The 12 Most Essential How I Met Your Mother Episodes to Watch on Netflix

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Photo: CBS

A group of white 20-something friends hanging out in their inexplicably large apartments and dating their way through half of New York is about as traditional as network sitcoms get. But in its nine seasons, How I Met Your Mother gained a loyal fan base and picked up an Emmy nomination for Best Comedy by movingly and masterfully refining the romantic comedy. At its best, HIMYM was as hilarious, heartbreaking, or swoon-worthy as anything on TV, blessed as it was with a top-notch cast and a storyteller’s knack for knowing how to build suspense. And as its characters aged into their late 20s and early 30s, the show never refrained from throwing true-to-life trials their way.

Sadly, HIMYM will be leaving Netflix on November 13. To beginners and outsiders, the series may look daunting, with nearly a decade’s worth of episodes and an intricate mythology that never stopped developing. So, here’s a guide to 12 of this iconic sitcom’s most essential episodes. If you haven’t had the chance yet, get to know the show that proved once and for all that rom-coms don’t have to be dumb or predictable.

“Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)

Revisiting the show’s first chapter, it’s remarkable how fully formed it is, from the introduction of future callbacks to the playfulness with which it tweaks the romantic-comedy genre. Most impressively, the HIMYM pilot proved that co-creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas knew exactly who their characters were from the start: lovey-dovey Marshall and Lily (Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan), overcompensating Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), sincere-to-a-fault Ted (Josh Radnor), and his dream girl Robin (Cobie Smulders), who is and always will be too cool for him.

“Swarley” (Season 2, Episode 7)

This mostly silly episode exemplifies how HIMYM could do it all: make you laugh, make you feel like one of the gang, make you happy-cry when love triumphs (Lily and Marshall get back together after their post-engagement breakup), and make smart observations about dating (see guest star Morena Baccarin’s “crazy eyes”). Like so many installments, it begins with the goofiest of premises — in this case, Barney being called “Swarley” at a coffee shop — and ends with the friends appreciating their bonds in whole new ways.

“Slap Bet” (Season 2, Episode 9)

The classic episode that gave us two of HIMYM’s best gags ever — “Robin Sparkles” and the titular slap bet — this is the show at its fastest and funniest. Try to keep up as Ted tries to pry a secret from Robin’s early years in Canada, and as the cast demonstrates its screwball chemistry and brilliant comic timing via verbal duels. Oh, and slaps.

“Something Borrowed” (Season 2, Episode 21)

Unsurprisingly for a rom-com, HIMYM loved weddings, and Marshall and Lily’s is the best nuptials of the series. Because it’s a sitcom, everything that could possibly go wrong does (especially Marshall’s hair), but luckily, the gang MacGyvers a dream wedding for HIMYM’s happiest pair at the last minute. Ultimately, the episode is an earnest illustration of an undeniable truth: The best celebration of love is the one most suited for the couple.

“How I Met Everyone Else” (Season 3, Episode 5)

Not all of HIMYM’s story lines have aged well. In the Tinder era, this one about Ted’s girlfriend of the week (Abigail Spencer) being embarrassed that they met online definitely feels dated, but the episode is still a gem that showcases one of the series’ biggest strengths: providing satisfying character backstories that make the gang feel like real people with layered biographies. The story of the night Lily and Marshall met during the first week of college is extraordinarily sweet, while puncturing some of their syrupy-ness with an acknowledgement that couples often mythologize their relationships.

“Dowisetrepla” (Season 3, Episode 7)

Speaking of Ted’s most grown-up friends, Marshall and Lily undergo the rite of passage of buying their first apartment in this episode. HIMYM often seemed to depict a New York that no longer exists — or, arguably, never existed — but this episode about financial dishonesty within a marriage and the disastrous consequences thereof is one of the show’s most bittersweet and emotionally grounded half hours.

“Spoiler Alert” (Season 3, Episode 8)

Other than love, friendship makes the world go round in the HIMYM universe. “Spoiler Alert” is a hilarious example of how (gratingly) well the gang knows each other, including those tiny annoying habits that can send any close friend who dwells on them too long into a flying rage. Mostly, though, the group’s mocking of Ted’s “actuallys,” Robin’s “literallys,” or Marshall’s tendency to sing nonsense strings of words make us ever closer to feeling like one of them. Lots of shows bring friends together, but HIMYM was uniquely great at making us feel like theirs.

“Slapsgiving” (Season 3, Episode 9)

The significant awkwardness from Ted and Robin’s breakup threaten Lily and Marshall’s first Thanksgiving as a married (i.e., grown-up) couple. It’s a testament to the specificity of Ted and Robin’s relationship and split that, as in HIMYM’s best episodes, the discomfort feels both idiosyncratic to them as characters and about dating and relationships in general.

“Ten Sessions” (Season 3, Episode 13)

Also known as the (first) Britney Spears episode, “Ten Sessions” is rightly celebrated for the one-shot, two-minute date that Ted devises for a new romantic prospect, Stella (Sarah Chalke). Grand gestures were HIMYM’s bread and butter, but this one takes the cake, as Ted attempts to convince a busy single mother that her life does indeed have room for romance.

“Intervention” (Season 4, Episode 4)

Few shows utilize flashbacks as skillfully as HIMYM did, and “Intervention” is a great example of the power of the show’s time-jumping storytelling. As Ted, Marshall, and Lily pack up the apartment they’d lived in to head off to new homes (Ted to his fiancée Stella’s house, Lily and Marshall to their condo), the trio reminisce about the adventures they’ve had in just their living room, including the interventions (against tanning, magic, and fake British accents, among various things) that they’ve held for one another over the years. There’s a cautionary tale here about how the gang sometimes go after each other’s quirks a bit too aggressively, but also a moving demonstration of how sometimes your friends know you better than you know yourself.

“The Leap” (Season 4, Episode 24)

As much as HIMYM was built on optimism and happy endings, it always did disappointments exceedingly well. In “The Leap,” Ted is forced to ask himself if it’s time to give up on his youthful dreams of becoming an architect after he’s fired from his job and can’t hack it as a one-man shop. What results is a moving ode to taking chances and embracing new phases of adulthood, even if it hurts to leave the safety of familiarity behind.

“How Your Mother Met Me” (Season 9, Episode 16)

Arguing which was HIMYM’s last good season is a well-worn game for its fans. (I’d say it’s the show’s sixth.) Yet there’s something undeniably satisfying about this season-nine episode, in which the many, many hints we’ve gotten about the Mother (Cristin Milioti) over the years — the yellow umbrella, the bass guitar, the first day of econ class — are finally threaded into a cohesive story. The episode’s most poignant scenes are her leading a parallel existence to Ted’s, with her own hopes, dreams, and struggles. Ted might have been waiting for Tracy for nearly a decade, but in the meantime, she had her own life to lead, her own challenges to accept. He’d call their eventual romance fate. He wouldn’t be wrong, but “How Your Mother Met Me” shows how much two people had to grow to become the people they were meant to be.

The 12 Most Essential HIMYM Episodes to Watch on Netflix