It’s been tough to keep up with HIMYM this year — every week or so, the series takes a break, making it even harder to remember (or care about) the dramatic upheavals of previous installments. Barney is in a serious relationship now? Marshall and Lily totally ditched Long Island? And why isn’t Ted living in the house he bought several seasons ago? And when the writers take the time to catch us up every so often, it can seem like regurgitation rather than reality.
Which is why last night was perfect. Rather than rehash the recent past, we rehashed the very distant past, reminding us of what’s been at stake all along: twentysomethings making the adjustment to being thirtysomethings; young adults becoming adults, no qualifiers. Of course, this is all shot through the lens of Ted’s quest for a wife. It sounds basic, but the playful narrative and necessary plot detours have confused the story line at points; some of you, like us, have grown fatigued by treading water. Fans of the show want it to be on as long as possible, and if all episodes could be like last night’s, we would agree. Yet keeping up the ruse of meeting the Mother in present time translates into a lot of stalling. Enriching the backstory, on the other hand, tends to be fun, and it allows us to see more of the characters as we knew them rather than as they are. (Settling down and having kids may be facts of life, but this is not always the best sitcom fodder. See: Up All Night.)
So “Trilogy Time” began with a clever structure — Barney’s neighbor Rear Windows him, wondering why this “handsome blond dude” keeps strutting out of the apartment building, smiling, every night at the same time. Turns out he’s farting. This was a charming, if gross, little truism. Public flatulence = true love, and by the end of the episode, Barney’s able to break wind in his girlfriend’s presence, which means all signs point to her being the bride at his wedding. Yet with actress Becki Newton signed on for Bays and Thomas’s new show next year, we don’t see how it’s possible. (Also, we were pleased to see how appalled everyone was when Barney argued, “It’s my apartment, and I need to assert my dominance as a man.”)
Anyway, the meatier story last night involved the expectations of Ted, Barney, and Marshall, and how they shifted with age. Every three years, the boys dedicate a night to watching the Star Wars trilogy, or at least Marshall and Ted do, while Barney remains steadfast in his “Wassup” jokes. Prompted by a tradition they began in college while procrastinating studying for an econ final, the pair imagine their lives three years into the future. At Wesleyan, Marshall and Ted indulged preposterous, wildly ambitious fantasies: By 2003, Ted will be designing skyscrapers and will have grown his kinky hair out to look like Morticia Addams, while Marshall will have become a successful (mustachioed!) lawyer, wealthy enough to support a pregnant Lily, who works all day on her art. A not-yet-met Robin announces herself as Rihannon, a dreadlocked singer in Ted’s band and a virgin until she met him. These were the immature and grandiose fantasies of college men.
Actual 2003 looked a little different, with Ted only learning to master “Hot Cross Buns” on the guitar and Marshall managing a Structure (nice reference!). (Barney, meanwhile, dismisses his one-night stands with the “Wassup” Budweiser catchphrase.) But the guys consoled themselves with plans for 2006, at which point Marshall will have ideally completed a seven-week run on Wheel of Fortune and Ted will be in charge of his own architectural firm, with a fancier, French-speaking Rihannon at his side. (Barney has a hip flip-phone with an antenna.) Of course, in 2006, Robin actually existed and mimed sex motions to Ted while Marshall cried over Lily’s departure. Marshall’s despondent predictions for 2009 involved Lily’s marriage to a douchebag in a trucker hat, and Ted questioned Barney’s commitment to a catchphrase from what would by then be a nine-year-old commercial. In the actual 2009 (and the dates cleverly scrolled across the screen as they did in George Lucas’s original film), Robin had left Ted, as had Stella, and his architectural dreams appeared to be squashed. Robin’s decoupage class, which was suspiciously separate from Barney’s decoupage class and did not raise any alarm bells for Ted, meant Barney’s apartment was free for a Star Wars viewing, although Barney and Robin were actually carrying on a secret affair, leaving Robin to disguise herself as a Stormtrooper for the trilogy’s duration. Yeah, nice touch.
The point of all of this reminiscing is that present-day Ted no longer feels hopeful about the future. He sees himself in 2015, balding and alone, calling the 800 number on the back of frozen food products just to hear someone else on the line. Obviously, that’s not how things turned out, but what made these predictions worthwhile was how well they captured the delusions of youth. It’s tough to maintain friendships and frequent bar nights when people’s personal lives and careers are in constant motion. The fact that this quintet has managed to do so at all is an improbable contrivance. But the intention is true — as friends, we dream together. Also, to college grads, three years sounds like a long time, a sufficient period with which to radically reinvent one’s self as a wealthy, successful, and happy adult, but in reality, 36 months can pass almost in an instant. Things don’t always change, or they do, but not in the monumental way one hopes.
The payoff in the end here was that 2012 Barney no longer jokes about everyone seeing a lot more of his conquests. With Quinn, he actually means it. And 2015 Ted isn’t a miserable Dan Clowes character after all: He’s got an infant daughter who joins him for the traditional Star Wars screening. It’s a touching reminder that a lot can change in three years, and viewing the characters’ lives — as well as our own — in this manner lends them a certain poignancy. These are the kinds of episodes we want more of going forward, ones that elaborate on the past, tantalize us with the future, and speak to us in the present.