How I Met Your Mother Recap: Revisionist History

Photo: Richard Cartwright/CBS
How I Met Your Mother
Episode Title
The Ashtray
Editor’s Rating

It looks like HIMYM is getting to those episodes that were probably written when the show’s fate was still in flux and time needed to be wasted, so last night’s installment was pretty bad. The writers tried to force a formula on a nonexistent plot, and worse, they tried to kick the poignancy up a notch by pretending that what was really at stake was the characters’ identity and purpose in life. The best thing about “The Ashtray” was that it included a Zoey-era guest star (Kyle Maclachlan as the Captain) without including Zoey (Once Upon a Time’s Jennifer Morrison), or even showing her in the flashbacks. We know some of the commenters think we’re hard on Zoey, but we maintain that she was the absolute worst of the worst when it comes to Ted’s romantic partners.

The altogether flimsy story line involved a night when Robin and Ted accompanied Lily to an art gallery opening in the weeks following Zoey and Ted’s breakup. As Ted remembers it, the Captain was menacing and rude, and kept interrupting Ted to finish his sentences. He then invited the gang to his apartment upstairs, where Ted proceeded to fondle an expensive ashtray and speculate about the island the Captain probably owned where people were hunted and the snorkeling was good, before the Captain threatened him with a harpoon-gun that Ted heroically relieved him of.

Turns out Ted’s memory is all wrong. Who really cares, though? This is an event so insignificant that nobody’s even mentioned it before, so why give a damn if it’s one of those Rashomon-type evenings? Presumably the sudden phone call from the Captain is the only reason it bears mentioning, but the only reason the Captain is back is so the actor who plays him can lend a little star power to the episode (and channel all the goodwill he created on Twin Peaks, with passing nods to its noir-ish atmosphere at the very beginning). Anyway, as Robin tells it: Ted had earlier on smoked a joint (a.k.a. eaten a sandwich) with Becky (a.k.a. Boats Boats Boats); the Captain had to finish his sentences because he was literally unable to; the high-fiving of the waiter was actually Ted knocking the tray from the poor guy’s hands; and she had to rescue the ashtray when Ted used it as a snorkeling mask. Oh, and the harpoon was a remote control — the Captain was trying to order his DVR and decide between Real Housewives of Atlanta and Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami (uninspired choices). In Robin’s version, the Captain was sweet on her, which is why he’s calling Ted for her number.

Except the woman he was actually thinking of was Lily — and the hands-down highlight of the night is when Robin turns to Marshall to ask if she can give the Captain Lily’s number and Marshall responds, “Yeah, we’ve already discussed it. It’s four million dollars, cash.” The idea that Marshall and Lily would have worked out the specifics of their Indecent Proposal scenario totally fits, and Marshall didn’t miss a beat here. And then of course it’s up to Lily to tell her version of the night, which accounted for Ted being stoned but also Robin being drunk and throwing herself at the Captain. She spared the ashtray and covered for Robin’s scoffing tone toward the art consultant, but the Captain insulted her when she offered her opinion on an elephant painting for his bedroom by saying that she was “just a kindergarten teacher.” In a nod to a plot point in season two that we can’t recall having come up since, Lily resurrects Aldrin justice by stealing the ashtray, a method of punishment she devised for dealing with her students that involves taking a beloved item from the misbehaving person. Throughout the multiple retellings of this story, Barney perplexed us by childishly insisting he was there, though this led to a slight payoff at the end.

What we liked:

  • Lily’s tearful breakdown about how she forgot to pursue her dream of being an artist. When Marshall promises that her best and most exciting days are all ahead of her, she responds, “I love you for saying this, but there gets to be a point in life where that just stops being true.” HIMYM gets its gravitas from depicting the anxieties that plague otherwise comfortable young adults, and this moment spoke to what is probably a shared concern for people of a certain age. Also, we appreciate that the writers allowed for the rather dark reality of Lily’s objection. But it did come off like a bid for seriousness in a seriously silly episode. Lily pursued her dream at the end of season one, yet she’s been quiet on the topic of thwarted ambition ever since. Still, it’s time her career got some attention, and we’re happy to see her get a new job (as an art consultant) after all these years.
  • The Archduke of Grand Fenwick. Barney’s playbook is at this point close to being overplayed, and this particular move wasn’t all that clever, but with a Prussian military costume and an oil painting of himself, he managed to convince Shelly the art consultant that — what, he was back from the dead? Not sure, but if Barney was going to whine all episode long about being left out, the joke that he might have actually been there was slightly redeeming.

What we didn’t like:

  • Barney’s reasoning for inserting himself in the story in the first place: “Crazy stories are my thing. You have architecture, Marshall has the law, Lily has art, Robin has pleasing me sexually — you all have a passion that drives you. If I have a passion, it’s taking life and turning it into a series of crazy stories. If you can do that without me, I don’t even know who I am anymore.” This sounded like a fabricated crisis. There’s surely some pathology in Barney’s need to be the raconteur, but it’s hardly the first time a story has been told that doesn’t involve him. It came out of nowhere, and his impishness is our least favorite quality in him.

So yeah, this episode was rubbish, but usually when the episodes are this weak, it means there are better plotlines being hoarded for the weeks ahead. Let’s hope that’s the case.