HIMYM’s polarizing finale: Why I loved it, and why it’s okay to hate it

*EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been imported from my Tumblr page, where it originally appeared.* 

“…The Baudelaires would sit together in the two large reading chairs and take turns reading out loud from the book their parents had left behind, and sometimes they would flip to the back of the book, and add a few lines to the history themselves. While reading and writing, the siblings found many answers for which they had been looking, although each answer, of course, only brought forth another mystery, as there were many details of the Baudelaires’ lives that seemed like a strange, unreadable shape of some great unknown. But this did not concern them as much as you might think. One cannot spend forever sitting and solving the mysteries of one’s history, and no matter how much one reads, the whole story can never be told. But it was enough. Reading their parents’ words was, under the circumstances, the best for which the Baudelaire orphans could hope.”

–An excerpt from The End

One of my favorite book series is A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, which chronicles the tale of the Baudelaires, three siblings whose parents die in a mysterious fire at their home, and all of the misfortunes that continue to befall them. I first came across it in 2002; I was drawn in by the premise of its title, and I enjoyed the books’ incredible black humor and perilous thrills. In 2006, the thirteenth and final installment of the series was released, entitled The End, a change from the previous twelve alliterative titles. It turned out that this title was a misnomer. While major character arcs were concluded, many of the mysteries behind items and people that helped to drive the story were unresolved, and the ultimate fate of the orphans was left ambiguous. Instead, it promoted the idea that any story is never a complete story. Everything that happens in someone’s story is also part of another person’s story, the idea of which can be stretched out into infinity until we see that a story is simply just a fragment of time in the world, rendering the mysteries and secrets within the story both significant and meaningless. Sure, initially I was slightly disappointed that we never freakin’ found out what the damn hell was so freakin’ important about that stupid damn sugar bowl. And I’m not oblivious to the fact that many people would just call this a cop out. But for me, those ideas rang true of real life. It was a realistic line of thinking that I could bring with me and apply to my own everyday situations, and that’s why I loved The End. It also changed the way I look at stories going forward. I didn’t concern myself as much with how a story ends; instead, I learned to appreciate and pay attention to the whole of the story as it went along.

Perhaps it’s because of this book that I approached How I Met Your Mother differently than the seeming majority of fans. For the seven years I watched the series, I was never as concerned with discovering the identity of The Mother as everyone else appeared to be. Along the years, every time I saw a sentiment along the lines of “Yeah, that was funny, but c’mon, where’s the mother?” I would roll my eyes and think, “That’s not what the story is about!” Now, perhaps my eye-rolling is unfair, because as I look back, I think I had a distinct advantage over anyone who had already been watching the series, given I started the series where I did: the beginning of Season Three. The mission statement of the show was never expressed more directly than in the very first lines of the season three premiere:

“Kids, there’s more than one story of how I met your mother. You know the short version–the thing with your mom’s yellow umbrella. But there’s a bigger story, the story of how I became who I had to become before I could meet her.”

Maybe because these were the very first lines of the show I heard, I understood very early on that the story was not about the mother, that we would most likely not see this titular meeting until the very end of the series. I knew that the story was about “the gang”, with Future Ted being nostalgic about the days of his youth, as Ted hung around the bar and developed a familial bond with his closest friends. I understood that, just like The End, the title of How I Met Your Mother was a misnomer.

And still, all of this is not to say that an ending is not important. Both titles imply that a particular end indeed exists, and the title forces the idea into our minds, pondering just what kind of final act the writer(s) may have in store. This idea is significantly magnified in television, where a story is told over several years–decades in some rare instances–and interrupted on regular intervals. We think about the end more and more as time goes on, and our anticipation builds accordingly. No matter how I feel about an ending’s relation to the story, even I am not immune to high expectations, especially with a show so dear to my heart as HIMYM.

I knew I wasn’t alone in my feelings for the show. I fully expected the finale to be the most watched episode of the series, and I’ve seen plenty of love for the show through all of social media and entertainment reviews. I even figured there were going to be a good number of people who have never watched the show tuning in just to see how it ends. Um…yeah, because some people are just weird like that. Anticipation was at an all-time high, so when it was all over, and the screen cut to black, the very first thought that came into my mind was, “Holy shit, the Internet is about to explode.” After taking several minutes myself to absorb what I had just seen, I went onto Twitter, where to no one’s surprise, #HIMYMFinale was the number one trending topic. And true to the vast majority of immediate online commentary, I saw nothing but vitriol and venom spewed toward anyone involved with the show. People didn’t just hate the ending; they made it seem like someone had taken an axe to all of the joints on their bodies.

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Even though the Internet tends to be the loudest voice of negative reactions, often magnifying general opinion, it’s unfair to limit the finale hate to Twitter users and message board comments. There were plenty of people from the other side expressing their love for it, but I would estimate that a good 65% percent of the public disapproved of HIMYM’s ending.

As for me, I liked the finale. I’m not yet in the business of giving ratings, but I would give “Last Forever” a solid B+. I had no problem with the content of the story, which I saw as a epilogue of sorts, a beautiful portrayal of life “after the curtain closes.” As I mentioned, endings which one may consider realistic don’t bother me. This is not to say that such is a one-size-fits-all type of close. There are times when it may be more suitable (and certainly easier) to wrap everything up neatly and send the characters off riding into the sunset hand in hand. But I don’t think this was one of those times. When you look back at the series, HIMYM was a show that, more than any other show like it, portrayed the flaws and failings of young adults who dreamed big but maybe didn’t get exactly what they wanted. All of the characters had to work around career aspirations that floundered big time, and their family situations were anything but perfect. (I can only imagine what it felt like for Barney to see his absent father raising a second family.) But despite this, they always made the best of these situations and were there for each other, and to me, the finale didn’t betray those themes. This is especially evident with Ted. A person who commented on EW.com said it quite well:

“I think this series is about the stories we tell ourselves, and, in particular, the stories Ted tells himself to keep that insane optimism about love that we see at the beginning of the show, despite disappointments, rejections, and loss.

If moving to Chicago is a metaphor for Ted giving up, then the blue french horn is the metaphor for that crazy stupid optimism Ted had about love. And that crazy stupid optimism is “how he met their mother.” If he had given up, he would never have met their mother.

The purpose of the story he tells to his kids is less about getting their approval, and more about reviving his crazy romantic optimism after the worst loss one can imagine. He is psyching himself up.

I also don’t think it is important whether Ted ends up with Robin. The action is a sign that Ted still has that crazy romantic optimism, that he has re-opened himself to love after grieving.“

It might have been easy to miss if you were reeling from that gut punch of Tracy’s death, but the monologue from Ted at the end of the episode was actually quite beautiful, recounting all the emotional setbacks he had to endure in order to meet the woman he would fall in love and raise a family with. I don’t see it as Ted “ending up” with Robin. To me, Ted “ended up” with Tracy, the mother of his children. It just so happened that it wouldn’t be the last time Ted would endure an emotional setback. And I don’t think the Ted of old would have been able to get through this one, but true to who he is, he’s trying again. And I don’t see the last scene as the end of this story, but the beginning of another.

But hey, I totally get it. There’s justification for rejecting the finale. For many people, it was far from the most satisfying ending, and there was plenty to hate about it. The biggest problem this episode had was attempting to display seventeen years in just one hour. (42 minutes excluding commercials.) It was the most ambitious thing that Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have ever done on the show–perhaps overly so. Coming right after their second-most ambitious attempt, dedicating most of a season to just three days, watching the finale felt like whiplash. I happened to look at the clock when it was half over and thought, Oh my god, has it been 30 minutes already?? Same thing happened at the 50-minute mark. As such, it’s a herculean task to ask the audience to feel the emotional heft of seventeen years of a person’s life in just that short of a time. Then there’s the fact of just how much content had to go into it. A whole episode’s worth of content, 18 minutes, was left on the cutting room floor. That left a lot of holes that had to be left for the imagination to fill, something that a TV audience is not known for liking to do. Personally, I would have liked to know a little more about Lily’s future, which was probably something that ended up getting cut. But then again, just like The End reminded me, not every part of a story can be told. Even if the finale was three hours long, or as some people suggested, if they had made the finale’s events a larger portion of the whole season, you would still question or wonder about whatever parts you didn’t see. Now I will say this: I watched the episode again shortly after it finished airing, and then a third time about a week ago. And with already knowing everything that’s happened, I liked the episode even more each time, finding it much easier to watch and follow the events on repeat viewings. (I totally missed the great jokes Tracy had for Barney during Robots vs. Wrestlers.) Then again, this is coming from someone who liked the finale. Detractors may not find it so easy to watch it again, but I would say to those people that you owe yourself at least one more viewing to see if your initial impression will change even a little since it first aired.

Then again, if you disapproved of it, maybe your issue wasn’t with the pacing. In fact, given the comments and reviews I’ve seen and read, I’d say a great majority of Team Anti-Finale just straight up hated what happened to the characters. In the days after it aired, I saw a lot of a particular set of words being thrown around repeatedly: words conveying deep emotion, and words I wouldn’t normally associate being used so frequently with a TV show. I read how fans felt “betrayed” or “conned”, how people don’t “trust” Bays and Thomas anymore, or–and here’s the biggest one–how we didn’t get the ending we “deserved.” I get that there’s a certain level of ownership that comes along with being a long-time viewer, and in a lot of ways, it’s rightfully so. Those large amounts of viewers are what helps keep a show going. But I have to admit, to see so many pages talk about “deserving” a different ending was a bit jarring. But the fact is, people were hurt, and that in itself is not at all hard to understand.

Television is the deepest escapist medium, more so than film, books, music, or any other form of entertainment. It’s in almost everyone’s homes, easily and readily accessible. There’s something to be said for allowing a group of characters into your personal home on a regular basis, especially after one spends the majority of the day dealing with the varieties of stress that life provides every day. So we come home, we unwind, we turn on the TV, and we revel in the lives of others, fictional or otherwise. We become armchair judges and decree the merit of someone’s singing talent. We delight in watching housewives bicker and attack each other. We stand up, cheer, and applaud when a nasty and heartless king is poisoned, choking to a purple death on his own wedding day. (Yes, I just “spoiled” Game of Thrones for you. Learn to deal with it.) We enjoy watching these people deal with their conflicts because, if nothing else, they take our minds off of our own.

And I argue that no form of TV show has a deeper emotional connection to the viewer than the sitcom. By the very nature of its name, a situation comedy takes characters and places them in a field not at all different from our real lives, usually in the workplace or at home–or a combination of both. As such, the characters become a reflection of ourselves. When Jim Halpert would look at the camera in bewilderment after Michael Scott did something ridiculous, it was as if he was directly addressing the audience, saying, “You know what this is like, right?” We project ourselves onto these fictional people; we see what they experience as extensions of our own experiences. And perhaps, we play into the fantasy of our lives and wish better for those characters. We’re excited when we see the guy “get the girl”, or when the woman quits her menial job–the things we may wish we could do in own lives.

So maybe because of this, it’s less than satisfying when this wish fulfillment doesn’t manifest. After spending years invested in these characters’ lives, it’s as if these events are also happening to us–or perhaps they already have–and it hits a little too close to home. It’s like the reaction Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings Playbook had after finishing A Farewell to Arms. (Of course, I bring this up because a YouTube user hilariously edited the scene to make it seem like he was talking about HIMYM.)

It’s not absurd to be mad at the creators of fiction for bringing too much reality into that world. We don’t want to be confronted with the possibility of having to take a step backwards and going back to the corporate job you left years ago. We don’t want to think that a marriage, no how much you love the person or how hard you work at it, sometimes doesn’t work out. We hate to accept that no matter how much effort and time we put into changing for the better, we have the capability to regress into easy habits. We don’t like to be reminded of how often we lose friends and family much, much earlier than we would care to have lost them.

But these are the events that Bays and Thomas decided to put into their finale. They took a major creative risk, and when you look back at the series, it really isn’t out of line with anything else they’ve done with this show. It was a risk to take a traditional structure like the multi-camera sitcom and instead write it more like a single-camera show and leave out the studio audience (but still put a laugh track in it). It was a risk to take the tried-and-true “will they/won’t they” narrative that continues to drive many shows’ stories and instead cut it off at the heels, essentially saying, “This relationship will end, but we’ll still dedicate significant time exploring it.” It was a risk to take a character that was very one-dimensional on paper and breathe life into him, to make him more than just someone to laugh at, to let him want and hurt and care and desire and aspire and simply be more than just the thing he’s supposed to be. Sure, HIMYM is certainly not without its adherence to TV business structure and storytelling tropes, but on a larger scale, Bays and Thomas made a conscious decision to forego many traditional expectations. I support the people who are willing to take creative risks in entertainment, whether or not they pay off in the end. And so long as they continue to do so, I will continue to support Bays and Thomas in any future endeavors. (Aside: Whether this includes How I Met Your Dad remains to be seen. For one thing, it still hasn’t even been officially picked up by CBS. Secondly, even if the reaction to Mother’s finale was overwhelmingly positive, the spinoff was always going to be a troubling endeavor just based on it rehashing the storytelling structure, and the comparisons between the two would pervade possibly for the entirety of Dad’s run. The pilot has to be undeniably excellent to consider the series’ potential. Maybe the network will love it enough to pick it up despite Mother’s finale reaction. Or maybe CBS is only just desperate to retain HIMYM’s #2 sitcom ranking. Whatever the case, How I Met Your Dad certainly has an uphill battle. Well, here’s hoping Bays and Thomas make the Broadway musical they said they’ve thought about doing. End aside.)

As I write this piece, I realize that the themes of The End apply to it as well. It’s nearly impossible to explain in complete detail my feelings about the finale: what worked for me, what I think didn’t work for others, what people should and shouldn’t think about it and about each other, etc. But I will say one thing: I do believe that, like with Ted and his family’s loss, time heals all wounds, and just like with me, I think that over time, as people continue to visit and revisit “Last Forever”, it will play a little better each time. Maybe as viewers keep living their lives and perhaps experience events similar to what happened with these characters, those viewers will appreciate the hope and positivity the gang exuded. Who knows: maybe in time, it will even become the Pinkerton of TV episodes. But even if you vehemently hated it, I’d be willing to bet that if you watched it again, you’d hate it just a little bit less. And that’s all I have to say about it. It may not be enough, but under the circumstances, it’s the best for which I can hope.

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