How I Met Your Mother was basically the mother of all shaggy dog stories. Each episode started with Ted Moseby in the year 2030 supposedly telling his children how he met their mother… a story that took nine seasons and 208 episodes to tell. Those kids must have missed a lot of school. So when the show finally wrapped up in 2014, there was more riding on the finale than usual; the show was finally going to show us how Ted met the girl of his dreams and lived happily ever after… or was it? In the months leading up to the big finish, more and more fans started to suspect that the mother was actually dead in the future when Ted is telling the story… and I laughed at those people. “C’mon guys,” I laughed. “This is a comedy. Do you really think that after making us wait NINE YEARS for Ted Mosby’s happily ever after, they are really going to punch us all in the stomach like that? Trust me, when Ted wraps up his story, she’s going to walk over and sit on his lap and everything is going to be just perfect.”
So needless to say, I was one of the many people who did not like the finale. I was heartbroken, and angry, and truth be told, kind of annoyed at being wrong.
So for those of you who weren’t Mother fans, here’s a brief recap. The show is the story of five twenty-something friends in New York City. Marshall and Lily are the long term couple, Robin and Ted are on-again off-again singles, and Barney is live-action Quagmire.
The entire last season is set around the weekend of Barney and Robin’s wedding, which is complicated by the fact that Ted is still in love with Robin and Robin doesn’t seem 100% sure about Barney. Meanwhile, the Mother finally appears as the bassist in the wedding band, but Ted doesn’t cross paths with her yet. In the second to last episode, Barney and Robin put aside their lingering doubts and successfully get married, complete with a Ring Bear.
On paper, this should have been the easiest slam dunk of a finale in TV history. A lot of TV shows, especially sitcoms, struggle to find an organic way to wrap things up. Sitcoms are built to keep going forever – characters have an adventure and return to the status quo 24 minutes later. When somebody moves away in a finale, it feels unnatural, like the rules are being broken. But with How I Met Your Mother, the ending was baked into the premise. All they had to do is give us the meet-cute and drop the mic, and the majority of fans would have been happy.
But the hour-long finale had a bunch of curveballs waiting for us:
- First, Barney and Robin, who we just spent several seasons getting together, get divorced a couple years later.
- Secondly, the core group of five friends drifts apart when a bitter Robin stops hanging out with them.
- Then, it turns out the mother DOES in fact die, although she and Ted get 11 years together first.
- And at the very end of the show, after Ted concludes his epic story, his kids explain to him that he’s clearly still in love with Robin. So we come full circle to the pilot, with Ted buying yet another ticket on the Scherbatsky merry go round.
Clearly, this was an episode designed to subvert our expectations, to show us that things don’t always turn out like we want. And theoretically, I like what they’re going for. In real life people and friendships change over time, and when you’re 35 you’re not going to be spending every night in the bar like you did when you were 25. And all through its run, How I Met Your Mother did a better job than most sitcoms with giving the characters a chance to grow. They get new jobs, they have babies, they mature little by little. In one season 6 episode, Lily has trouble accepting Marshall’s corporate job, and misses the old college Marshall. But in the final shot we see that corporate Marshall is also extinct in the future. To quote another mid-2000s piece of pop culture about growing up, “Everything in life is only for now.”
The series’ trademark was always its stories within stories and playful loose ends (it took a deleted scene to finally answer where that pineapple came from), and so maybe the only way this series could have ended was to have Ted start something new, the beginning of another shaggy dog story.
So in theory, a finale that upends our expectations is in line with the show’s themes. But that doesn’t mean that this particular finale pulls it off. The problem is that to get to the ending where Ted and Robin get one more shot, the characters have to act in ways that undermine their long-term arcs and our understanding of who they are. We spent years watching Barney mature into a better version of himself, only to watch him backslide in five minutes of screen time. There was a beautiful final season episode where Barney goes out the night before his wedding and bestows his beloved playbook on an awestruck group of younger guys. It was a really cool meditation on growing older and moving on. And then in the finale, Barney builds a brand new playbook, even wackier than the old one. So what the hell was the point?
And we spent years watching Robin and Lily become best friends, only to have Robin basically walk away in a huff when her choices didn’t turn out perfectly.
Once again, this kind of thing does happen in real life. But it does make Robin seem really unsympathetic, right at the point where we need her to be at her most likable to sell the ending. She was a great character and it’s a shame that she doesn’t get to do anything in the finale except for mope.
Now as for the dead Mother, in retrospect this is one of the things about the finale I’m okay with. Is it needlessly cruel to poor Ted? Absolutely. But I can get behind the idea that the entire series is being told by a guy still processing his grief. The way that their first meeting comes right after we see her funeral is kind of cool.
As for Ted going after Robin again, I happen to feel that she was a better match for cynical fun-loving Barney than painfully-sincere Ted. But I can accept that this is a thing that these characters might do.
But there’s one part of the finale that I am still hella salty about. You see, way back in Season 2, the creators realized that the actors who played the kids were going to look significantly older by the time the show ended. And since the whole joke is that Ted is magically telling this story in one endless evening of family time, they needed to get a couple shots for the finale before they started looking any different. So part of How I Met Your Mother lore was that somewhere in a vault, there was footage of the kids specifically put aside to use in the finale. And man, do those shots piss me off.
No, hell no. Absolutely not. It’s one thing to end with a twist, it’s another thing to flat-out tell your audience they were duped. It was always a story about Robin? Not to me, kid. I’m taking off my Overthinker hat, and I’m going to tell you what I personally felt this story was about. This was a love story about how Ted became the man he had to be to win the girl of his dreams. We see him in the first episode immature, overly attached, neurotic. But then look at him in the final season, on his first date with Tracy. He’s confident, he’s emotionally open but not clingy, he’s professionally successful, he’s totally charming. He wouldn’t have been ready for Tracy nine years ago. Now he is, and it’s thanks to the mistakes he’s made, the girls he’s said goodbye to, and especially to his friends. How I Met Your Mother is about what had to happen to Ted so he could earn his happy ending, even if it’s only temporary.
So here’s my takeaway from this finale. Personally, I would have been thrilled to see everyone live happily ever after, but I’m a softy that way. I cry during It’s a Wonderful Life. If you need to inject surprise and heartache into your ending, that’s fine, but what you shouldn’t do is make the characters act in ways that undercut years of development, and what you REALLY shouldn’t do is tell the audience they were wrong point blank.
Older Ted: The point of the story is that…
Daughter: Is that you totally, totally, totally have the hots for Aunt Robin.
No, just no.
A very good analysis.
Yes, yes, yes! Thank you!
The ending of this show and the second ending of Scrubs will forever be dead to me. At least Scrubs had a good finale before they zombied it back.
I’ve watched the series all the way through 3 times now. Overall, the episode is fine, but the last 30 minutes of the show contrast a lot with the entire last season. So much detail about the wedding and then cover a few years in 30 minutes. Seems wrong.
This captures my issue with the finale as well: if HIMYM had really been a story about how Ted ended up with Robin all along, then the entire last season (or three) is utterly baffling. The show spent HUGE amounts of screen time and energy in making us buy into the Barney/Robin dynamic. One of my favorite episodes of the latter-day HIMYM seasons is the one where Ted finally lets Robin go (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunrise_(How_I_Met_Your_Mother)). And then, just a handful of episodes later, we learn not only that Barney and Robin were secretly terrible for one another (because reasons), and oh yeah, Ted never really got over Robin!
I think they could have made the ending work, but there was no way to do it after spending an entire season with Barney and Robin set up to be a couple to actually root for.
The Barney-Robin season is the result of the show running longer than they anticipated and they had to stretch for more storyline. This ended up investing the audience in Robin and Barney much more than it should have. For that reason, I admire shows with a firm time commitment like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” which is not supposed to run more than four seasons. While I never watched it, “Breaking Bad” also had an endgame in mind.
Whenever bad finales are the topic of conversation I feel the need to bring up the finale I most loathe because it’s from a show I still love: Chuck. Of all the ways they could have ended that show…ugh.
Totally agree with your analysis of Ted’s arc. He would not have been ready for Tracy if he hadn’t gone through those first 8 seasons (well, he probably could have skipped season 6 or 7). And she probably wouldn’t have been ready for him had she not gone through the events of “How Your Mother Met Me” (by the way, that episode doesn’t get enough attention). When he is finally ready, we can see how far he’s come from Robin-obsessed Ted, and how much of an improvement he’s made. Tracy even literally says that he’s the Best Man when she first talks to him. How much more plain can it get that it’s a good thing for him to move forward and not backward to Robin? I actually think the meet-cute is so good, that it does enough to (at least partially) save the finale from what comes next. Thanks Matt!
I am not going to argue that the show executed the story perfectly, but I think it’s important not to read Ted and Robin as superseding Ted and Tracy. Getting together with Robin in 2030 doesn’t mean that marrying Tracy was a mistake or a waste. He loved Tracy and was happy with her. But in 2030 he is a widower and he and his kids have had the time to process some of their grief. It’s not unreasonable for them to accept that he is ready for a new relationship.
Sure, I have no quarrel with the idea that Ted would do this in 2030. My issue is with the way the story was presented. The creators, in effect, announced that the Mother was always a red herring. “You made us sit down and listen to this story about how you met mom. Yet mom’s hardly in the story. No. This is a story about how you’re totally in love with Aunt Robin.” To me, the correct response to that would have been, “No, you kids missed the point entirely.” Apparently the one who missed the point was ME, but I don’t have to like it.
Honestly, I feel like the ending could have been a lot better if they had just acknowledged this was really and earnestly a story about the Mother, and then pivoted to his reunion with Robin. Recontextualizing the whole series as an attempt to lay the groundwork for his reunion with Robin leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
This is like when the Insane Clown Posse announced that all their songs are really about the glory of Jesus. Sure, they’re the creators, and they get to play that card if they want to. But you can excuse some of the fans for feeling misled and alienated.
Well — the very first episode was about how he met Robin. Robin was in fact the throughline of a large chunk of the story. His feelings about Tracy and the story he is telling his kids about the past are mixed up with his feelings for Robin. I don’t remember whether it is made clear in the show or not, but I didn’t think that it was meant to be Ted trying to tell his kids he loved Robin, but rather that it was Ted reminiscing about Tracy and because of his feelings for Robin, he talked a lot more about his relationship with Robin and his kids saw his state of mind more clearly than he had consciously done.
It can be simultaneously true that he wouldn’t have met and married Tracy if all of the things he talked about hadn’t happened and made them right for each other and also that he and Robin weren’t right for each other earlier but are right for each other now.
I was disappointed that Bob Saget didn’t play 2030 Ted, although they would also have needed and appropriately-aged Robin to go with him.
I just realized that after Ted finishes the story the kids say Ted and Robin are “so obvious” when ever she visits for dinner.
We don’t ever see these scenes because there not part of Ted’s story. In fact, we only really have one instance where Robin meets Penny. Its a brief scene where Ted is showing his daughter a building and Robin just happens to walk by.
I feel the show always revolved around when to withhold and when to reveal important information. For the most part, I think the writers did this without cheating until the end. I think if Ted was a little bit more of an unreliable narrator or gave a few more hints that Robin was back in his life–maybe by showing one of these dinners–the last few minutes of the show would have been less jarring.
I’ve never seen an episode of HIMYM. My only interaction with it is reading fanfictions where Robin Scherbatsky is a cover identity for SHIELD Agent Maria Hill. That being said I really enjoyed this analysis. It sounds like the creators were either over ambitious in writing their twists or lost touch with their fan base.