I realize I’m several years late to this particular party, but I have a huge problem with the originally aired final episode of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. It’s not just that I don’t like what the episode did to the main characters and their relationships; it’s that the final episode undid much of what I liked about the series as a whole.
How I Met Your Mother is the story of five friends and their adventures as the main character, Ted, tries to find Miss Right, as told in retrospect by an older Ted to his children. A lot of the charm of the series is the way it plays with the idea of story-telling and memory: episodes often tell events out of order or literalize old Ted’s slips of memory and half-truths (a person whose name Ted can’t remember is just called Blah-Blah, all flashbacks to college-age characters smoking pot have them eating sandwiches instead, etc.). But beyond this narrative playfulness, one of the things I appreciate most about the series is that it undercuts three of the big toxic tropes about relationships that pervade so much of popular culture. Unfortunately, all three of these tropes are snapped right back into place by the final episode.
At its best, How I Met Your Mother showed that:
1. Women do not exist to serve men’s emotional needs
Robin and Lily, the main female characters of the series, are not just emotional props for the men in their lives but are fully-rounded characters with lives, careers, ambitions, desires, and foibles of their own. The Mother, who finally turns up in the last season, is also a well-developed character with her own quirks, history, and emotional life. Although they all have relationships with men, none of them exists solely to serve the needs of a man’s emotional fulfillment.
In the final episode, however, Lily is largely absent, the Mother—having given Ted the children he wanted but that Robin couldn’t have—swiftly dies of a convenient cancer of the plot, and Ted is finally free to pursue Robin at last, who gamely falls into his arms. From three full and interesting characters, the women of the series are at the end reduced to a nonentity, a plot device, and a cereal-box prize.
2. Men and women can be friends
When Ted and Robin split up after a brief early relationship, they don’t just go their separate ways. After an understandable period of awkwardness and division, they remain part of the same group of friends and develop a comfortable, even intimate friendship. They rely on one another, confide in one another, and look out for each other’s well-being. This is what reasonable people do in the real world. The idea that any relationship between a man and a woman must necessarily lead to either romance or heartbreak has robbed the world of too many potential friendships. How I Met Your Mother showed up this lie for what it is.
Until the final episode, when we discover that Ted and Robin’s friendship was just a holding pattern until they were both ready to fall back into each other’s arms.
3. A relationship doesn’t have to be perfect to be good
In fiction, the conservation of narrative detail usually means that any conflict within a couple is a sign that the relationship is either broken and in need of transformative repair or else fatally flawed and doomed to end badly. How I Met Your Mother avoided this trope by showing us how Lily and Marshal have a good, strong, loving relationship despite their conflicts, upsets, and rough patches, just like most real-world couples. The last few seasons show us how Robin and Barney, despite their own individual problems, grow together into a couple that works.
Then the final episode comes around and the need to release Robin to be scooped up by Ted means that Robin and Barney’s marriage has to come apart at the seams. After several years of the characters figuring out how to make their relationship work, one on-screen argument is enough to break it all to pieces.
As I said, I know I’m far from the first person to gripe about the show’s final episode, but the reason it bothers me so much is because it directly undercuts so much of what was good about the series to begin with. Somehow, good things that end up going bad annoy me more than things that are just bad to begin with.
In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.