Monday, March 31, 2014

special comment: the finale of 'how i met your mother' - a response

I've been watching How I Met Your Mother since Season 3. I didn't get on board straight away because it reminded me of Friends and I've never been able to stomach that show. And since then, for nine seasons, I've watched the show and rewatched the show time and time again. I know some of the classic episodes beat-for-beat. I've laughed, I've cried, I've cheered and defended this show even in the seasons I saw it circling the drain - which, namely, was Season 5, because despite the Zoe arc in Season 6, there were moments in that season that had emotional pathos and goddamn it, I bought it.

And then we had Season 9, the season encapsulating just a few days of Barney and Robin's wedding - and I'll be honest, despite the gimmicky nature of some of the episodes and the reliance on callbacks that has become more of a crutch for this show year after year than a strength, I was on board. Some of the callbacks felt like the payoff of seasons of build-up, emotional and character arcs that lasted for years and finally met their righteous ending. I'm not going to lie, there were moments that were glorious and well-earned and I even bought into Robin and Barney as a couple, the two who had always been the most deeply broken inside and how they made each other stronger as they stayed together. 

And there were telegraphed moments throughout that season that built to the finale tonight. Going in, I had a feeling in my gut that there was tragedy in the future. I didn't know if the mother was going to live - I assumed she wasn't, it was obviously telegraphed - and honestly, I expected Ted could have been dead, and he's retracing the moments of his life that led up that climax, and how everything else didn't matter as he faced Purgatory or whatever. That would have given some real weight to the moment when Ted meets the Mother, the high point, the climax, the moment for which we've been waiting. And it would have been devilishly charming if it had ended at that moment, a quiet moment of anticlimax that would have been goddamn beautiful and earned.

The finale went in a different direction. And I will say this: on paper, the majority of makes sense. Friends, even as tightly knit as these have been, drift apart. If you have kids, you'll go weeks or months or years without seeing people. If you're on an insane travel schedule, marriages will fracture, especially when both partners are as driven and free-spirited as the two in question. And when that happens, people regress until they make stupid decisions and are forced to turn their lives around. And spouses die, and eventually, it's believable that you might return to that old flame that you've nurtured in the back of your heart year after year after year. From a position of human drama, I buy everything that happened in the finale of How I Met Your Mother - on paper.

The reason the finale does not work - and really does impressive amounts of damage to the show's many dramatic arcs as a whole - is entirely a matter of tone. And you know, tone is a tricky thing, especially when you're working with footage cobbled together for years and you've had the finale lodged in your mind almost a decade since the very first episode. And here, the misunderstanding of tone is mindboggling - because in the writers' minds, it's always been about Ted and Robin. It's the central locus, the primary element since the pilot that has defined this show - and really, it's never been about the Mother.

It was that pilot in the mind of the writers when they wrote the finale. It's just a shame they didn't consider all the other elements they had brought in, and for a show with this sort of storied history, it's amazing how much they forgot and disregarded to create this finale, most specifically the final moments.

Did they forget the end of Season 2, when both Robin and Ted realized they wanted very different things and how Robin didn't want kids and wanted to travel the world and focus on her career - which she did? Did they forget Season 7, where Ted confessed to Robin that he loved her and a week later she came back and said she didn't feel the same? Did they forget the episode 'Sunrise', THIS SEASON, where Ted finally let Robin go? Did they forget 'The End Of The Aisle', where Robin had her doubts and thought that in the end she might just end up with Ted and that Barney was the right choice? Did they forget, oh, I don't know, Barney's arc for the last three seasons?

Once again, it's tone, and on paper, I can completely accept that Barney and Robin wouldn't work out and that they'd divorce and Barney would backslide and Robin would isolate. On paper, that completely makes sense - if you forget the seasons of character development dumped into both characters, where they had every opportunity to turn back as early as Season 4 with setback after setback, with the relationship failing and restarting and failing again and it finally culminating in Barney staying who he is and making it work... and then in the course of an hour it falls apart and they had three years and we're all supposed to buy that both of them enjoyed that moment together and then to finally teach Barney responsibility as he backslides, they give him a kid. A child who is a plot device by a nameless woman who is a plot device so Barney can go into the bar after being up all night with the baby and slut shame two of the women with whom he would have screwed. And I know the sexual politics of this show have been twisted since the very start in order to justify a character like Barney, but the difference was that we always got underneath it all Barney was sad, desperate and alone and Robin was the love that filled that void. But nope, apparently all he needed was that one moment of carelessness that netted him a bouncing baby and traditional family values saves the freaking day!

And Neil Patrick Harris tried - dear god, he tried - to make it work, and sell that child as being that one thing for which he had always been searching, a chance to be that father figure that he never had - and you know, I almost bought it. He nearly moved me to tears, he's that good of an actor - but after the scene in the bar, Barney falls out of the show after a hackneyed moment in the bar that I didn't buy for a second. Sure, children change your life and how you view the world - even for guys like Barney - but if Robin didn't change him, you expect me to believe plot device baby would?

And speaking of plot devices, let's talk about the Mother. I'd use her name, but let's face it, she's been a plot device for the past eight seasons. And critics have ranted and raved about that particular issue and how they could never buy into any ending of Ted with her because we haven't seen or been with her character and it would ring hollow and emotionally unjustified. But you know, I'll give them the writers credit, they tried their damnedest to make The Mother a character - and the shocking thing was that it worked. Quiet, subtle moments all throughout the ninth season that made everyone wish for more time with her, even when we started to have the aching feeling she wasn't going to last until the very end. She stopped being a plot device and became a character in the way the best sitcom characters do - until she wasn't a character anymore. And really, when you go back through that final episode and notice how little the Mother says or interacts with the rest of the group and how few moments they have together, it all starts to ring hollow. Did we really need so many scenes with Marshall and Lily, when their compelling character arcs had ended with 'Daisy' and how they've rarely been the main focus of the past two seasons? Couldn't we have had more time with Tracy, that woman that Lily describes as that 'someone different'?

And then the mother passes away and six years later Ted concludes the conversation with his kids - and they, like everyone else, recognized that this story was never about the Mother, because she was just a half-forgotten plot device brought up whenever the story needed a prod to keep us engaged in Ted's stream of relationships that also now feel in retrospect like plot devices - because, like the Mother, they never mattered. Sure, there was a moment in the beginning of Season 3 where they mentioned the story is less about meeting the mother and more about everything that led Ted to become the person he had to be in order to meet her - but if we were to buy that, it would imply that relationship meant something more. And as much as the show tried to present that, that's never been true - because it's always been Robin.

Because in the very end, in those final scenes with the kids, Ted is contemplating calling Robin and asking her out. It's been six years, and you know, it's believable. The kids have adjusted to the idea, they don't mind it - they seem distressingly eager for him to do it, actually. And so Ted grabs that blue French horn and Robin looks out the window and sees him and is happy. Because in the end, it's Ted's story, and Ted has to get that happy ending, and the writers decreed it was with Robin.

You know what I would have liked to see? I'd have liked to see the next ten minutes, as Robin's life flashes before her eyes as the man who has never stopped loving her and whom she does not love approaches her window. I'd have liked to see the next hour, where he comes up to the room and Robin likely agrees to go out with him one last time, honouring that pact they made at the end of Season 2 if they were both that age and single, they'd try again. I'd have liked to see the next time at the bar, with Lily grudgingly handing the money back to Marshall and the heartbroken look on Barney's face. I'd have liked to seen the wedding, where Marshall would probably have been the best man and Barney would not have attended - or if he did, he could barely look either of them in the eye. I'd liked to have seen 2035, when Robin's career eventually drives them apart again and Ted is once again alone. The second you think that, the ending takes a whole different connotation, and an episode that was just sad becomes heartbreaking. The tonal dissonance is enough to tear you apart.

Or maybe it wouldn't and 'true love' would win out and Ted would get that happy ending because that's all that apparently matters.

You know what I would have liked to see? I'd have liked to see Robin open that window, look down for a long few moments... and then shake her head slowly, and close the window. Because for as much as this show likes to say it's about some form of real life and real consequences, the excuses that will be brought forward to defend the plot machinations of this episode, that would be real. Ted would likely be left walking home alone in the rain in that he didn't get everything he wanted - or maybe he did, and he had found that woman and he only wished he could have cherished her more before that end. Maybe he walks into his house and holds his kids with tears streaming down his face. People would still hate that ending and be heartbroken that Ted didn't find that true happiness, and CBS would be fielding hordes of angry callers for the next year - but it would have meant something. It would have had weight and held the rest of the story and its history and tone and made it mean something beyond a cheap, unearned happy ending that rings so hollow it's sad. 

It reminds me of Silver Linings Playbook, a movie I despise, because for the first two thirds of the movie, it feels real in a portrayal of mental illness that has resonance and weight and actively scorns the idea of giving Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence their happy ending - and then in the last third it takes the coward's way out and pairs them up anyway and gives them that Hollywood happy ending regardless of logic or common sense. And How I Met Your Mother does the exact same thing in this finale in terms of tone, and the damage is staggering. And what mystifies me is that for a show which is so willing to embrace sadness and go for broke in the desperation for true love that has always driven Ted's character that they feel the need to cheapen it all like this, even though on a sandy beach at the sunrise of his best friend's wedding he finally let her go. I get the feeling the writers knew they had written themselves into a corner with an ending that might have had more weight at the end of Season 2 instead of now, and I bet at some point in the writers room they considered the option I put forward. And instead, they went halfway and killed the Mother, and took the coward's way out.

They didn't close the deal. It's unfinished. It's not legendary. Because life means sometimes you don't get that happy ending - and that can mean so much more.

1 comment:

  1. I'm just curious, I know it is a bit off topic but why were you never able to "stomach" the show friends?