lesserjoke

Kids, let me tell you a story about the time I asked the creators of “How I Met Your Mother” if they regretted the decision to end the pilot with the “Aunt Robin” line. This was January of 2006, midway through the first season and shortly before “Drumroll, Please” would introduce Victoria, who was Carter Bays and Craig Thomas’ back-up Mother plan in the event the show got canceled after only a season. I was at CBS’ press tour party, and I talked with Bays, Thomas, Pamela Fryman, Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders about the palpable chemistry between Ted and Robin, and whether in hindsight the pilot’s closing line was one twist too many…

Bays called the notion that the two wouldn’t end up together “heartbreaking.”

And then after Thomas insisted, “Robin’s not the mom. We’re sticking by those guns,” Bays said something very interesting, and that kept coming back to me as “Last Forever” went on and it became more and more clear that the two of them had actually gone through with this horrible, horrible plan for the Mother to be dead in 2030, and Future Ted to be telling this long, largely non-Mother-related story to his kids because he and Aunt Robin were going to end up together.

What Bays said was this: “I feel like with great art, you have to create constraints for yourself. You look at The White Stripes, they only want to have a guitar and drums, so they have to make all their music around guitar and drums. We have to make all our comedy around what the narrator says.”

And as I thought of that quote, and as I remembered that they shot the kids’ reaction to the end of Future Ted’s story way back in season 2, my anger over this terrible, misconceived, ginormous middle finger to the fanbase very, very briefly turned into sympathy for Bays and Thomas, because I realized they had become victims of their own damn cleverness.

Because they wanted to make their pilot seem unpredictable enough to catch the attention of a CBS development exec way back in the script stage, they added the Aunt Robin gag at the end. But they couldn’t have known at the time just how good Radnor and Smulders would be together, how much the fans would want to see them be together, and how hard it would be to come up with another pairing that equaled it. (Though in isolated moments before Cristin Milioti turned up, Victoria and Stella sure came close.)

Then once the Ted/Robin sparks became too powerful to ignore, they began looking for ways around the trap they’d set for themselves in the pilot. As Bays noted, they were bound by what the narrator told us, and as Thomas insisted, Robin would not be revealed to be the kids’ mother. But there was nothing in that narration that said that Ted and the Mother still had to be together in 2030. And that gave them an out, and another opportunity to be clever. Because they knew the kids were aging, they could film their reactions now, and save them for whenever the show ended — which, at that pre-Britney Spears phase when “HIMYM” lived perpetually on the bubble, seemed like it could be in another year or two at best — and they would be all set, and their fans would be happy and impressed by both their forethought and creativity.

They had a plan. They were going to stick to that plan. They would take the title literally, introduce the Mother at the very end, then kill her off to clear the way for the Ted/Robin coupling everyone really wanted. They just didn’t count on any of the following:

1. The show would improbably turn into one of the longest-running comedies CBS has ever aired, which would force them to stretch out Ted’s story forever and a day, and then to do insanely stupid things like spending the entire final season on the run-up to Robin and Barney’s wedding — a wedding that, by the way, would be undone before the very next episode was halfway over. And that unexpected length would force them to revisit the question of Ted and Robin’s feelings for each other (or lack thereof) so many times that even the fans who once cared deeply about them would grow tired of the idea.

2. It would turn out that Radnor wasn’t the only co-star that Smulders had absurd chemistry levels with, and that the fans would for a time get more deeply invested in the Robin/Barney ‘ship than they were in Robin and Ted. (In that way, you can look at the toxic nature of Robin and Barney’s second relationship not as the creative team screwing up, but of them trying to kill all interest in the combo so we’d be on board for Future Ted and Future Robin, in the same way that they eventually made Stella, Victoria and Ted’s other love interests horrible so that we wouldn’t want them over either Robin or the Mother.)

3. The show would be such a big hit by the end that CBS would order one more season than originally planned for, which would turn the Mother from someone we saw for five minutes in the finale to someone we would get to know over an entire season. And worse, as played by Milioti, the Mother would turn out to be by far the best thing to happen to Ted, or the show, in years. Suddenly, they had conceived of an entire season in which she would disappear for long stretches, and die at the end, even though the only thing many of the remaining viewers wanted was more of her, and the happiest of endings for her and Ted.

But they were bound by the rules they had made for themselves. They had a plan. They had to stick to that plan.

And the result of that plan was among the more maddening things I’ve seen in the finale of a show I at one point loved.

And kids, I know from anger-inducing finales. I literally wrote a book about a bunch of shows that featured them, and that book featured candid quotes from their creators about how little of those series were planned and how much was created on the fly. Those quotes angered many fans of those shows, who used them as further evidence for why they hated the endings, and for why no show should be allowed to improvise major story arcs ever.

And if any good can possibly come out of this “HIMYM” finale, I would hope that it is the end of this belief. Because so much of what was terrible here was terrible because Bays and Thomas had a very specific vision for the ending of their show and would not — or, perhaps, after they filmed the kids’ reactions, could not — deviate from it. And based on the initial reaction I’ve seen to the episode, it’s going to forever sour the opinion many fans of the show had for it, no matter how much they may have enjoyed “Slap Bet” or “Ten Sessions” or “Swarley.”

Because this was horrible. This ignored everything that had happened between Ted and Robin, between Robin and Barney, between Ted and Barney and, especially, between Ted Evelyn Mosby and Tracy McConnell, all because once upon a time, this is what Bays and Thomas wanted to do.

They had plenty of opportunity over the years to course correct. They could have at some point accepted that the Robin/Barney coupling made Future Ted/Future Robin not only moot, but annoying. They could have introduced the Mother sooner and just made her a part of the gang — and every single moment this season in which Milioti was allowed to interact with the regulars (either in Farhampton or in the flashforwards) suggested that they could have pulled it off, easily. Hell, even at this late hour, they could have recognized what they had in Milioti and accepted that that old bit of footage with Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie would remain unseen forever (or, at worst, be a special feature to lure people into buying the complete series box set), and that the fans would get over not seeing the kids react to the end of this endless story…

I can imagine Bays and Thomas back in 2005 or 2006 trying to figure a way out of the narrative straightjacket they created for themselves in the pilot, and maybe even doing a High Infinity upon coming up with this solution. I can even imagine that moment being so euphoric that it blinded them to a lot of what was happening on the show over the remaining 7 or 8 years. Back then, maybe it was a great plan. Back then, when I was talking to them at the press tour party, if one of them had asked me to turn off the tape recorder and promised me off the record that Ted and Robin would somehow end up together, I’d have been feeling some euphoria of my own. But stories change. Characters change. Shows change. And plans have to change to accommodate that.

This plan didn’t. 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.

And the problem is that at a certain point the misdirection became vastly more entertaining than the illusion it was designed to facilitate, and as a result we just wind up feeling tricked.

lesserjoke

But what made the [How I Met Your Mother] pilot pop, what made it seem smart and nuanced and surprisingly philosophical, was the closing moment when a “cute guy meets cute girl” story concluded with the narrator, the man telling the story of How He Met Your Mother, saying that this cute girl was not the mother. This was how he met “Aunt Robin.” He’d get to the mother later.

This was a move legitimately subversive of a rule that television knows all too well: The answer to “will they or won’t they?” is always “they will,” and that’s why we’re all here. Knowing that Ted did not wind up with Robin, but wound up with someone else — but still remained close enough to Robin that his kids addressed her as “Aunt Robin” — said something different. It said, “You know what? They won’t. But don’t leave yet.” It said that there is value in stories about things that don’t work out, and value in romances that end. Everyone matters, everything is important, everything fits together and makes a whole life.

The series finale revealed that to the degree this is what the show seemed to be saying, the joke was on you. It was a nine-year-long con (as James Poniewozik put it) that fooled you into thinking it wasn’t running on an engine of total cliche when — psych! — it totally was. Because it turned out that of course Ted wasn’t really saying everything matters, that your whole life is important, that you can still love people even if you don’t end up with them, that the good pieces and the bad pieces and the ups and the downs were all part of the story of how you wound up in the right place.

No, he was telling this whole story because he was in denial, and he spoke about the sad and happy moments of his life for nine seasons so that his teenage children could tell him to get over their dead mother and go after their aunt. (As the teenage children of widowed parents always do in this blithe, go-get-‘em-tiger kind of way, in Bizarro World.)

And so he did. He went and gave himself to Robin, whom he’d loved all along. She doesn’t matter because they’d loved each other and that always means something; she matters because he’s still in love with her and now they can kiss. She never wanted kids, but apparently she now wants to be a stepparent to Ted’s kids, something something mumble mumble what was this character about again?

So it was all a trick — they will after all! The end.

That’s not to even mention the other things that went wrong in the finale: The marriage of Robin and Barney, which the show spent its entire final season on, was dismissed with a sort of hand-wave of “she traveled a lot and it didn’t work out” so that Robin would be free for Ted’s destiny to be fulfilled later. The embrace of Barney as a selfish jerk seemed to be the part of its original DNA to which the show would remain true, but then — psych! — he had a baby with a woman he barely knew and we never saw, and it made him nice and domesticated. Neil Patrick Harris played the heck out of the scene where Barney falls in love with the baby, but it still didn’t make any kind of sense, nor did it resonate with anything else that had happened in the show up to that point.

Perhaps worst of all, the fine work of Cristin Milioti as the mother across the final season was wasted as it turned out she was, within the show’s structure, merely a piece of the great love story of Ted and Robin, and died of Unspecified Sad Hospital-Bed-itis so that their romantic balcony scene could happen.

"It’s the journey and not the destination" is usually the right way to look at series finales, a disturbing number of which don’t stick the landing. The problem with this one in particular is that the relationship between the journey and the destination was the show’s animating principle. That Ted was on a journey that was not about Robin was the first interesting thing the show ever said.