How I Met Your Mother's series finale left at least one fan wondering if the last nine years spent watching the show were worth it.
The final episode, “Last Forever,” has inspired near-universal loathing from critics, who panned, among other things, the series-long fake-out over the Ted-Robin pairing, the dismissal of Robin and Barney’s marriage after seasons of work trying to show how right the two were together, and the sadly predictable killing off of the newly named Mother, Tracy. For fans of the show, the problems with “Last Forever” raise an almost painful question: Does this single hour of television somehow negate the last nine years?
There’s at least precedent for asking. While some controversial finales stand, at worst, as isolated mistakes (Seinfeld), others have, for at least some viewers, brought the entire series down with them. Take Battlestar Galactica, which spent much of its final season raising questions like the identities of the Final Five Cylons or Starbuck’s resurrection, only to beg off at the end. Or The X-Files, which became about impending alien colonization (and a possible film franchise). And, of course, the Lost finale, which didn’t quite end with “they were dead the whole time,” but came close.
The natural response here is that, because a television series runs for so many independent episodes (over two hundred, in the case of How I Met Your Mother), a single episode can’t change the quality of the rest, or the enjoyment viewers derive from them. But it does seem like some series invite their earlier episodes to stand on certain resolutions, allowing viewer expectations to fill empty narrative spaces. The wonder that accompanies something like Lost’s hatch or the opera house on Battlestar is dependent on our assumption that there is something there to explain what we’ve seen. Otherwise, we’re just being sold snake oil.
Before last night, however, How I Met Your Mother was not one of those shows. It may have spent its entire run (and especially this season) trading on the eventual resolution of its title, treating events like Ted finding Tracy’s yellow umbrella as extremely significant, but How I Met Your Mother was never really about how Ted met his wife. If it had been, the show would have been five minutes long. As Ted was fond of telling us, the story was about how he became the person who was capable of loving Tracy, and some of the dumb stuff he did in the process. How I Met Your Mother wasn’t a show that needed a good finale to validate it. But as last night demonstrated, it could sure be tanked by a disastrous last episode.
“Last Forever” reframes the rest of the series, from the pilot on, as "How I Got Back Together With Robin After Your Mother Died," which in addition to putting the lie to the title of the show, makes Ted an unbelievable dick. Worse still, the choice retroactively poisons the work the show had done to make Barney and Robin’s relationship worth investing in by having them divorce almost immediately, and it forces the Ted-Robin pairing to be the driving force behind the finale. That coupling might've been important to the show at the beginning, but to return to it at the end (with scenes filmed during season two) ignores everything else that happened on the way. Letting Robin go was presented as Ted’s biggest obstacle before he could meet Tracy, a step toward emotional maturity that How I Met Your Mother decided to ignore. The show used its conceit to point to all of these elements as leading to a happy ending, and while it was certainly clever of the writers to have Future Ted be a series-long unreliable narrator, it was also quite cruel, to both us as viewers and to the characters (especially Barney, who deserved much better).
What’s especially disappointing is that “Last Forever” actually succeeded with the scene that gave the show its title. Ted meeting Tracy under the umbrella gave emotional weight to all of the callbacks, the unnecessarily dense sitcom mythology. If How I Met Your Mother had elements of the aforementioned mystery-heavy series that blew their finales, it succeeded where they failed with just a few seconds of screen time and more than a bit of chemistry. It’s too bad How I Met Your Mother decided to throw that finale, which completely stuck the landing, away on a two-second shot of Ted gaping up at a window with a blue French horn.
The series finales we find most controversial—Lost, Battlestar, and so on—view themselves as retroactive thesis statements for the show (weirdly, in the cases of both Lost and Battlestar that message is quasi-religious). They attempt to reframe the meaning of previous episodes to tell the viewer what they were really watching, rather than simply putting a cap on a long-running story—absent this hamfisted lecturing, even leaving a few questions unanswered is acceptable (The Sopranos). This approach doesn’t just ignore viewer questions, it also tries to tell fans they were wrong for watching the show in a certain way.
In that vein, “Last Forever” was ambitious. It tried to make several grand statements—about the importance of the Ted-and-Robin pairing, about the sad slog of adult life after everyone stops hanging out at the bar, about loving things with everything we have while we still have time. But they weren’t the sorts of things How I Met Your Mother was about when it was one of the best sitcoms on TV, making the finale retroactively ruin what the show was building to. Every time I rewatch an episode and hear Future Ted lecturing about the importance of true love, I’ll just hear “Kids, I really want to date Robin again.” And when I rewatch “Legendaddy” or any one of the episodes that helped turn Barney into a real person, I’ll know my emotional investment in him isn’t going anywhere. “Last Forever” wasn’t fair to viewers, but it was even more unfair to the episodes that made fans love How I Met Your Mother in the first place.
Written by Eric Thurm (@EricThurm)