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How I Met Your Mother Recap: It’s All in the Game

"Eriksen residence, Marshall speaking" — a satisfying beginning to an excellent episode for the simple reason that it captured how easily adults revert back to their childhood selves during a prolonged stay at home. More important, though, it signified a refusal on the part of the writers to confine Marshall’s dad’s death to “very special episode” status, which another sitcom might have done, while still setting up a situation that allowed them to gracefully move on from it.

As the centerpiece of this season, last night’s HIMYM showed promise that the series would, as creators Thomas and Bays claimed, recover the mojo of earlier years, which they hadn’t quite managed to do thus far. There’s a lot to unpack here, but mainly, it reminded us of what the show does so incredibly well: establish consistency (with several nods to long-ago plotlines) while undermining some of that consistency by using Ted as an unreliable narrator. Though sometimes that trick only serves the purpose of giving the writers much-needed wiggle room to fiddle with the unfolding story of the mother’s introduction, it can also turn a relatively simple premise — in this case, Ted’s setup with Zoe’s hot cousin — into a layered half-hour of comedy, with each meta-narrative bringing a fresh and funny perspective. Also, as a total bonus, The Wire! For not the first time, HIMYM slipped in some key references to the criminally un-awarded series. More on that in a minute.

With Marshall stuck in St. Cloud playing Clue by himself (nice!), he desperately needed the distraction of gossip from back home. Robin happily filled in some holes with the saga of Honey (guest star Katy Perry). Like Blah Blah, Ted’s forgettable date who ricocheted off of Barney’s hot-crazy scale in season three, Honey is not the character’s real name but rather the name Future Ted remembers because her wild naïveté prompted everybody to utter a protective “Oh, honey.” Without delving too deeply into our thoughts on Katy Perry, we will say that we were a little apprehensive about her guest spot but, like Carrie Underwood and especially Britney before her, she wasn’t overused. In fact, as the wide-eyed naïf, she got the job done. Plus, this was a suitable platform for her ample “coconuts,” which had been so prudishly objected to by the stiffs over at Sesame Street.

So apparently, at Robin’s failed dinner party last December, Zoe made a deal with Ted to introduce him to her cousin Honey. When she of the plunging neckline finally arrived at MacLaren’s, Barney immediately wanted in on the action and Ted just as quickly stepped aside: “I’d say ‘hump her brains out,’ but clearly somebody already has.” Whoa! That sounds like something Teddy Westside would say. (Barney’s later rejoinder, on the other hand, was in keeping with character: “Ted fell on his sword so that she could fall on mine.”) But why did Ted so easily accept defeat? “He’s gay!” chimed Marshall’s mom, who’d been listening in on the conversation. Obviously not — he’s in love with Zoe. And thus a brief suspension of the moratorium on interventions, with this one called for by Ted himself, not for his coffee breath or the fact that he wears women’s watches, but because his impeccable morals prevent him from pursuing a married woman, despite Robin’s awesome plea not to “ghost-out” on Zoe now.

Switching over to Barney’s version of events, which began with him calling from an unknown number. Like Barksdale and Co., he’s “up on burners” and has been dumping cell phones to evade the women he’s bedded. In his scenario, Honey had the hots for him and the “blah blahs” stood in for Ted’s architecture talk. Barney busted out “Who’s your daddy?” the ick-factor of which was rightly pointed out by Robin just a few episodes ago and backfires here when Honey returned the question, prompting Barney to break down in tears because he doesn’t know (though it’s revealed that he has been trying harder to find out). But first, in the retelling, a couple of spot-on bed-creaking noises from Neil Patrick Harris. Skip to Ted’s version (Marshall’s Minnesotan manners prevent him from ignoring call waiting), in which he explained that he told Zoe he can’t be friends with her anymore but didn’t say why. And then Lily’s on the line: “We hate Ted now, get on board.” Turned out Ted did give Zoe a fake reason: Lily hated her. She, in turn, blamed Robin, who beeped in, cutting short an apology from Marshall by confessing that she had then blamed him, figuring his bereavement would end the cycle of confrontation.

We only recapitulate the details of this zaniness to illustrate the breakneck pace with which the plot moved because, technically speaking, it was really effective, like a rom-com minus all the many minutes of treacle. From his home base, Marshall channeled The Wire’s Prez and Freamon, setting up a board with string and Clue cards to chart his friends’ complicated dynamics for the benefit of his mom and brother, ending with, “Ted and Zoe are in love with each other, which would be fine if Zoe wasn’t married to Colonel Mustard — I mean, the Captain.” When Marshall learned from Honey that Zoe actually left the Captain, he brought her and Ted together in the hallway via phone by revealing their true feelings.

We confess, at the start of the season, we dreaded this moment. Zoe was our least favorite of all Ted’s women, more insufferable than Karen, whose pretentiousness was at least good for a laugh, and far less believable than Stella, whose blackballing of Robin eventually pitted us against her, too. Zoe seemed shrill and, worse, humorless. Whether she’s been rebooted or, more likely, whether the plan was to eventually soften her, starting with Blitzgiving, she’s more likable now. And, as always, Robin’s opinion goes a long way. (One minor complaint: Ted’s been chastised by his friends for using the “L-word” too quickly before, so it was a little unusual to see them embrace it so readily this time around, but perhaps that speaks to Zoe’s popularity with the group.) Of course, she can’t be the mother. For one thing, if she were, Future Ted would remember her cousin’s name. Nonetheless, after last night, we’re more amenable to seeing this relationship through.

Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS