The Internets are ablaze about the How I Met Your Mother finale.
So instead of a bumpy final few years being redeemed by a finale that at least resulted in our hero winding up with a woman we all liked, and who seemed a perfect match for him, we have a finale that turns the title and narrative framework of the show into a case of Bays and Thomas following the letter of the law rather than the spirit, without the slightest bit of recognition that Ted and Robin had become toxic for each other by this season. They and Future Ted promised us that we’d be getting the story of how Ted met the kids’ mother, but all along she was just meant to be a distraction from the real story — like the kind of misdirection Barney uses in his magic tricks.
The finale’s “twist” is that the titular mother is dead and older Ted winds up pursuing Robin. However, I don’t think the finale is a “twist,” per se, like “the friendly psychiatrist was dead all along and this director will never make another movie worth a damn” twist. How I Met Your Mother employed a first person narrative, and something I tell writers all the time is that the narrator requires a motivation, a purpose, for telling the story. (Technically, I tell writers this because my friend Melissa told me this years ago, but I digress.)
In other words, Tolstoy can tell us the story of Anna Karenina because he wants to sell some books, but there needs to be some dramatic compulsion for Nick Carraway to tell us about the summer of 1922. And there is: The events made him return home to the West and his narration of The Great Gatsby is his means of coming to terms with it all. It is narrative as catharsis.
So, when a series begins with a father telling his kids about how he met their mother, all dramatic reason demands that something had to have happened to the mother, which is why he’s telling their story now, at this moment. Sure, he could just be killing time before dinner because his wife decided to experiment with Beef bourguignon, which always takes longer to prepare than you’d think because it’s complicated and French. He wraps up the story as she comes in to announce that dinner’s almost ready. The kids are grateful for their reprieve until the mother informs them she’ll tell them how it “really happened” while their father sets the table. Cue freeze frame of terrified faces and the closing credits. Fans might have preferred this ending but it would’ve been very sitcom-y and not especially satisfying dramatically. To each their own, I guess.
Writers sometimes forget that a first person narrator is actually two characters — the person in the story he’s telling and the person actually telling the story. A writer will provide an emotional arc for the first character but not the second, which is a mistake, I think, and one I’ve made, as well.
The Nick Carraway within the story his later self tells is changed by his experiences with Gatsby and the Buchanans and leaves New York forever. But he’s still unsettled by it all and it’s only in writing it down later, with the distance of time, that he’s able to put it in a larger context (i.e. Gatsby as representation of the failure of the American dream). The younger Nick can only react and recoil. The older Nick can look at it all somewhat more objectively and pass judgment accordingly.
Back to TV, though…
The HIMYM creators chose to have Ted tell this story in order to realize that he loved Robin all along. Others have remarked that this is also the plot of Definitely, Maybe, which had the benefit of being much shorter.
I don’t watch the show closely enough to comment on whether the Ted/Robin pairing was a satisfactory ending. I will say that while I think a reason was needed for the mother’s noticeable absence from when the story was told, I would not have chosen death. Death is too easy a method for providing a story with depth or stakes. We all die. It’s not a unique condition. I prefer to use death to provide a stage for drama, not as the sole source for drama.
So, if it was me, I’d have gone for the other option — divorce. You still have the dramatic ramifications of death, because a relationship has died, which is just as devastating — sometimes more so. After all, everyone dies, and there’s no “failure” in death, which is how many people still view divorce. Gwyneth Paltrow aside. No, divorce is “death” that we think we could have prevented through force of will or different choices. Unnamed illnesses are less interesting antagonists than the internal and external demons that split up couples.
Also, as a writer, I am a big proponent of reversing expectations: Robin and Barney get divorced, but Robin was established as putting her career before all else (frustratingly, something presented as a failing in a woman) and Barney is a rapist sociopath. The surprise would be the marriage succeeding. (Yes, I know in reality, people do stupid things with predictable results, but we seek out stories because reality is decidedly dull.) And the ultimate twist would be this much glorified relationship between Ted and the mother of his children failing. He made mistakes. She made mistakes but life happened and now they live apart.
It also would better serve the reaction from their kids at the start of the series. I can’t imagine two teenagers who lost their mother in childhood rolling their eyes and feeling like they’re being punished when their father starts to tell a story about her. Now, that does seem the reaction of kids whose primary memory of their parents together is fractious. They might not expect a romantic comedy, and it would be eye opening for them to realize their parents actually loved each other at one point.
The kids — the story’s audience — are also characters in the story, and what many fans would have preferred would be a framing story in which they remained static. That’s not my preference. There should be some change in perspective for them. The ending that aired went for that, which I appreciate, but it did not fully succeed, I think.
You would have two ending options with the divorce concept — Ted, through his story, realizes he still loves his ex and he wants to try to reconcile with her. That’s a bit too happy ending for the Sylvia Plath in me, so I’d go for his moving past the anger of their breakup and trying to reestablish a better friendship with his ex, who because she’s the mother of his children, will always be in his life.
Come to think of it, I might have just described the ending of Mad About You. If so, just ignore me.