Why I loved the HIMYM finale

My opinions about the season finale of How I Met Your Mother have grown stronger in the days since I watched it, and saw many other people’s reactions. My first response was, “I never thought I would be okay with this but… I kind of like it.” Reading a lot of people’s negative responses, and the reasons behind them, has pushed me firmly into This was one of the best romantic comedy endings ever territory. And here’s why.

The whole premise of the show, we thought, was ultimately going to be a fairy tale, Ted questing for his true love and then getting his happily ever after. Ted buys into that narrative whole-heartedly. Words like “the one” and “destiny” get thrown around. While he has a number of good relationships, alongside the multitude of not-so-good ones, he clearly views them as failures and false starts on his way to finding his One True Love.

All romantic comedies are fairy tales, and meeting or marrying the destined partner is the happily ever after. Plenty has been written about how inadequately that storyline reflects reality: that there are just as many (almost certainly more) messes and tears and misunderstandings after the big I Do or I Love You as before; that the most dramatic stories don’t usually lead to the happiest love relationships; that maybe teaching ourselves to view meeting The One as the endgame of life isn’t the healthiest pattern. But it’s a compelling story and it’s easy to get invested in it.

One of my big worries throughout the show was that The Mother couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. But she did! She was fantastically written and fantastically cast, and pretty much charmed the pants off me in every scene. She was a perfect match for Ted without being at all obnoxious, which in itself is a minor miracle. (I don’t hate Ted nearly as much as a lot of people do, but I grant his frequent obnoxiousness.) I loved her and if she’d shown up as a character and NOT been The Mother, I suspect the writers would’ve had a riot on their hands.

So it was that much more surprising (although in retrospect, it was telegraphed throughout the season at least) that that turned out not to be the story at all. The entire show was never about finding the one person who completes you, the one true love that give you your happy ending. It was about how love can be amazing and perfect and right at the moment, and then three years later, maybe it isn’t right any more. Or maybe you lose that person through circumstances neither of you can control. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real love, doesn’t mean it wasn’t amazing and perfect and right when it was happening. And if you later fall in love with someone else, you don’t have to pick which of the two is your “real” love story, your true destiny and the love of your life. They both are.

I was rooting for Barney/Robin from the moment they suited up and drank scotch together. (Hotttttt.) And their relationship was important to both of them: it let two commitmentphobes get a genuine workout in their issues, and when they broke up, it wasn’t about lack of trust or the impulse to run away or the inability to resist that one little fling… it was just that they weren’t making each other happy any more. And they were both honest enough, and cared for themselves and each other enough, to admit it. That’s a brave and positive step, and one that I wished we saw more in stories. They had a great relationship, and the fact that it ended doesn’t erase that.

And then The Mother’s death. (Even though we find out near the end that her name is Tracy, she’ll always be The Mother to me.) I’d read speculations that that was going to happen, and the way the last season played out brought me closer and closer (and with a heavy heart) to believing it. That one episode with the flash-forward of them going back to the inn and the “What mother would miss her daughter’s wedding?” bit? Yeah. I got it, and I cried, and I hugged Shaun. One of the things HIMYM has done brilliantly is the tragedy of untimely death. In our medically advanced, “wars happen on other continents” culture, that’s a thing that we try really, really hard to pretend doesn’t happen. Or we try to give it a bigger meaning or significance, to distract from how much it hurts. HIMYM has never done that. People die, it hurts, it doesn’t make sense. The only comfort is that we got to love them while they were here.

Tracy’s own story foreshadows this really nicely, and it tells us (in case anyone was unclear) exactly how to take her death. We never met her former lover (what was his name? Mike maybe?) but it was clear she thought of him as her One True Love, her destiny… and when that destiny was cut short, she thought that was the end of love for her. And letting go of him, finding the ability to love again, didn’t erase her love for him. The whole episode “How Your Mother Met Me” was great both in that we got to know Tracy better, but more so in that it pre-figured the process Ted was going to have to go through. We don’t see him going through any of the steps Tracy did in the six years between her death and his telling of the story, but it’s easy to imagine him slowly letting go of the idea of One True Love, and instead thinking of her as a true love.

And then we come to Robin, and here’s where the show fell down a bit. (Or a lot.) Ted’s pining for Robin in the latter seasons was SO obnoxious that it became impossible to root for them, even if the show hadn’t been insistently telling us that they wouldn’t get together (or so we thought, because we didn’t question the assumption that “the mother of my children, the woman who made my life incredibly happy” = “the only woman I’ll ever be with for the rest of my life.”) I actually did root for them in the early seasons, or wanted to: there were a lot of moments where I was like, “Dammit! Why can’t it be Robin?” But by the end it had turned from “two people who are so close to being right for each other, but agonizingly not close enough” to “OMG Ted will you GET OVER IT?” I can see why he didn’t. He loved her, and he was fixated on the idea of romantic destiny, and when those two things go together it can be very hard to let go of someone. But it dragged on too long and was too one-sided, and ultimately that “I love you + destiny = obsessing futilely over you for years” equation is not attractive or healthy.

And I guess, because of the whole destiny delusion, it was easy for people to read the whole story as, “Robin was Ted’s ultimate destined True Love, Tracy was just another distraction that happened to give him kids.” But I don’t see that and I don’t think the actual writing of the show supports that. The Robin-as-destiny concept was false and flawed and childish. Ted had to grow up and grow out of it. He sort of did, in the last season, but it was too little and waaaay too late to have any impact other than “my god, finally.” And then the whole locket thing brought it back in in a way I really disliked. I think it would’ve been better if Ted had had his “actually letting Robin go” moment a few seasons back, and then their continuing chemistry and love could have been gently hinted at at moments here and there, without it ever being about one of them helplessly pining for the other.

I also get why a lot of people feel betrayed by the way it all played out. In a lot of ways, the whole show was a huge bait-and-switch. The entire premise was supposed to be a traditional love story with a fairy-tale happy ending, and it turned into a story about how love takes many forms, and loving someone sometimes means saying goodbye, and there are actually no happy endings at all, because the story keeps moving and changing and what you actually get (hopefully!) is a sequence of happy middles, sometimes very different from each other. That is a much better story! Or at least it’s a much truer story, and one I wish our culture would tell itself more often.

And it’s not that lifetime love never happens, either. Marshall and Lily provide a counterpoint story, one of a single love that flourishes over a lifetime. But theirs is realistic too: they have to fight and struggle and sometimes their dreams conflict, and they have to make tough choices. I loved that moment when they said new wedding vows to each other, and agreed that they’d probably need to do the same thing again multiple times in the future. They keep choosing each other, through all the changes that happen, and it’s a free and happy choice for both of them.

There were other little things in the finale that I loved: I loved that becoming a dad was Barney’s real transformative moment, and goddammit if Neil Patrick Harris didn’t make that well-worn trope moving and beautiful. I like that Marshall had to go back to being a corporate lawyer for many years more before getting his judgeship. Having to take jobs you don’t like is another harsh, oft-denied reality that the show’s done a good job with over the years. I like that Robin fulfilled all her personal dreams: if she had ended up giving up on them in favor of a relationship with anyone, I’d have burned shit down. I like that there were long periods where the group of friends had grown apart and rarely saw each other; their lifelong friendship wasn’t about things always being the same between them, but about the fact that they could always come together after a long separation, and always wanted to.

I dunno. I thought it was great.