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How I Met Your Mother Recap: Knockin’ Robin

"The Drunk Train"  --  Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and Ted (Josh Radnor) take a ride on "the drunk train" headed for Long Island, hoping to hook up, on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, Monday, Feb. 13 (8:00-8:30 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.    Photo: Ron P. Jaffe/CBS  √?¬© 2012 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Last night’s episode was somewhat deceptive. On the surface, it looked like a return to form. Quippy dialogue? Check. An amusing Barney scheme? Check. A teary finale complete with indie accompaniment? Check. We want to give it the thumbs-up, especially after two duds in a row, but on closer inspection, there were definite problems. Maybe by the end of this recap we’ll have reached a verdict.

First off and most important, what’s going on with Robin? That she chose Kevin’s stability and adoration over Barney’s “We’re both so screwed up, we’re perfect for each other” logic made sense, even if Kal Penn’s stint on this season has been brutal and their romance bland. But never did Robin appear to be anywhere close to considering marriage. His proposal seemed like it would lead her to a similar end as her “No, no, no, no, no” to Ted’s proposal back in season two, which wasn’t a proposal at all, but just a case of the wrong Champagne glass. The plot should have stuck to revisiting Robin’s fear of commitment, however stale that might have been.

That was the first problem. The second problem was that, not only was she suddenly ready to commit to a guy that she cheated on a couple of months ago, but she told Marshall and Lily that the only thing standing in her way was the news of how she couldn’t have children. The real issue is that she doesn’t even want children, so why did she pin it on her infertility in the first place? Just to lure us back after the commercial break?

So maybe it makes sense that their called-off engagement led to a cigarette on the roof. Our third problem was going to be that a cigarette on the roof is a remedy for a bad day at work or a fight with a loved one or a night of drinking, but it’s a little low-key for a broken engagement. Yes, Robin is stoic and, of course, it paved the way for Ted’s consolation, but, if anything, it suggests that Robin, like the audience, knew this was an empty idea from the beginning or surely she would have been more distraught. Yet the return of the Ted and Robin romance is welcome, at least to this recapper. Opinions are divided on this point, and since this could be another misdirect, it might be too soon to get excited anyway. At least, between his feigned interest in goat cheese allergies and complaints about meeting a woman whose favorite band is Glee, Ted had some good lines. He’s been relegated to the sidelines lately.

Marshall and Lily didn’t get a lot to do in this episode beyond revealing that they keep, and will continue to keep, score of past grievances (“soupy deuce” — gah!). Their role as the Grand Poobah of coupledom, while very well established, doesn’t necessarily feel tired. Their bickering seems like a natural progression from earlier days spent hosting dinner parties, which was itself a step toward maturity after the wine-and-cheese party they ditched in the first season.

The biggest problem this episode was Barney, which is no slight to Neil Patrick Harris. The writers just don’t know what to do with him. They keep picking up the idea of a three-dimensional character only to abandon it in favor of penis puns. Earlier in the series, Barney’s caddishness felt distinctive, there for the amusement of his friends (and us). Now, he’s become straight-up crass, a CBS meathead satisfying the Two and a Half Men demographic. He’s not hate-able, but more and more, he seems to hate women, always on the hunt for someone “hotter and dumber.” Yet, for the past few seasons, the show tries to suggest that he can reform with the love of the Right Woman. First it was Robin, then Nora, and now Quinn (Ugly Betty’s Becki Newton).

Those objections aside, the drunk train was a good setting for his continued prowl. Judging from the comments, none of you take offense to the constant stereotyping of Long Island or its inhabitants so there’s no reason to dwell on it here — and the imagined inferiority complex of the commuters was a good call. Also, Ronkonkoma, easily the most memorable station name on the LIRR, is fun to say. But going so far as to have a potential conquest say, “I hate doin’ it on the ground” sounded uncomfortably hooker-y, and not in the fun, Pretty Woman way. Did it really take this level of degradation for Barney to (once again) snap out of his oversexed haze and realize he (once again) had real feelings for a girl?

And we’re still not sure how the stripper twist suits the story, unless it’s a setup for Barney to finally examine his objectifying ways, which might make sense if Quinn is the bride at the season’s end. We know what you’re going to say — why would Quinn ask to see Ted? — but, surely, the writers could invent any number of reasons between now and then. Regardless, it seems certain that Robin is not the bride. Technically, she still could be, but given her trajectory this season and all the things that have been happened upon her (in this episode alone!), we honestly don’t see how she can go from responding to Ted’s confession of love back again to Barney. Plus, Barnstormer and Ro-Ro have always received mixed reviews. We suspect creators Bays and Thomas don’t even want to see them together.

It looks like we went at this episode pretty hard, but our final impression was: We’re interested to see where both story lines lead. The return-to-form might have been more consciously formulaic than we would have liked, and Robin and Barney caused a case of whiplash, but most sitcoms suffer similar problems this late in the series. Still, the season is doing a lot of stalling and it needs to move forward quickly.

Photo: Ron P. Jaffe/CBS