I am a playwright by nature and training. Hence, the stories I tell are usually finite, and hopefully the fate of my work remains largely under my own control. The same cannot be said for television or film, where production companies or networks may have sway over a final product, whether or not that means editing a film into something different than its creators intended, or prolonging the life of a television show far past the twists and turns the show was intending to take are accomplished. I don't really understand the struggles it takes to get a TV show to air, nor how to plan potentially infinite seasons. The stories I tell tend to have endings that I work towards, and I achieve them (even if the endings end up changing; they often do). So while I can't understand what Carter Bays and Craig Thomas went through in crafting nine(-ish) years of stories for "How I Met Your Mother," I feel like I got a glimpse into their creative ambitions last night during the series finale.
If I had my druthers, I would design an entire class around the narrative structure employed in "How I Met Your Mother." A random and numerous amount of episodes display strong storytelling technique. A random and numerous amount of episodes display great character work, stunning set pieces, or emotional moments. But I also think the show provides fantastic lessons about long-form storytelling that any writer could learn from -- starting with how endings function in a story intent on proving both the journey and the destination are of equal importance.
Last night's final episode was dissatisfying for a lot of people, for a number of reasons. I know many people who are extremely angry about the show's ending. I know others who were moved to tears. I remain somewhere in between these two states. I have always enjoyed this show, I've shared it with some of my closest friends. In a way, this show's ending was a final goodbye to my twenties, which ended earlier in March. So I have investment in the story, for personal as well as entertainment reasons. That doesn't mean I am immune the writers' missteps. For example, I dropped out of the show once seasons six, seven, and eight began to drag their heels on dramatic developments between the characters. I couldn't help but feel the amount of story the writers had to tell didn't gibe with having forty-some more hours of TV time.
More importantly, I began to feel the "why today" was outweighing the show's "present" events. The whole show serving as a flashback was fine, but fans were chomping at the bit to know why Future Ted was even telling the story of how he met his kids' mother. The series began with Ted declaring he'd tell his disinterested kids this story, and that was that. This simplicity is not sustainable over nine years. A couple seasons, sure, but if writers don't start answering questions that pop into viewers' heads, the audience will provide answers on their own. Most viewers I know figured the mother was dead in the future, which is exactly what we learned last night. We were told by Future Ted that the mother died, and he is telling his children their story as a look back at their meeting and life together.
Except the story wasn't about the mother. The kids (from a section filmed allllllll the way back in 2006 or 2007) speak the truth when they inform Ted that the story had little to do with their mother and everything to do with his one-time girlfriend and best friend Robin. They spur him on to start dating her, as apparently she's still been in this family's life, and Ted's life in particular. (Mind you, we're told this; we've seen none of it in an hour raging from filling in the blanks on career prospects to Barney becoming a dad and finally evolving into a non-creeper.) Ted runs to Robin's place with blue french horn he stole for her in the first episode, back when they wanted different things, twenty years before.
Again, a lot of people are mad that the "How I Met Your Mother" creative team chose to undermine its starting premise (the mother is NOT Robin, as stated at the end of the show's pilot, when Past Ted is convinced he'll marry her), only to have Robin be Ted's endgame after all. I didn't mind their winding up together as an ending, as the actors were great together, and the writers wrote some of their strongest material because of their relationship. Also, writing 101 -- if you keep telling us somebody ISN'T ENDGAME, after a while it's you protesting too much, and I know you'll prove your own point wrong after a certain amount of time. The original tagline for the show was "A love story in reverse," which I never understood until now.
That being said ... the audience is right to be upset. I respect a lot of what Bays and Thomas and the whole directing, writing, and production team have brought to the table with their series (Robin Sparkles, y'all!). And doing a finale where you kill the mother, divorce a couple who just got married last episode, and show how another couple struggles to get their careers on track is pretty courageous, for a sitcom. But winding us back to the start of the series wasn't satisfying to me, and it should have been. Because Bays and Thomas were attempting an audacious perception shift; they were trying to change the entire meaning of the story Future Ted's been telling in the last five minutes of the show.
But attempting is the key word here. It wasn't a successful shift for me. Dramatic conflict is generated by presenting the audience with two images and then bouncing them against each other, until one wins out. Perception shifts replace one way viewing of the final image with another. The point of a good perception shift is to reveal that what we learn post-shift makes more sense than what we'd been presented with before the shift. Think Oedipus learning he murdered his father and married his mother; it's surprising, but the clues tell the tale. The reason people feel robbed by Ted choosing Robin at the end of "How I Met Your Mother" is that the writers didn't give us enough information to put the pieces together ourselves. If we could track back that the reason Future Ted's spent so much time chatting with his kids about Robin is because he's trying to move on with his life after his wife's death, then we'd all be satisfied. But we only for sure learn the mother was ill in the finale, and we've never been shown the twenty years of friendship Robin and Ted fostered, so she could still be seen as a viable candidate for his heart. An entire season could have been dedicated to the Mother's relationship with Ted, rather than just Robin and Barney's wedding weekend. We could have seen twenty years in twenty-two episodes -- not in flashes and glimpses -- but in goal-driven stories that show us grief and recovery and hope. If the show was about time, and being at the right time and place to make a choice, then the creative team needed to show us that time, and give us the chance to watch action unfold. This would only support the ambition that the story the show's been telling is not the one you think it's been telling.
Good narrative structure is like a magic act. Most times it involves misdirection, a "Look over here while I stick a rabbit in this hat to wow you with at the end of the show!" But you need to do more than make us look in the other direction. You need to thread through information that will let us accept the shift, that the rabbit has been in the hat the entire act. By spending an entire season on Barney and Robin's wedding, by giving so much weight to every single hour, it became difficult to focus on what mattered and what didn't in the show. The mother was clearly of importance, but so was Ted letting go of Robin in order to pursue the mother after the wedding. The two issues were never put into direct conflict, however, so the trajectory didn't see to accommodate where we landed. That may have been the point, to watch how small moments lead to big choices, and life gets in the way and changes your plans sometimes. I guess I just wish we'd seen it all happen.
Still, I can't argue with the ambition driving the final moments of this episode. I applaud it, even if the execution was lacking for me. For what it's worth, I still felt it. And again, working out a satisfying end for a show where one of the stars wanted minimal screen time, where the show's network wanted to extend the show by a season, and where the end was filmed back in the mid-2000s ... well, that's gotta be hard. If anything, at least now I know what the writers intended the show to be. What I cherish more is the lessons I can glean from the ambition driving this whole enterprise.
"How I Met Your Mother" photo: CBS website.