*Spoiler warning for How I Met Your Mother and True Detective*
March was kind of a rough month for TV finales. First, the season finale of HBO’s critically acclaimed anthology series, True Detective, literally broke HBO Go. Then, once everybody actually got it working, the finale itself was a letdown, as the plot reached a disappointingly predictable conclusion and it turned out all the fans’ frenzied theorizing was for naught.
Then came the series finale of How I Met Your Mother (“HIMYM”), the beloved and oft-quoted sitcom that ended a nine-season run on Monday. Fans took to Facebook and Twitter in advance of the finale with weepy updates about the “end of an era” and “OMG I’m going to cry my eyes out.” Then the finale actually aired, and no one wept—they shouted instead.
The titular premise of the show—how Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) met and fell in love with the mother of kids—turned out to be one giant fakeout, as the Mother (whose name, we finally found out, was Tracy McConnell, played charmingly by Cristin Milioti) was not the central object of Ted’s affections after all. No, it was his early-seasons crush, Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), all along. After Tracy conveniently dies of an unspecified illness, Ted waits six years so that his kids won’t think he is a total scumbag and then goes after Robin with the blue french horn like he has so many times before.
Fans were mad—and I mean ALL-CAPS MAD. Here’s a random sampling of texts exchanged among a group of my friends on the night of March 31 and morning of April 1 (and, by the way, all four of us are attorneys, not teenagers):
“I AM SO SAD AND ANGRY”
“I hate that it’s making me question life choices and beliefs”
“It made no sense and it was the worst”
“I think I’m starting to go through the stages of grief”
“UGH I HATE EVERYTHING FOREVER”
“I am at the throwing things stage of grief”
“I’m walking to work right now and am listening to angry breakup music on my walk because I feel angry and betrayed”
You’d think the four of us had collectively gone through a breakup. Or maybe found out a dear friend was completely betrayed by a boyfriend. No, fiance. This is some evil-fiance-level vitriol.
But despite my anger, I have tried to come around to the HIMYM finale. Like Ted Mosby, who is so devoted to Star Wars that he ritualistically rewatches the entire trilogy once every three years, I am generally a loyal fan. I get invested in shows and characters I care about, and I root for them to succeed. So when a show I have loved ends, I won’t let the ending tarnish the series for me if I can help it. I will find redeeming qualities wherever I can, not admitting defeat. And that is precisely why I have come to embrace the anticlimactic True Detective finale, but I don’t foresee ever getting past the sting of HIMYM’s admittedly clever and cohesive ending.
Clever plot twists and narrative cohesion are certainly welcome and valuable on television, but not at the expense of emotional honesty, which is prized on TV above all else. While a three-hour movie can sustain itself on the momentum of a well-structured plot, a television show—whether it lasts eight episodes like True Detective or more than eight years like HIMYM—rides on the faithful development of its characters and themes. In other words, its emotional truth.
Even for shows that are generally successful on this score, writing a satisfying series finale is incredibly difficult. I can much more readily recall disappointing finales than excellent ones. Dexter was sloppy and nonsensical. Lost was a mess (“Wait, are they in purgatory? What about the polar bears?”). The Sopranos cut to black and millions of viewers assumed their cable had cut out (I kind of like that one, actually, but there’s no denying it incurred wrath).
Then there are shows that jumped the shark and lost their viewership long before the final episode (The O.C., Gossip Girl, one day Grey’s Anatomy and Glee); shows that were cancelled before their time and ended on sloppily thrown-together finales or worse, cliffhangers (Pushing Daisies, My So-Called Life, Veronica Mars); or shows that lived on the bubble for so long that they required midstream “just in case” finales, rendering actual finales less memorable (One Tree Hill “ended forever” more times than I can count).
Indeed, it’s rare that TV writers actually get to go with a planned, thought-out ending. True Detective and HIMYM both enjoyed this luxury—True Detective because it was short and contained, HIMYM because the ending was filmed in 2006, before the actors who played Ted’s kids had a chance to grow up. For this reason, I think a comparison between the two finales is apt despite how radically different the shows are. (Apples, oranges, premium cable dramas, and network sitcoms!).
I wouldn’t dare get into the relative merits of the two shows overall, or suggest that the inconsistent and goofy HIMYM ever played on the same field as the cinematic wonder that is True Detective. But there’s an important lesson to be learned from comparing their final episodes: When a finale has to choose between a show’s head and its heart, heart should win, period.
True Detective’s failings lay in its narrative cohesion. The show had spent an entire season weaving a complex tapestry of clues, only to have the whole thing spontaneously unravel in a pile of loose ends. What was going on with Marty’s daughter? Who exactly was the Yellow King? What was the extent of Errol Childress’s involvement (other than blood relation) with the Tuttles? For a show that masterfully played with pacing, the ending seemed awfully rushed.
But emotionally, True Detective remained utterly true to itself (and its detectives). The show was always about the unlikely not-quite-friendship between Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey). The most thrilling moments of the series were not plot points or “big reveals.” They were quiet moments of buddy-cop humor or Rust’s memorable philosophizing (the peak of the McConnaissance, arguably, was not the night Matthew won the Oscar, but the moment Rust uttered the phrase “Time is a flat circle.”). The one notable exception was the exhilarating six-minute tracking shot at the end of episode 4. But even that remarkable action sequence was at its heart about Rust himself: It was shot from his perspective, providing viewers with a glimpse into his mind. Watching the tracking shot, we suddenly understood how Rust retains sharp focus in frenzied chaos, and why the harsh demands on his mental reflexes have left him slightly off-kilter in his daily life.
For all the finale’s failings, its treatment of Marty and Rust was perfectly on-key. Again, the thrilling moments were actually outside the plot: Marty breaking down when his wife and children show up in his hospital room; Marty and Rust, both weak and weathered from their ordeal, sentimentally flicking each other off; and, of course, Rust’s emotional speech outside the hospital. In the series’ final moments, we saw Rust transformed and hopeful, but still as pensive and opaque as ever: “Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”
If True Detective failed its narrative but championed its characters, HIMYM did the exact opposite. Plot-wise, the HIMYM finale was outright smart. It took the show’s premise and turned it on its head. It avoid the trappings of a predictable, too-neat ending (think Friends). It even included nice touches of symmetry. In the first scene, a flashback to 2005, Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan) tells Ted and his womanizing friend Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), “The only way you can hook up with [Robin] is if you marry her.” Turns out, both did, though Barney and Robin divorced after only three years—which translated to about a minute and a half of screentime, after the whole ninth season was their wedding weekend! (Don’t get me started.) And, of course, there was the blue french horn, a longtime token of Ted’s affections for Robin. We didn’t need to watch Ted declare his love for Robin in the final scene, because the blue french horn did it for him.
But just one episode earlier, when Robin was in the throes of pre-wedding jitters and pleading with Ted that she should be with him instead of Barney, Ted told her he wasn’t the guy with the blue french horn anymore. And here’s the thing: I believed him. At one point, Ted was so subject to romantic whims that he told Robin he loved her on their first date. But nearly a decade has passed since then, and Ted has been left at the altar and faced scheming girlfriends and continual rejection from Robin. He’s come to understand that he and Robin are fundamentally different people, and trying to turn his infatuation with her into a real relationship simply isn’t going to work. He’s on the verge of giving up, moving to Chicago, when he meets Tracy, and the stars align. They flirt under the yellow umbrella she once lost at a St. Patrick’s Day party, where Ted found it, not knowing it belonged to the future mother of his children. And here’s the other thing: Ted and Tracy’s chemistry is incredible, far more lovely and sweet than Ted and Robin’s ever was.
So when Ted busts out the blue french horn again in the final scene, it is as if he has forgotten all the lessons of the decade before he met Tracy: from “nothing good ever happens after 2 a.m.” to “destiny is always at play” and “when someone is not right for you, you have to let them go.” Same goes for the other characters too. Barney Stinson, once an entertaining womanizer, grew devoted to Robin as the series went on, and by their wedding, he had achieved some semblance of maturity. But immediately after his divorce from Robin, Barney went back to being sleazy, then pulled a misogynistic about-face after he fathered a love child and took up paternalistic slut-shaming.
Aside from failing its characters, HIMYM also failed itself. Most TV shows with a long-term love story run on will-they-won’t-they sexual tension—think Castle, Bones, JAG, Ross & Rachel on Friends, Josh & Donna on West Wing. What was special about HIMYM was that its central love story (or so we thought) ran on hope. Ted’s longing was not sexualized or even localized, focused on an individual—instead, it was a general desire, a hopeless romantic’s quest to find the perfect girl to settle down with. Ted’s journey was the one every single twenty-something (without a hot-but-awkward co-worker or roommate they’re clearly meant for) goes through: Ted’s looking for love, but doesn’t know where to find it. His only fuel is faith.
There’s a poignant scene in season 4 in which Ted sits in a car with his ex-fiancee, Stella, and tells her he is tired of looking for the one. Stella reassures him, “She’s on her way, and she’s getting here as fast as she can.” Crucially, this scene—like almost all of the series—was filmed after the final appearance of Ted’s kids from the finale. But it defined the show HIMYM had become by that point. After the first season or two, it would have been just fine for Ted and Robin to wind up together, because Ted’s desire was still focused on her, even if only in the back of his mind. By the time he and Stella talked in the car, however, his desire was removed from Robin, detached, and Ted’s attempts to re-focus it on her continually failed, like forcing a square peg into a round hole. And along with Ted, the viewers shifted their focus too, and joined him in longing for the unknown Girl with the Yellow Umbrella.
So when HIMYM revealed it was a will-they-won’t-they between Ted and Robin all along, the twist rang hollow. HIMYM’s special brand of magic—hope, faith, destiny—was gone.
Now you can tell I’m out of practice at this, based on how long-winded this tirade has been, but the lesson here is simple: Ditching a plot device like the Yellow King is a bummer. But ditching an emotional lodestar like the Yellow Umbrella spells betrayal. So to all you advocates of HIMYM’s elegant plot: You’re right, but the ending was still wrong.