Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The 'How I Met Your Mother' Series Finale Was... (Wait For It)... Awful.

Kids, this is the story of how Carter Bays and Craig Thomas wrote themselves into a corner.

I’ve done this before, personally, and it’s not great. You create characters and construct circumstances and you intend for your writing to go a certain direction. But then the characters change or the circumstances become too complex and before you know it, you’re surrounded by walls that have been subtly growing for a while with no way to escape.

When I was in college, I had a professor for both my Creative Writing and Creative Writing and Publication classes. His name was David Athey and was, to this day, the best professor I ever had. I remember approaching him one day about a piece that I was working on. I told him that everything had been going well but that I had just hit a wall when I was writing. After a moment, my bespectacled professor smiled at me and uttered these wise words: “There are no walls in writing – only secret passageways.” That sentence has stuck with me ever since, and whenever I find myself backed up against a wall, instead of trying to break it down or run away, I look for the secret passageway behind the bookcase or beneath the rug.

How I Met Your Mother was a series that, from the very beginning, was constructed to end a certain way. The kids’ reactions were filmed years upon years ago, back when it wasn’t certain whether the series would last another thirteen or twenty episodes. Nine years later, Bays and Thomas discovered that they had written themselves into a corner by planning the ending from the beginning. But instead of finding the secret passageway, they charged forward, breaking and shattering every single wall of character development they had beautifully and intricately constructed over the course of nine years in order to salvage an ending that wasn’t even meant to be.

The fact is that they didn’t have to do that at all. Bays and Thomas didn’t have to use the footage they had shot back when Lyndsy and David were playing Ted Mosby’s teenaged children. Here are some alternatives that could have occurred. (Bear in mind that I just saw the episode twelve hours ago.)

Scenario #1:

[Ted finishes telling the story of how he met their mother. We have a shot of the kids just staring at him – it’s been nine years so I’m sure they have plenty of footage.]

[Ted, frustrated, enters his and Tracy’s bedroom] Can you believe it? Nothing. I got zero reaction from them. After all of that… zip. Zilch. Nada.

[Tracy, smiling, takes a hold of her husband’s hand] Ted, they don’t get it. They’re teenagers. They’re more e concerned with who gets booted off that one singing competition we both can’t stand because seriously, that thing has been on FOREVER. [Ted raises an eyebrow at her. Tracy smiles wider and slings her arms around Ted’s neck] They don’t get it. They don’t realize that the most amazing, wonderful stories are the ones that take a long time to get to the end. But it was worth it: every stupid little moment and bump, because it ended up here. With you meeting me.

[Sappy adorable and perfect music plays. The end.]

Scenario #2:

If Bays and Thomas were so concerned with Tracy dying, we could have still ended it with Ted exhibiting character growth because, you know, great love of his life.

[Voiceovers at the end of Ted and his children talking about the mother – flashbacks in hers and Ted’s relationship. Ted delivers a stunning monologue about how all of the pain was worth it because he met her and got them and he’ll love her “to the end of his days and beyond.” Bam. End with Ted at her grave with the back of the kids’ heads – not them, obviously – or something.]

Look – I just took ten minutes to come up with an ending for How I Met Your Mother that was worlds better than what Bays and Thomas concocted. Here is why, in a nutshell, I took such issue with the finale:

It negated all character growth that we have seen over the course of nine years. Ted and Robin ending up together aside (actually, no, that is absurd to me because the episode prior we saw Ted telling Robin that he doesn’t love her in that way anymore and then suddenly in this episode we are meant to believe he has always loved her? What kind of crap are you trying to pull, writers?), the regression that frustrated me the most was Barney’s. I am a writer – I went to college to major in Creative Writing; I took classes about literary analysis and growth and development and plot and structure – and that is why the How I Met Your Mother series finale frustrated me at best and disgusted me at worst.

What the writers told me, as an audience member, in the finale was what the Community writers have attempted to tell me over the last season (and what I fear Harmon will tell me in the season finale): these characters, though we have seen moments of growth, haven’t REALLY changed at all since the pilot. The Community writers still believe that Jeff is a smarmy person who doesn’t believe he deserves love or happiness and that Annie is an eighteen-year old schoolgirl. The How I Met Your Mother writers clearly believe Barney Stinson can pretend to change and maybe even change for a little while, but that he’ll always be a womanizing sleaze ball. Always. That’s just who he is. Never mind the fact that he fell in love and it changed him; never mind the fact that he met his father and it changed him; never mind the fact that he grew and developed over nine years and committed his life to another person. NONE OF THAT MATTERS, they seem to yell at us in the last half of the finale. Barney Stinson will never change. And that’s that.

Furthermore, Ted and Robin will never change, either. Ted will always pine after Robin, apparently. He’ll only be able to find true, lasting happiness with her. And Robin? Well, Robin cannot have it all. She can’t commit to EVERYTHING – a marriage and a career – so she commits to her career and forgoes her relationship with Barney. Oh, wait, sorry: her MARRIAGE to Barney. I should have seen that one coming, actually. It was very disconcerting how often Robin seemed to question whether or not she was making the right decision in marrying Barney over the course of this season. (A season that, may I remind you, took place over a few days. So she literally was questioning being married to Barney about every other hour or so.) Barney and Robin’s divorce was a catalyst not for character progression but character REGRESSION: Barney returned to his sleazy ways, insisting that he was never going to change and become the guy who professes his love for a woman in this grandiose way (… so, I think we’re supposed to forget his proposal to Robin, then?) and Robin returned to pining after Ted, the person she believes she should have ended up with. I mean. Really. This is what the writers decided to do in the final hour with their characters.

Marshall and Lily got a happy ending, I guess, as they kind of faded into the background of the Ted/Robin/Barney debacle. I cannot accept the ending of How I Met Your Mother as validity because I cannot believe, even remotely, that these characters are the same ones we met nine years ago. They’re not and WE know they are not but apparently Bays and Thomas believe that, at their cores, these people will never change. They’ll never be the mature and self-possessed and developed (very round) characters we saw. They, to the writers, are as flat as maps: unchanging from the pilot and unchanging in the future.

The How I Met Your Mother series finale reduced The Mother to a thumb tack on the map toward Ted’s “real” destiny: Robin. Every one of Ted’s “loves” has been a thumb tack on a map of his romantic journey – Stella and Victoria, of course, being two of the more memorable ones. What the series taught us throughout the years is this: you have to navigate a lot of roads with a lot of detours in order to finally make it to your destination when it comes to love. And we were elated when we met The Mother for the first time. She was everything we hoped she would be and was, arguably, the best thing that had happened to the show in a long time. We knew that she was Ted’s destiny. She was the girl with the yellow umbrella, the one that he had been waiting for and narrowly missing for years. She was his one true love.

… Until the finale reduced her to a thumb tack. We were meant to believe that Tracy was it, that she was the person Ted (and we) had been waiting nine years for. Instead, Bays and Thomas decided that this wasn’t good enough for them. That the story wasn’t REALLY about Ted/The Mother. You see, to them, it was always going to go back to Robin. And in the second season, that would have been fine. If the show had ended and we had gotten this resolution, I think we all would have been okay. But as Alan Sepinwall points out in his brilliant review, the show lasted YEARS longer than anyone could have anticipated that it would. And an ending that made complete and total sense seven years ago made zero sense in the present. Or, at least, it SHOULD have made zero sense to Bays and Thomas.

After a year of buildup for Barney and Robin’s wedding, after all the time spent meeting and falling in love with The Mother, after years and years of searching and waiting for “the one,” the writers decided that their original plan was what they would stick with, whether or not that made any sort of logical sense to the characters. This is the problem that writers face and that I have faced and that people will face until the end of time. After you have an ending in your head – be it a television ending, movie ending, or novel ending – and you desperately believe that this ending is the only way, the true test of how great of a writer you are is not in how well you fulfill that vision but IF you do. Because what happens quite often when you become a writer is you plan and you outline and you strategize and then something strange and wonderful happens: your characters develop minds of their own. They begin to grow and do things that you didn’t intend they would do. And you have a choice: you can hold fast, stubborn and unwavering, to that initial vision of your character and the ending you prepared for them or you change the ending because your character has changed.

Ted and Robin have been over for years. I used to ship them, back in the day, until I realized that they would never quite fulfill or challenge or complement each other in a way that grew and developed them both as individual characters and as a pairing. I recognized that – me, a lowly television viewer. What Bays and Thomas decided, then, was that The Mother was just a pit stop. She was just a thumb tack. Though the story would SEEM to be about her, it was never really about her at all. They constructed this beautiful, delightful, amazing character only to chop her off at the knees in favor of Robin. Robin is wonderful and I love her, but she and Ted should have ended up together if the series ended seven years ago; there is no way that they should have ended up together nine years after their initial meeting. And there’s absolutely no excuse other than complete and utter laziness, selfishness, and ego on the part of the writers that they did.

Bays and Thomas could have changed the end of the story once they recognized how much their characters had grown – how Barney had been softened by the love of Robin, how Ted had moved on from Robin in order to get to the place in his life where he was emotionally ready to meet Tracy. But, per the writers, none of that mattered in the end. What mattered was their original vision and they were going to stick with it, come hell or high water, no matter how little sense it made.

Good for them, I guess?

The series finale of How I Met Your Mother was more than just disappointing: it was flat-out disrespectful. It negated everything the series stood for, really. Yes I understand the fact that we cannot plan out our lives like Ted tried to for so long. I understand that complications arise and I would have been fine if The Mother had died, but Ted needed to end the series by telling his kids that the fact that he met their mother that fateful night of the wedding? THAT is why he can be happy for the rest of his life. THAT is why his 45 days speech mattered. THAT is why he suffered through all of the heartaches and breakups and bad relationships – because even though she would be gone, he now has the rest of his life to be happy simply because he knew HER.

How I Met Your Mother was always a series that focused on the parallelism between the journey and the destination. But it always assured us, even at its lowest moments, that all of our decisions and our difficulties were worth it because they were a part of this journey. That bad date? It was one stepping stone toward The Mother. Being left at the altar? One more stone. Being alone when all of your friends are coupled up? One more stone. And, inevitably, this was a series that preached that soon you would look up and realize that you had made it to your destination. You’d look behind you and see all of those misshapen rocks and the ones worn with age and weathered by storms and you’d have to squint into the distance but you could pinpoint the EXACT place you began your journey and when you swiveled around you would see her: you’d see the person that made all of those moments worth it.

But Bays and Thomas pulled the cruelest final joke on their audience when we looked up and realized that Tracy had turned into one final stone en route to Robin. Alan Sepinwall wrote this brilliant bit in regards to it:

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, and annoyed, and wondering why we went along with all of it, when we should have known from the very first episode — from the Aunt Robin joke that got us into this gigantic mess — that this was a show that would not hesitate to make us feel tricked. And once upon a time, when we and "HIMYM" were younger, that was fun, but at a certain point, like the idea of Barney Stinson still having a Playbook in his 40s, it's just sad.

In its later years, How I Met Your Mother suffered through murky and rough waters as a sitcom. It became a shadow of its former successful and beloved self. And though I wasn’t nearly as invested at the end of the series as I was during its first few years, I felt that I deserved better as a viewer and as a writer watching this show. I deserved character progression, not regression. I deserved Barney and Robin to divorce, perhaps, but realize that their love was stronger than their disagreements. And Ted was supposed to learn that the love of his life was worth waiting for. But apparently, none of that mattered: all you need to know about this show’s final episode, you can garner from watching the pilot once more – Barney is a womanizer, Ted is a person who will never get over Robin, Robin was apparently always meant to wind up with Ted, and Marshall and Lily are happy doing their own thing, away from their toxic friends.

When I think of how I want to remember this show, I think of the 45 days speech (now tainted for me because apparently “until the end of my days and beyond” means “six years”) and I think of the Barney/Robin proposal (also tainted), and I think of the pineapple incident and Victoria and the two-minute date and Marshall’s dad dying, and I think of all that this show was in its prime and all that it could have been in the future. But Bays and Thomas didn’t take David Athey’s advice. They didn’t care that there was a secret passageway. They didn’t care that their characters had grown and changed and therefore their ending HAD to change. They didn’t think about anything but the few seconds of footage they shot nine years ago that could have been scrapped or altered. They didn’t think about Ted or Robin or Barney: they thought of themselves. They thought of that pilot image they had of their characters and they held on so tightly to that image that their knuckles turned white.

I fear that many shows will find themselves backed into the same corner that How I Met Your Mother was. I just hope that when they do, they reach for that bookshelf, pull the secret lever, and find another – better – way out.


  1. I'm actually glad I never got into the show now. Just as a fellow Writing major and a reviewer of movies and TV now, I agree with all the point you made here. I especially hate the idea that Barney (whose growth I heard about through the grapevine of friends who watched the show and the internet) just goes back to being the bad womanizing stereotype that he was that was hidden so often in the show by NPH's general charm. But yeah, just from a writer's standpoint and not a fan's, this makes me kind of angry.

    Oh and sidenote: my hope with Community this season is that it's less "they haven't changed" and more "they haven't changed as much as they thought." That despite the leaps and bounds in seasons past, the characters still have a long way to go. Personally I do see change in Abed (I liked how his apology to his girlfriend was portrayed - it felt like he was actually acknowledging what he needs to work on instead of making excuses) and while Jeff is still sly and sneaky, his priorities have changed from just himself to his friends. This is actually one of the more consistent parts of Jeff's story in the later seasons ... that he does take his relationships with his new family very seriously, even if he's still willing to screw over people outside his group to better all of them.

    Okay, sorry for that little rant in the middle of a review for another show. But thanks for the article!

  2. You are brilliant. I will pretend your scenarios played out. So well written. And yes, I am sad. Characters who were flawed, but loved, were turned into caricatures. The ultimate slap in the face.

  3. Right on the money. Here's the thing. You could have made any of the scenarios the finale played out work (except for maybe Ted/Robin, but that's mostly because of seasons worth of evidence that they didn't really love each. You'd have to undo all of the scenes of Ted and Robin agreeing that they weren't right for each other to make it feel true.) You could have had Tracy die. You could have had Barney/Robin divorce. You could have had Barney go back to his philandering ways. But not all at once. Not when there had been a season's worth (really two season's if you think about the Barney/Robin wedding) of plot that invested us in their marriage and meeting the mother. It's. . . I don't know, sad that they went this way. It's their show of course, and they can end it however they like, but they undid a lot of goodwill from the fans for it. I feel awful for all of the actors, especially Cristin, who became a fan favorite all for noting, and Josh who seemed to be the actor most invested in the show (Segel checked out years ago, NPH has been playing the same note for years [a good one, to be fair], and Hanigan got character assassinated a little bit over the last few seasons.)

    I will say that the scenes of Barney holding his daughter and Ted and Tracy meeting were pretty great. It's a shame all of the finale couldn't have been like that

    1. Sorry for the wall of text, but the finale seems to have inspired that in everyone