This is why we keep on watching. Last night’s How I Met Your Mother was among my favorites of the season so far, and I’m not just overreacting with praise because it’s been a dismal couple of weeks. Well, there’s a little of that, sure, but “The Rehearsal Dinner” supports my theory that the writers can smell the rotten fruit that’s about to be hurled at them from a mile away, so they treat the show's fans to what they deserve just in the nick of time.
Honestly, I might have become a Barney and Robin shipper in the span of those final three minutes. For most of the episode, I thought, “Barney’s being annoying, but otherwise this is kinda funny.” And I was mainly concentrating on the small stuff: Barney’s use of the puppy’s butt; Ted protecting his Liberace robe; Robin’s love of hors d’oeuvres, as well as the fact that her angry face is confusingly similar to her hungry one; the sneaky tableau in which a couple meeting in the background of MacLaren’s gets engaged, pregnant, and parted by death in the time it takes the gang to take turns making Canada jokes.
And, of course, those Canada jokes were less-inspired variations on what we’ve heard before: Tim Hortons, dogsleds, Crash Test Dummies, a backhanded compliment about universal healthcare, Crash Test Dummies again (Ted: “It’s funny, ’cause who gets a band?”). I never expected the wisecracks would actually add up to something meaningful, so it was kind of embarrassing to be tearing up to the first few notes of “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” which is quite possibly the worst song of the nineties (but which I nonetheless owned on cassingle). Barney’s speech extolling Canada’s virtues, from instant mashed potatoes to Robin Scherbatsky, was like a heartbeat returning to a show that had been flatlining for a while now.
If anything was irritating, it was Barney’s insistence on that laser tag rehearsal dinner. Not since season four’s memorable “Murtaugh” has this pastime been as entertaining as the series would like it to be — I was hoping we’d heard the last of laser tag when Robin’s dad (Ray Wise) got in on the action. So in this homestretch, it’s genuinely gratifying when the writers seem to sense our fatigue — at least, that’s how I interpreted last night’s twist. Barney wasn’t a cartoon brat in pursuit of a pinwheel. He didn’t completely disregard Marshall and Lily’s point that marriage means no surprises, or he did, but not for selfish reasons. Clearly, I’ve become so easily frustrated with Barney as a character that I fail to be surprised by his buffoonery; I took his antics at face value when I should’ve assumed there was more to the story.
You could tell the writers worked harder than usual here: The scenes were sharper, the plots effortlessly overlapped. Lily’s tendency to gossip was remembered and embellished — it was relevant to both the real ruse, which she couldn’t be informed of, and the fake one. Ted was able to milk a few misdirects out of his Liberace stunt: failing at the piano after already committing to the costume, then lying about using the practice time to nurse his LeBron grudge, before finally copping to the ice-skating lessons. Okay, Lily using his broken promise to tickle the ivories as an excuse to unload the news about Italy was clumsy, but the rebound involved Marshall losing Ted’s Rosetta Stone and everyone’s bad Italian (“Bastardo!”).
Then there were the minor callbacks to plot points from this season. I appreciated the look on Lily’s face when Ted brags about his wedding gift prowess, since this was before she and Marshall realized Ted gave them a coffeemaker. The signed Gretzky photo that figured prominently in the abysmal “Mom and Dad” was not forgotten. The Ring Bear remains a thing.
Ultimately, “The Rehearsal Dinner” was a continuation of “The Bro Mitzvah,” a strong episode from last season. You could almost accuse HIMYM of rehashing the latter if the time frame wasn’t technically so tight, but it actually makes sense that Barney is returning the gift of surprise. (Well, for the second time, because the first was a monstrous prank that hit a little too close to home.) Obviously, I can’t work out the logistics of the plan, like how Robin ended up in a room without noticing she was surrounded by ice, or how she missed the hilariously fake signage, but the episode covered its bases by being a little surreal throughout. The aging MacLaren’s couple, the skating moose/historical Canadian figures (Dr. Frederick Banting, Norman Breakey) and Robin and Barney playfully shoving Alan Thicke and Louise Poirier out of the way. It was stagey, but thoughtfully so, and the ending counted for a lot, at least in my opinion. The only real objection I have is to Robin’s hideous rehearsal dinner dress, which looked like a tablecloth that you buy at the last minute before a New Year’s Eve party.
Now that the writers have (possibly) established some goodwill for the happy couple, it’ll be interesting to see how much backtracking they do. In January, the 200th anniversary episode will have the Mother crossing paths with Ted, and while that doesn’t rule out a revisiting of the Robin-Ted-Barney love triangle later, it makes me wonder if we’re nearing closure there. With half a season yet to go, we can’t afford to be too optimistic, but maybe last night was the beginning of a much more satisfying final act.
* This post initially stated that the 200th episode would have the Mother finally meeting Ted.