Musings on the finale of How I Met Your Mother
SPOILERS BELOW – READ ON AT YOUR PERIL!
Most of those taking to the the blogosphere to speak of "#HIMYMfinale" have done so to blast it: “How dare you for killing off the mother!” “HOW DARE YOU PULL OUT THE RUG FROM UNDER US!”
These are not actual quotes, but summations of public opinion I have found. Normally, I’d take care to hyperlink each quote to an example, to ground my words in a proper context. But today, I just don’t have the energy. I have been, for lack of a better word, drained. Rarely has any piece of art affected me this much—much less a sitcom.
Doubtlessly, there are many subjective factors in feeling this way: my predilections for one (I am someone deeply affected by a certain kind of sentimentality--one grounded in just enough reality to bite), the unshakeable suspicion that I have been manipulated for another.
I could easily throw up a laundry list of endings that have left me in similar places.
And I will, that we might better understand each other.
This list is not complete, but it’ll do for right now:
- Black Swan Green. Novel. David Mitchell.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Movie. Michel Gondry.
- Sandman. Series of Graphic Novels. Neil Gaiman.
- Richard II. Play. William Shakespeare.
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Movie. David Fincher.
- Six Feet Under. Television Show. Alan Ball.
- Faure’s Requiem. Music. Gabriel Faure.
- AI. Movie. Steven Speilberg.
- About Time. Movie. Richard Curtis.
- How I Met Your Mother. Television Show. Bays and Thomas.
This is not a catalogue of works I think are inherently good, but works that always make me cry. Not only cry, but sob. I had to leave Benjamin Button a bit early so that no one would see me breakdown in the theater. This had more to do with those who had died in my own life than the movie itself. The film was efficient, but hardly sublime.
Indeed, some of the entries on this list are downright bad: for all the tears that Spielberg wrings out of me whenever I see Hailey Joel Osment crawling to his mommy in AI, I know it’s a schlock move, and worse, a deeply manipulative one. I see it for what it is—another Spielberg moment, one in which the director wants to reach out and squeeze all the juices from my heart. I know that had Stanley Kubrick lived to direct the project, it would have been much icier and far better.
I would have liked that movie, instead of crying over it.
I digress, but not too far: I suspect it's not the ending of HIMYM that puts a sour taste in the internet’s mouth. Rather, it’s the age old question of manipulation versus artistry, of feeling versus sentiment: whether or not we can feel the strings being pulled in the old ticker.
In the case of HIMYM, we can feel those strings jumping around for sure. But that might be a function of the medium itself.
It’s a common belief that series finales are never what we want them to be. I suspect this is even more true of the Sitcom because ending one is inherently unnatural—that is, antithetical to the promise of the Sitcom, which has always included a grand reset button at the end of every episode.
No matter what happens in a given Sitcom's story, there is a Godly and authorial voice rooted deep into the genre, one that screams, “Do over!” even in the face of season-long plot arcs.
In the real world, it is a reality that everything has to end. But this reality is a falsehood within the universe of the Sitcom. To put a glass case around the reset button feels like the ultimate unfunny joke. It’s the Godly, authorial voice proclaiming, “let there be DARK!”
Sitcoms, by function, inculcation, and enculturation, are not designed to end, but to be cancelled. To leave the thing you love fossilized in amber, that seems like the right move. To watch it crumble towards extinction is not fun—and, if nothing else, Sitcoms are supposed to be fun.
Furthermore, it’s even less fun to end something as whimsical as a Sitcom (and an especially whimsical one at that) in the harsher realities of life (death, divorce, losing friendships, moving on while staying intractably the same).
To do so is to impart something far too strong for the genre’s shoulders, no matter how well executed.
So given all that, I can expect a certain amount of complaining over the ending, a certain amount of disappointment. I'm sure the creators have been anticipating that as well.
But here’s what galls me about the negative responses I’ve seen. Here's what forces me out of my normal wheelhouse: I've come across way too much armchair criticism to the effect of “the show didn’t honor it’s characters”, or that the ending “wasn’t set up in the right way", or even, "the ending didn't feel real."
Yes, frustrations abound online. We're frustrated for spending the entire last season at a wedding whose participants get divorced about fifteen minutes into the finale; for spending so much time watching Ted and Robin play the game of “will they/won’t they” that we became ambivalent to it; for spending nearly a decade watching a likable protagonist flagellate, humiliate, and dehumanize himself all in in pursuit of The One; for spending about twenty seconds with The One before killing her off and saddling this poor schlub with The Other One—a person whom, by this time, we've ping-ponged around for far too long.
In other words, people feel cheated.
But I say don’t feel that way. If you were a fan, try your damndest not to feel that way, because that feeling doesn’t serve the show, and furthermore, it doesn’t serve the reality of your life.
We spent a whole year at a wedding only to watch the marriage crumble; at least half of you will spend years planning, talking, thinking, and dreaming of a wedding, only to see your marriage end in fire and misery.
We spent nine years of protracted, often infuriating games of “will they/won’t they” between Ted and Robin; most of you have had such a relationship in your own lives, or are still in the throes of one.
We watched these characters hurt each other and grow ambivalent to each other; how many friends have you frozen out of your own life?
And finally, we watched a man get everything he ever wanted, only to have it taken away from him in twenty seconds; if the love of your life had died horribly and suddenly, wouldn't the time you spent with him or her feel like twenty seconds? Wouldn't you want every minute of those "forty five days", as Ted famously asked for in "The Time Travellers"?
Still, many of you called “bullshit.”
Well, I call “bullshit” on your “bullshit.” At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned my significant other, and now I will now disclose more: the mother of my sweetheart lost her much-beloved husband after a terrible illness. After mourning the death of this man, she found herself in the company of a former paramour--him too having lost a spouse.
Over the years, you see, she had kept in touch with this former flame fairly regularly; they were friends. She gave his children piano lessons.
And one day those kids—having lost their own mother, and seeing the chemistry bloom between their father and their favorite piano teacher—played a game of Parent Trap. Soon, a relationship began to blossom, even in the face of so much past-love--so much death.
This is where my mind went in those waning minutes of HIMYM. This is what stung me the most: that this kind of thing really does happen—this kind of thing really is life.
Look, all the escapists out there can say, “I don’t watch this thing to remind me of life, I watch it to remind me how life is supposed to be.” And that’s fine. But the creators of this show didn’t want to do that. In fact, they made it abundantly clear over the arc that they didn’t want to do that (for everyone who accuses this show of backtracking, I invite you to check out the HIMYM wiki pages so you can really see just how interconnected each episode really is).
They wanted something else. They wanted to join the echelon of artists who use an inherently unrealistic medium to depict truth. They could've easily given you this ending. But they didn't do that, did they?
No. They went for the tear over the laugh. And what's more, they wanted that tear to mean something.
And if you’re still reeling, talking, thinking, tweeting, and posting about this topic, how could you say that it didn’t?