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How I Met Your Mother Series Finale Recap: Not-So-Happy Endings

"Last Forever Parts One and Two" —Ted finally finishes telling his kids the story of how he met their mother, on the special one-hour series finale of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, Monday, March 31 (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.   Pictured: Josh Radnor as Ted, Cobie Smulders as Robin. Photo: Ron P. Jaffe/Fox © 2014 Fox Television. All rights reserved

Between How I Met Your Mother and The Good Wife, I’m only half joking when I propose that character deaths be covered by bereavement days. The difference between the two — for me, at least — is that while TGW surprised (blindsided?) fans with a devastating development that some would argue pulled apart the seams of the show, there was always a sound case to be made for the Mother’s death. Many commenters and critics anticipated it, and I’m not saying I wouldn’t have enjoyed a happier ending, but at the same time, it makes sense for Ted to be telling this story to his kids in the Mother’s absence. Of course, we can’t unpack that too much before we start asking why he then spends so much time on other women, especially Robin. At least creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas had the foresight to address that (sorta clumsily) via Penny. This was, in the end, the story of How Ted Got Over Robin — Only to Finally Get With Her Again.

Are we okay with that? If so, is it because we accepted early on that the conceit of the show meant it could never really be about the Mother? If not, would we have been more okay with it had the series ended several seasons ago, thus closer to the good ol’ days and before we’d invested so much time in two events that were completely undone last night (Barney and Robin’s marriage and Ted’s future with the Mother)? There’s bound to be a lot of feelings in the room. I hope Bays and Thomas have Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse on speed-dial. They might need to break out the Glen McKenna.

What I liked:

I’d give the first half of the hourlong finale five stars. I never love this show more than when it depicts the twin terrors of growing older and ebbing friendship, and the writers have done a remarkable job over the years of infusing even happy moments with the bittersweet knowledge that it won’t always be like this. The series perfectly captured that period between college and adulthood-proper, every once in a while stopping to remind us that this time in our lives — when our friends are sacrosanct and another round with them will always soothe us — is fleeting. I’m thinking of the last cigarette, or the end of “Robots vs. Wrestlers,” when Ted says: “Kids, I’d love to tell you that over the years we didn’t all drift apart a little at one time or another. You don’t mean for it to happen, but it does.”

And so following the dissolution of her marriage to Barney, Robin becomes the Sasquatch (nice) of the group — which doesn’t totally square with Robin and Lily’s relationship, or haircuts, as revealed in season eight’s “Bad Crazy,” but so be it. I appreciated the opening flashback to 2005, even though Lily hardly needed to tell Ted that Robin was awesome, because I remembered once wondering when and how Robin officially became part of the group. Maybe it was too official, that’s rarely how bonds are forged, but it set up the ending so nicely. Robin’s speech to sad, adorable White Whale Lily in the empty apartment got the tears pouring: “It’s never going to be how it was. It can’t be. And that doesn’t have to be a sad thing. There’s so much wonderful stuff happening in our lives right now — more than enough to be grateful for. But the five of us hanging out at MacLaren’s being young and stupid is just not one of those things.”

That’s the credo of the show, and the most honest moment of the episode. Maybe the death that I’m mourning isn’t Tracy’s, but the passing of friendship that happens as people get older, couple off, and move on with their lives. The fact that the stars probably weren’t acting but emoting here made it that much more affecting — if you’ve seen Alyson Hannigan give interviews lately, you know that when she pushed Marshall to say good-bye to Ted first, it’s her own reluctance in play, and it was cleverly (and creepily) diffused by that E.T. exchange.

The callbacks — to have-you-met-Ted, the three-day rule, the cockamouse, joke saluting, the universe, Judge Fudge, “Murder Train” — were selective and sweet, and I’m relieved that the pineapple forever remains a mystery.

And, finally, Cristin Milioti. A major complaint of this season was that we never got enough of her as the Mother, and so it would’ve been weird to get too much of her last night. Instead, we got just enough to further complicate our reaction to the ending. Nobody wanted her character to die. She was great: I loved her riposte to Barney about Number 31 (“Oh, that’s a pretty name. What is that, French?”), and the fact that she and Ted waited to get married, and that she dressed up as an elderly Florida Democrat to complement Ted’s hanging chad. I really wish she had been more involved in this season so that all of these special memories weren’t thrust into the last hour of the series. Maybe we didn’t get to know her better because the creators were protecting their original vision (the kids’ reaction was filmed years ago), and they didn’t want her death to be even more depressing.

What I didn’t like:

In speaking to fellow fans, the word that came up was cheap. It’s not that anyone’s holding the writers’ feet to the fire over the title of the show. The storytelling was often a misdirect, and in my opinion, we care about those core five friends more than we were ever going to care about the lovely Tracy, but she was a sixth character. Curiosity propelled us, it got us through the limping later years, and yet the meeting at the train station, which was such a sweet exchange of wordplay, didn’t resonate as expected, because only moments later, Penny sits up and says, “That’s it? No, I don’t buy it. That is not the reason you made us listen to this … Mom’s hardly in the story. This is the story about how you’re totally in love with Aunt Robin.” (Penny and Luke: Not even a tear shed at the memory of your wonderful mother?)

The real crime here is the duration of the series, which inevitably weakened the ending, and Bays and Thomas should cop to this — it’s something that will no doubt be taken into account with the spin-off. They teased us and tested our patience until we had no choice but to fall in line behind the narrative direction, which led us away from Team Robin and Ted. The writers bludgeoned us into surrender, so we couldn’t feel nearly as excited by Ted with the blue French horn in the finale as we did in the pilot. (Also, Ted stood by while Robin married his good friend and she wasn’t even going to come to his wedding? Robin was once my favorite character; this embittered version of her was so disappointing.)

Similarly, an entire season was dedicated to Barney and Robin’s nuptials, yet the two are practically estranged by the end, and as endearing as I found Barney’s hysteric enthusiasm for his friends circa 2018, that he’s at peace with Robin’s absence feels like a betrayal of our investment. His plea to let him “just be me” makes plenty of sense, if only the writers had granted him that courtesy sooner. And then his daughter changes his attitude toward women — I was not a fan, that’s not the equivalent respect; it’s complicated and weird. His bachelorhood should have been left alone; Jim Nacho never needed to exist. (Though maybe his lifestyle blog with boner jokes of the day did.)

So no, I wasn’t satisfied with the second half of the ending (two stars). But this series in its conception was so original and interesting and brave that I’m willing to cut it slack in this last recap, because the creators challenged themselves to start something that was pretty difficult to finish. (And as far as finales go, Six Feet Under managed to outdo its pilot — any others?) The writers played with narration and time and memory, and at times they painted themselves into a corner.

But I don’t feel duped or short-shrifted by Tracy’s death for a few reasons: (1) Whole seasons went by where the series was so strong that the Mother didn’t even matter, she was just a framing device; (2) Cristin Milioti filled big shoes when she stepped into a role this anticipated. Her casting was smart, and she became even more lovable throughout the season, and especially in the finale. I commend the writers for making us feel as much for her as we do; (3) I don’t feel Ted has been deprived of happiness, or that our fandom has been trivialized, because the Mother didn’t live longer. In a way, I appreciate her more as a character since her time with Ted was as proportionally brief as our time with her.

Granted, I’m choosing to zoom out. Ted and Tracy enjoyed a happy decade together. That’s another chapter, another show, one we might have watched, we don’t know. The series nominally built up to a single moment, but life doesn’t. People marry, fathers die, babies are born, marriages fall apart, spouses leave, friends drift and reconnect. And that’s what happened. For a show that could be incredibly funny and emotional, it left me a little cold, sad mostly, to see the last of a likable, talented cast. If there was no mention of Tracy’s illness, if we were led to believe that Robin enjoyed a fulfilling career traveling the world like she always wanted, and Ted finally had the domesticity he always craved — at this point, that could’ve worked, too.

In the spirit of How I Met Your Mother’s meta-narratives, the show went on for too long, just as friends try to make their youth together last forever. The series has mirrored milestones and growing pains in my life, and probably yours too, and I wish I was as thrilled by the ending as the beginning, but I’m grateful that so many episodes stand up to multiple, multiple viewings.

Photo: Ron P. Jaffe/CBS