After 9 seasons, How I Met Your Mother came to an end on E4 last night. Ron Swanson has recovered enough to comment
Man, endings are hard. For most of the final, excellent, season of How I Met Your Mother, I marvelled at how assuredly the show was handling its final hurrah. It had introduced its central character, some 9 years into the show’s labyrinthine storytelling, and done so with aplomb; Cristin Milotti became an essential part of this ensemble, as she was gradually introduced to the most important people in Ted’s life, and to us. It took on its most restrictive challenge to date (24 episodes set over a 56 hour period, in one location), and accepted said challenge with relish that even Barney would have to admire. For any show to do some of its best work between episodes 185 and 208 is extraordinary, and Carter Bays and Craig Thomas deserve the highest of fives for how they steered the ship.
The final series showed the programme at its finest. Funny, silly and confoundingly emotionally straightforward, it was a microcosm for the ambition and assurance of the creative team. Bays and Thomas will receive most of the credit, of course, but Pam Fryman, who directed so many of the show’s episodes, deserves the utmost praise. The stylish and often beautiful direction was always undervalued. The show, rarely for a modern multi-camera sitcom, had a look and style all its own. And while the dodgy CGI had almost become a hallmark of the show by the end, occasionally even that had its own charm; see Robin floating away from Ted like a giant balloon that’s he’s finally had to let go of, to understand some of the show’s goofy earnestness.
One of the things that set the show apart for me was the emotional honesty. Many shows attempt to move you, but won’t commit for fear of being uncool. Fittingly for a show whose hero never wanted to allow that fear to stop him from commitment, How I Met Your Mother got the romance right. Ted was a great romantic hero. As Lily says in the show’s finale he deserves our love and respect for his ‘emotional endurance’ if nothing else. Throughout the show, Ted’s love life has moved in and out of focus as the ensemble has all had their moments, but in the final series, the small vignettes of Ted and The Mother’s future are perfect.
That Josh Radnor’s chemistry with Milotti is so instantaneous is credit to both actors. Milotti could have been stymied by the role if the pair hadn’t worked, but they do. Straightaway, and in all of their scenes together, you believe in the importance of their connection. A word for Radnor, who’s never received the acclaim of either Jason Segel or Neil Patrick Harris, but who has given one of my favourite ever performances. His commitment to a character whose progression hasn’t always been easy, who was derided as boring or douchey, is truly incredible. Ted may not always be the centre of his own story, but he’s always the heart of the show. That the final series of the show gives us a chance to see him happy, fulfilled and hopelessly, irredeemably in love would make any problems forgivable.
There are problems, of course. After going along with this group of friends for nine years, it would have been an incredible achievement to give everyone the ending that they wanted. So, instead, they gave us the ending that they wanted. It definitely has frustrated, and will continue to frustrate, much of their audience that the final two episodes played out the way that they did. They will feel that after that investment of time in these people, they deserved a unilaterally happy ending for all of them, that the show let some of its core characters down by the misery it bestowed upon them, right when all we wanted was a perfect goodbye.
As much as it’s natural to wish for the fairy tale, How I Met Your Mother was never that show. No conventional (modern) sitcom has ever put so much misery in front of its characters, nor so blatantly rejected their hopes for a perfect happy ending. For at least five seasons of the show, Ted has sunk from heartbreak to rejection, with even his greatest professional moments soured by romantic pain. Robin reeled from the news she could never have kids, Marshall’s dad died, Lily had to accept that her dream of being an artist was gone forever. Barney’s reconnection with his dad was painful, he made a move on Robin, the love of his life, and was devastatingly rejected (the image of him picking up petals from her room is one that’s stuck with me).
That the final episode shows us that each of these people are going to have to go through some more shit is right for the show, and the investment we’ve made in the characters. To go for a straightforwardly happy, optimistic final episode, without any of the struggles that we know exist in this world, would have cheapened what had gone before. What it does do, though, is show us a happy Ted. We’ve spent too much time seeing him at his lowest to ever want to do it again. Ted, himself, (Radnor rather than usual voiceover man, Bob Saget) tells us that he undergoes ‘the worst of times’, but we don’t need to see it to know it exists, and it’s such a thrill to see his and The Mother’s life together.
Meanwhile, the struggles for Marshall and Lily and Barney and Robin are hard to take, but we end up in a place strikingly like real life, a place where all of the terrible, painful experiences that we endure are blended with all of our greatest moments, and produce a true ‘us’. Lily begs the rest of the group that they’ll all get together for the big moments to come, once they realise that like any group of friends, they’re finally going to hang out less as they get older. They may not all make it to all of those events, but we do. I’m glad we take a rapid fast-forward through the group’s shared lives, and see them all change and grow. I’m glad that the show’s creators count us, those of us who’ve laughed and loved along with the story, as part of this gang.
In amongst the platitudes dished out to How I Met Your Mother, few critics of the show have ever really understood what it’s about, because it’s been about so much of life. While shows like Friends, with which it could never really escape comparison, were just about hanging out with your pals, How I Met Your Mother aimed for more. It showed the highs and lows of great love (never more than in its final episodes), it showed the professional frustrations of being a 30-something and realising that your ambitions and dreams amount to, pretty much nothing to just about anyone else. It embraced the importance of friendship because it knew where we were without it.
In Ted’s lowest moments, the show always portrayed him as alone (the time travel episode, which may, in future be the most heartbreaking to rewatch, is a great example), we still knew that Marshall and the others were there for him. For most of the show, I thought that was what the story was about. Ted was regaling his kids with the story of how he became the man that deserved their mother, and how the love and support of his group of friends shaped him, just as he had helped to shape them.
That story had to show how much his friends meant to him, because they’d been the most important people in his life, right up until the moment he met her. I hope that element remains on rewatching the show, because the most difficult thing about the finale, for me, was the way it changed that focus. It did so neatly, and in a way that the show has seemed to want to go for its entire run, but it’ll take a little time to accept the end as it is, rather than the one I’d hoped for. In spite of that, I doubt I’ll ever stop banging on about how great this show is. It didn’t necessarily stick a perfect landing, right at the end, but, man, endings are hard.