The Last Five Minutes of How I Met Your Mother, False Symmetry, and the Teleology of Popular Fiction

himym

Austin Duck

Whether or not you watched the end of How I Met Your Mother, chances are, at this point, you know how it ended. You know that, after nine seasons of Ted’s search for the woman of his dreams, they’re together for less than an entire episode, that the writers decided it best to kill her off and to position Ted and Robin together as a kind of OTP (one-true-pairing for those who aren’t fan-fiction aficionados) fated across dozens of years to end up together. Predictably, the Internet has had two reactions: those who have shipped (another ff term for you all) Ted and Robin all along are delighted, surprised maybe, but ultimately very pleased by the seeming symmetry of HIMYM (with Ted and Robin coming together in the first episode and then, against all odds, again at the last).

And then, there are the others, the ones who are outraged by the narrative violations that have occurred to bring Ted and Robin together, and the major characters who, developed over nine years, are reduced and cut out, subordinated to one-bit characters with forced “revelations.”  These fine folks have taken to the Internet, decrying WORST EPISODE EVER and HOW COULD THEY DO THAT TO BARNEY and HOW ARE TED’S KIDS OVER THE DEATH OF THEIR MOTHER IN SIX YEARS, OKAY ENOUGH TO SAY ‘GO AHEAD DAD, FUCK AUNT ROBIN, WE DON’T CARE’ and, while I don’t normally feel one way or another about tv shows (I mean, I watch them obsessively, but I tend not to care enough to take to the keyboard), I want to weigh in here, not so much about my feelings but about the structural incongruities that seem to have everyone convinced that this finale didn’t quite do what it needed to.

Before getting to the meat of the problem—the problem of teleology—I want to consider the bizarre symmetry attempted in the final episode, in the few remaining minutes after 25 years have been traversed in a few telling vignettes. The last scene, Ted standing outside Robin’s apartment, blue-French-horn-in-hand, while she perches on her window ledge, surrounded by dogs, is taken shot-for-shot (and, for the most part, line by line) from the first episode during Ted’s first “Big Robin Gesture.” (BRG) Between this and the fact that, season after season, the show is actually populated by a series of BRG’s—stealing the horn, inviting Robin to his wedding with Stella despite her wishes, refusing to marry Victoria at the expense of his friendship with Robin, the locket, etc.—one could almost make the argument for coherence, for a consistent, over-arching theme that, while obscured by the minutiae of week-to-week, season-to-season, was always there, hiding in plain sight, brought forward by the symmetrical ending as the point of the show, the issue at hand, the inevitable, meaningful, always already there. Almost.

Unfortunately, this narrative violates the promise that initiates the very reason for the show, the story to the kids… the explanation of how Ted meets the mother of his children. While I understand that, narratively, things happen, characters change, have more chemistry than the writers expected, etc. (I’ll address this in a minute), the show’s framework—the search for Ted’s baby-mama (as the show would have it)—puts pressure on narrative, directs and controls it, in the same way that a sentence front-loaded with subordinate clauses, continuously delaying its main point will create, nay demand, a kind of resolution. Let me demonstrate:

Despite Ted’s feelings for Robin always coming back, and despite the fact that Ted and Robin seemed both to fundamentally want the same things, and that Barney and Robin, as cute as they were, didn’t seem, exactly, to mesh (likely because of the way Barney was rendered as pathological, sick by the end), and even with Marshall and Lilly’s blessing and the support of Ted’s children, the apparatus of the show, promising a resolution of “How I Met Your Mother,” was subordinated, cast aside as not-that-important compared to something that, by all accounts, didn’t really need to happen.

Imagine someone telling you a story for nine years, only to reveal in the last few seconds that it wasn’t important, that there was another story that should have been told, that the hook you’ve been on (and on and on and on) has been sleight of hand.

It could happen, I guess, it could work (God knows Anne Carson could make it work), but what starts as a narrative gag had better lead to something larger, more satisfying, more inevitable. And does this? Do the symmetry and the BRGs create an inevitability large enough to make the audience forget they’ve had a big one pulled over on them, that all the wishing for Ted’s happiness, the giddiness at each glimpse of the yellow umbrella, every vision of a lady playing a bass guitar, has existed exclusively so that the writers can give you something you already had and that, ultimately, you were already okay with losing?

Because that’s, really, the problem with the “inevitability” ending: We were all okay with Ted and Robin going their separate ways. We’d been promised someone even better than Robin, and, in a show that crosses nine years in real-time (and 25 years total), we been promised change, growth, that Ted at 27 (the one who fell for Robin) didn’t know what he wanted, that the course of their friendship and their mutual considerations for one another altered them, that they were able to be happy for each other, to consider one another, without being together. We were promised (episode to episode) that Ted and Robin’s friendship would become adult, that Ted would realize his wants couldn’t change hers, the she didn’t want what he was selling, and, until the last five minutes of the finale, that’s what we got. We saw nine years of growth, promise, real tenderness, thrown away—Barney and Robin, so suited for each other in their ways, are torn apart because Robin won’t stop traveling for work (though she was willing to give up her work for a relationship with Don), Barney, the complicated, deeply sick, good-natured friend and lover, reduced to horn-dog caricature so the audience can stomach the split with Robin, the woman of Ted’s dreams, the woman we’ve all searched for for nine years, killed within 30 minutes.

And, as if anticipating our resistance, we, the audience, are characterized as two kids who’ve been listening to this story for years’ we’re denied the ability to grieve or refuse Ted’s moving forward, are told (through our own voices) that mom’s been dead for six years, and Aunt Robin’s great, that the ending, the fulfillment of change, is this that we recognize as a regression, a circle. Sure, if we had six years to “know the mother”—in any capacity other than flash-forward montages—, had known Ted’s grief at her passing, known Ted and Robin’s interactions as an adult, perhaps this could have worked. But as it stands, it just doesn’t.

Instead, the final minutes become just another iteration of popular fiction’s tendency toward teleology, toward forcing an ending because “the writer wants it” rather than “because the narrative demands it.” To cite the most popular instance of teleological fiction, just think about Twilight: It’s clear, even to those only have a passing familiarity with the books, that Bella, the protagonist, has much more chemistry with Jacob (the werewolf) than she does with Edward (the glitter-vamp). The text, and the characters within it, were asserting their own relationships, their own order (as, really, the fundamentals of writing are learning how to listen as a text, a series of character, write themselves), and the author, Stephanie Meyer, ignored it. She wanted an ending that the text didn’t want, and she got it, awkwardness and all. The same thing has happening in HIMYM.

I can’t speak to the writers’ values, why they wanted what they did, or why they’ve made the choices they have. However, for whatever reason, they’ve written (produced, and aired) something not nearly so conscious of the narrative itself as of the hopes and dreams of whoever was writing it which, realistically, no one cares about.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image source: Today

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4 comments

  1. “Sure, if we had six years to “know the mother”” – this is exactly what the problem was with the whole episode. Instead of things happening organically, it felt like Barney ditched Robin, went wild, had a baby and softened up again all within 10 minutes, and that Ted just couldn’t want to get rid of the mother. It felt like a summary of another 9 seasons. Just a really awkward way to end the series.

  2. Austin,

    I love the narrative setup and I agree with pretty much everything you say…except the role of the audience-as-Ted’s-kids. See, the benefit that we, the audience, have over Ted’s kids is having actually SEEN his struggles over the course of the show. In real life (I get it…we’re not TALKING about real life here, but bear with me), someone orally telling a story, no matter how long or short, would never be able to communicate the sheer amount of information that the apparatus of the show has communicated to the viewer. So, in real life, his kids couldn’t really have any sort of conception about the sheer torture and quasi-tragedy of Ted’s love life. Not like we, the viewers do.

    If you approach it from this perspective, I think you could make the argument that the mingling of kids and audience serves the purpose of giving Ted (and the “shippers”) what he wants because he has EARNED it. Ted tried so hard for so many years to find love, and we saw him make a lot of mistakes. He paid for them dearly, as should any foolhardy protagonist, and we all felt good when Ted “just found” his true love standing there on the platform with the yellow umbrella. He wasn’t trying anymore, which is sort of the way love works: it comes most naturally when you stop trying so hard. Good job, Ted, we all think. You’ve finally figured it out. I think because of this “victory” on Ted’s part, we (via the plot vehicle of his almost-grown-up kids) can allow him to have the love he wanted all along because we know he knows how to get it the “right” way. It’s like I tell my poetry students when they try to get away with not punctuating their poems: you can’t break the rules until you can work within them effectively. Because we, the audience, are now satisfied not with Ted’s outcome, but his process, we’re more likely to give him the end he was seeking all along because we’re more confident that he won’t foul it up like all his early relationships. A simple pair of teenagers on a couch couldn’t do that, I think, which is what rescues for me the way we’re conflated with them in this finale.

    I know this is kinda sketchy, and contains holes, and is not completely responding to what you’re writing about, but I’d be really interested in hearing more of your thoughts on this.

    Great post,
    Eric

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