As is a danger when you’re already an overly emotional person, I grew overly emotionally attached to How I Met Your Mother in this final season. I’ve always liked the show, but in the past few years I’d fallen away from it, mainly due to having a much more exciting than television real life to pay attention to. When I got back from my three month world-jaunt this fall, I caught up on the last season and a half of the show in a jet lag fueled binge and became devoted to the season and alas, the fates of the characters.
A few weeks ago when it was hinted that the mother might be dead, I was noticeably upset and spent a few days coming up with all the reasons it couldn’t be possible. The kids were too flip about the story throughout the show. The producers would never want to alienate new fans that way. I even had a dream that explained away the episode in question, which involved the mother going on an axe-spree at my old summer camp and thus going to jail and missing her daughters wedding. Perhaps a little too attached? Sure. But in my defense, it’s my first year out of college, and in my secondary defense, the show’s creators wanted us to become attached. With every emotionally charged turn or inside joke the show took us on, it asked us as fans to care more about Ted and Marshall than we do about Hannah and Adam or Phil and Claire.
That attachment did not fare me well in this final episode. In the last five minutes of the show, the creators killed (killed how? What disease? Hypochondriac and medical knowledge hoarder reporting here) the mother we’d waited so long to meet and set Ted back up with Robin, the woman who he had what amounts to at best a schoolgirl crush and at worst a creepy obsession with over the past nine seasons. I knew pretty much immediately that I hated it. I tried to see the good in the episode, I really did. I tried to use all the clichés about it being just a show and the creators can do what they want. Alas, I was still upset, and then I veered away from emotions and into evaluating it artistically and that, my friends, is where our real troubles begin.
As most people who have ever created anything that has a vague semblance of a plot know, characters and events take on lives of their own. I’m not saying that the characters run away and do things completely independent of the creator’s intent (although some people do say this,) but rather that lives begin to take shape within a fictional universe and choices that you as the creator set out to make in the beginning become implausible as the characters lives move forward. It’s why Ann Patchett tells you not to write the drowning scene that’s ¾ of the way through the novel until you’ve already written that first ¾. Even if you know how amazing the scene will be and think your passion will be best if you write it first, don’t do it, because then you’ll go back and write the beginning, and nine times out of ten the road of the story won’t match up with the scene you already wrote.
This is almost to a T what happened to the creators of HIMYM. They wrote themselves a scene before the show even had a chance to gain its ground, and the characters grew to a wonderful and mature place that didn’t match with the original intent. Instead of using, oh I don’t know, any of the modern technology available to them, they insisted on using the original scene and thus negating all the growth on the path their characters had made. Taken as a whole, the creators rendered every plot point from 8 seasons of the show moot by sticking to a resolution they thought of back before the characters grew at all.
It’s a silly decision that one would think you could trust seasoned writers not to make, and because of that it undermines the artistic integrity of the entire show. I know the argument here: is the show art? Did the show intend to be art? I would argue that since they spend at least four episodes of every season reminding us via Ted’s snobby idiosyncrasies that they went to a prestigious college the answer would be yes, but maybe not. In that case – if the show’s creators intended it to be purely entertainment but not art, the problem doesn’t go away. In fact, it complicates the finale further.
Serious art can extract itself from making its decisions based on the viewers perception. This is what separates it from something whose success is based on the average consumer’s opinion of it. To quote Jonathan Franzen, “[Consumer products are] designed to be immensely likeable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. I’m thinking here of jet engines, lab equipment, serious art and literature.” Here is the problem that HIMYM ran into: the creators couldn’t decide if they wanted it to be serious art or if they wanted it to be a consumer product. By all outside perceptions, the show is a consumer product. Most television shows are, but add in the ridiculous gimmicks and cultural references that characterized it and the answer is clear. But if the show’s creators were content with this, then they would have remembered the most important facet of the consumer product: it owes something to the viewer. And with an ending like that, the creators basically said fuck you to the viewer and insisted on their own artistic vision – which if you agree with the previous paragraph, was not a sound artistic vision at all.
What I’m left with here is a mishmash of artistic or non-artistic choices that left me wondering if the creators thought at all about what their ending meant or if instead they were focused on two things: their contrived ending they thought of eight years ago and their misguided desire to shock viewers with a cheap trick of a finale that basically made fun of the legions of loyal fans they’d worked so hard to gain.
Let’s move now to the cheap trick. I get the desire for a shock in television. There’s pressure in the world of narratives to do something new, something different, something that will surprise people. Putting aside the fact that this ending surprised approximately no one given how much the theory had been thrown around the internet, I’m going to throw out here that shock value is even at its base incredibly overrated. It’s been said a million ways by theorists and modern artists alike: everything has been done already. A shock feels exciting for about two seconds, and then the smoke goes away and you’re left with the mangled remains of the explosion. A shock replaces genuine feeling and emotion. Worse in my book, shocks aimed at loyal fans are downright rude. What are the creators trying to get out of it? Cool, we tricked the people who actually cared enough to watch our show? Really nice to the people who stuck with a program that had notable down times over the past nine years.
And then there’s the fact that the finale itself, issues of shock and art aside, was poorly constructed. This has been hashed over on the internet numerous times, so I’ll make it short: why dedicate an entire season to Robin and Barney’s wedding, and more seasons to their courtship, only to destroy it with a ten minute divorce? Worse, destroy nine seasons of waiting for the mother and an entire season of growing to love her with a five minute death that doesn’t even give us a crying Ted scene or her character the honor of knowing what she died of. If they knew this was going to happen the whole time (And that is one thing that’s been beaten over our heads) then why not dedicate an episode or two of the season to Robin and Barney and the rest to the next years of the gang? Show us episodes of the mother and Ted’s courtship in her getting sick, not minutes. It would have been untraditional, sure, but the entire season, nee, the entire series, was untraditional. I would have taken that any day over what happened, a season that was negated by a poorly constructed finale.
One of the things I always loved about How I Met Your Mother was that the show doled out such good life lessons that rang true in this often traumatic modern era. I think that a huge part of the integrity of the show was its ability to have true emotional resonance that reflected the (perceived, obviously) ideals of the creators. Regardless of if that was the intent or not, there’s a certain degree to which any narrative should be an argument for the way the creator wishes for others to see the world. For many years in HIMYM the message was one I could subscribe to, of positivity and waiting for the right people to come into your life and whatever that nice thing Stella said to Ted was about the love of his life coming as fast as she could.
In the finale the creators certainly still made an argument for the type of life choices they stand by, but it was one that was very different from the first eight seasons of the show. What we’re left with is the message that childish unrequited love/obsession will prevail in the end. Not one that I want to subscribe to if we’re trying to talk about living fulfilling, mature lives. It validates Ted’s nine seasons of being pathetic. In addition, it sends the message that in the end you’ll probably end up with someone who was there all along. Which is good and fine for those people out there who have secret romantic ardor for a good friend or have someone in their group of friends that they happen to be in love with. But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who have many incredibly fulfilling friendships, but don’t secretly love any of those friends? Or those of us who don’t have any secret romantic spark with our circles of humans? What is the message for us? That our romantic relationships will never be as fulfilling because they aren’t with someone who is ‘in’ on the group?
Perhaps the creators of HIMYM didn’t think this deeply about any of their decisions for the finale. But they should have. It’s a big responsibility to have a show that so many people watch. And they’re certainly making a lot of money to do it. To not think about all these factors is a disgrace to both the fans who have put so much time into the show and to every struggling writer out there who would give a leg to have the ability to dedicate so much depth of emotion to a their own story.