Wednesday, 13 August 2014

How I met your mother [the ending]

So, this isn't exactly immediately after the release of the final episode but there is still a limited possibility that there are some people out there who want to see the end of #himym and haven't yet had the chance. For you, I say, Really? You're risking a lot to be looking it up online. But in case it isn't obvious, this post contains spoilers of the last episodes.

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I invested years into himym. I watched for nearly a decade as these people became as well known to me as some of my real friends. The heartache of Marshall's dad dying, the excitement of weddings, births and promises of the future all sucked me in and had me weeping and cheering right alongside the characters.

You may imagine my disappointment then when, although the first episode of the 2-part finale had me weeping for a few moments as Ted and Barney high-fived outside the wedding venue, the second episode left me utterly unmoved.1

This was the episode where the mother died. Where Ted and the mother finally meet. Where Barney has a child - just like he always wanted - and without having to commit to *her* mother (which we can only assume is also exactly what he wanted). And where Ted and Robin hook up once again.

By all rights, I should have been in buckets of tears. I should have been (admittedly with a little relocation) in a position to solve the Californian drought. I wasn't. And I resent that hugely. I am about to detail exactly why I was unmoved and I'm spectacularly sorry to say that my analysis suggests the *story* was not the problem. The story was moving and real and convincing (although I have to address the Ted and Robin thing a bit later). What let it down - and I genuinely feel crappy about saying this after some of the more spectacular episodes of Himym - was the storytelling.

Lets look at a general map of the last two series - during the making of which I believe it was generally understood these would be the last two seasons and we can reasonably extrapolate that the writers were working towards a specific end goal.2 The eighth season went roughly as follows:

  1. Ted and Victoria break up. This was critical, obviously, but it was important they didn't just break up. They had to lose any possibility of a future as well as ending their present. The writers needed the audience to decide that Ted and Victoria would not work out. Asking someone to end a friendship on your behalf is something that will only incite resentment in the long term, however understandable the circumstances. In that way, Victoria nullified herself as a potential partner for Ted.
  2. Lily and Marshall become parents and Lily develops her career as an art consultant. This is massively important - both for the continuation and development of their relationship, but also because it provides the real, recognisable stress and strain that many of the audience of himym will be experiencing. 
  3. Barney begins and wins his play for Robin. This is crucial to being the foundation of the final season and the framework through which Ted and the mother meet.
  4. Ted begins his obsession with the locket, reflecting his obsession with Robin and providing the largest continuous story arc over the two seasons.
  5. Marshall is offered a judgship and accepts without discussing it with Lily.
Aside from the stress of new parenthood, which is addressed and resolved fairly thoroughly within 1 episode, there is nothing really distressing here. For a series with such emotional highs and lows, it's suddenly a very plateaued journey, excepting only the proposal episode as a high. Everything that could be intense is dealt with very rapidly. This only gets worse in the final season.  

The two events that form the main arcs of the last two seasons - Marshall's judgship and Ted's feelings for Robin - never really get their time in the sun. Lily hears from Marshall's driving companion, threatens Marshall, when he arrives they "pause" then have their fight later (which is disastrously punctuated by a comic interlude involving Ted, Barney and Robin) during which Marshall asks if he and their children were only the second prize for Lily. This was a devastating question - it should have been given time and investment. Instead, Lily disappeared, Marshall contemplates his "win" and then she returns and they resolve things. Later we get the full story but by that point, there's no long term effect - we know the outcome, so the story loses its impact.

Similarly with Ted's feelings for Robin. We get the one episode *just* before Robin and Barney are due to get married, where Ted lets Robin go. At this time, I observed that everything in their "relationship" was one sided. He was the only one expressing any difficulty with moving on. She wasn't interested. I'll come back to this, but let's face it - when your best man is in love with your fiancee the stress and strain are *significantly* greater than presented here. 

However, moving on. There are lots of very bitty episodes in the final season: mostly using up space, as far as I can tell. The portions involving the mother are spectacularly well written. In the space of a season, they created a character who lived up to all the ideals developed over the first eight seasons, who fit in perfectly with the group without it being blatantly obvious she was shaped to fit a hole they'd created and who was able to rectify the failures of all Ted's previous girlfriends, including Victoria and Robin. 

This made it all the more unreal when there was not one single second spent on mourning her death in the final episode.


Similarly, Barney and Robin had two whole seasons dedicated to their relationship, proposal and marriage. There were maybe two minutes spent on their separation and divorce. As far as we know they never tried counselling, and apart from a single reference to not liking being apart when she was working we don't know what they actually tried to keep their relationship going. The worst part for me was that less than ten minutes later, Robin was wishing she'd never broken up with Ted the "guy she was always meant to be with".

And a quick look at Marshall and Lily completes the tri-factor. Marshall gave up his judgeship for Lily's art career. So why is he now in a job that makes him thoroughly miserable? Isn't Lily's income enough to support them while he does environmental law? What happened to Lily's career anyway? They have a third child on the way and there is no suggestion that she may have to make career decisions as a result.

Now, I have seen it argued online that it makes perfect sense to gloss over these part of the story to the children who are listening because they already know the outcome, they mourned for their mother, they don't need the back story. But you know what? They aren't real. They have never been real. No one in this series is real, except the writers and the audience.

These last two episodes were not written to reach an audience. They were written to finish the story and, as I mentioned earlier, the storytelling suffers.

Lastly, Ted and Robin. Ted and Robin have failed repeatedly in the past for very good reasons. Not because they got bored or because they were temporarily incompatible: but because they wanted fundamentally different things. Is it just coincidence that during the story Ted tells - apparently in an effort to convince them that Robin is the perfect woman for him - Robin is repeatedly portrayed as thoroughly selfish, obnoxious, overwrought by the slightest thing, vain and intolerant. Is it another coincidence that Ted appears to *know* that Robin reverted to wanting him? Is his interest in her genuine, or triggered by this knowledge that the one who got away is actually within his reach again?

I wish the writers had been braver. I wish they had given us the time to experience how much they all suffered; and the time to understand why it happened and to answer our questions. Was Marshall Lily's consolation prize? Did she get it all in the end? Did the group re-bond over the death of the mother, or did the loss of her push them further apart? How did Robin respond to Barney having a daughter when it was one of the things she couldn't do and which caused her significant heartache in the past?

I wish they had spent less time focussing on the happy stuff and instead did what they did so spectacularly when Marvin Senior died. Focused on the realities we all face and give us a way to come to terms with the horrendous things in life that are out of our control.

Alicia

1 I cry at everything. I cried at the end of Free Willy 2. I did not cry at the end of Himym.
2 I heard after seeing the last episode that the "ending" with the kids had been filmed at the start of season 2. That ending would have made sense up  to (I think) about season 4, but it slipped a little at the end of the final season.