a show that has shown expertise in foreshadowing chose to only foreshadow the mother’s demise 5 episodes before the end of the series. They foreshadowed her name in season 1 when Ted talks about a stripper named ‘Tracy’ (also the mother’s name), and tells his kids. “And that’s how I met your mother.” before revealing he was joking. The kids were taken aback by this, because they knew their mother’s name was ‘Tracy’. Why couldn’t they set up her death, a very important part of this story. You can’t lay out a mystery over 9 seasons of a show and then say it doesn’t matter. That’s not good writing.
Some might want to argue a counter point of: “The story was only about how they met.” To that, I say it wasn’t. The set up in this case is being told that he found the one, then watching Ted agonize, and despair, and be broken down by his search for true love. So the pay off would be to see him having finally found it. We do get some of that, but that’s not where the story ends for that particular set up, so it doesn’t count as the pay off; it just becomes more set up. Ted was telling his kids the story of how they met, but the writers were telling the audience the story of Ted (and Barney and Robin) finding true love. The kids already know their mother, building her up into this enigma was for us.
The Alternate Ending
First of all, they didn’t even do anything different for this besides change the voice over. The alternate ending is otherwise just saying that the show ends on episode 22 of season 9 rather than 23, which for me it did anyway.
The problem with this is that to quote the voice over from the episode out of context: “It’s just that easy.” The narrative could have gone either way, and this isn’t a story that is above having a happy ending. And hey, now there’s a tiny bit of foreshadowing to the mother’s death left in to an ending where she’s alive, but I guess that just means she pulled through. There was an episode about miracles though so I guess even that wraps itself up.
Truthfully that’s about all I have to say about this one, without sorting out some kinda complex thoughts. I give the writers the benefit of the doubt on the lack of additional footage, because this decision was made after filming was done and the finale aired. I even do respect them to a degree for listening to the fans and retconning the ending, even if it didn’t take much effort.
The main defense for the original ending is that it’s “True to live.”, to combat the distaste for such a heavy ending to such a light hearted, optimistic show. I do 100% feel that way, but I could live with it, if it was actually established or foreshadowed, but it wasn’t. Instead they gave us an ending to a story they never told. We never saw tension mounting between Barney and Robin that would end their relationship, we only saw evidence that they were ready to be together forever. We never saw the mother get sick, we don’t know what she was sick with, no funeral, we didn’t see Ted struggle with having lost her. What we saw was a borderline fairy tale about true love with a glimpse of impending doom.
The lesson is this: Finish your story consistently. If your ending doesn’t match your story, then you’ve got more story to tell. If you’re story is a show that’s not getting another season for whatever reason, either finish the story some other way (write a book it’s free), or write an ending that matches what you’ve told so far. Do not shoehorn in an ending that follows a lot of extra events that weren’t actually developed.