The last episode of HIMYM blindsided us with the news that Marshall’s dad Marvin (Bill Fagerbakke) suffered a heart attack and died. Having been in Marshall’s situation a few months ago, this recapper really appreciated the stark simplicity of his response: “I’m not ready for this.” The question is: Was the show ready for it? We think the answer is yes. The series has resonated most when it’s addressed the authentic experiences of the characters’ age group — marriage, children, career change or change in general — yet nothing forces adulthood quite like the death of a parent. Marshall’s been busy preparing to be a father, but he wasn’t prepared to lose his.
That said, it’s not an easy plotline for a sitcom to handle. On the one hand, no one expected the intensity of Friday Night Lights’ “The Son,” which dealt with a similar issue last year and made for one of the best, most heartbreaking hours of drama in television history. Then again, if Barney used the occasion as a challenge to pick up chicks at a funeral, the results would have been so shallow that we would have wished the subject was never tackled in the first place. As it was, the results were somewhere in between.
The most immediately objectionable gimmick was Reverend Trey Platt (the always semi-detestable Danny Strong, formerly of Buffy and Mad Men). Normally, it would have been funny to learn that Marshall’s childhood bully is now a man of the cloth and also half his size (“That guy gave you noogies? What, did he carry a stepladder?” asks Ted), but, in a time of grief, it wasn’t particularly amusing or believable to see this guy behave like such a callous jerk. Equally tone deaf were Ted and Barney’s attempts to cheer Marshall up. Yes, the goal of getting their friend to laugh was a noble one, but doing so with viral videos of “ a guy getting punched in the nuts” seemed almost too immature. Come on, this isn’t like the time Marshall waited to find out if he passed the bar and Barney fooled him with footage of a dog pooping on a baby. Ted, a die-hard sentimentalist, would have surely looked for something more to offer than the cheap distraction of a German Shepard activating a tennis ball cannon while a fat kid sips energy drinks (but, okay, ha).
Those goofs aside, the gang’s feelings of inadequacy and their desire to be somehow indispensable to Marshall on a difficult day felt very realistic. And, hands-down, the winner was Robin. Every funeral needs a “vice girl,” and bless her for bringing “Tijuana in her purse”: cigarettes, alcohol, pills, firecrackers (she was equally crucial in rustling up the smokes at Lily’s wedding). When her reputation gets out, Robin channels Red from Shawshank Redemption, saying, “I’ve been known to locate certain things from time to time.” You know, Cobie Smulders is the unsung heroine of this show. Her talents are usually overshadowed by Neil Patrick Harris’s Zeitgeist-y scene-stealing and Jason Segel’s Apatow-approved charms, but Smulders inhabits Robin in such an expressive, effortless way that she’s fast becoming the most fascinating character in these later seasons.
Lily, meanwhile, decided her role was to help Marshall’s mother — to be “Judy’s bitch,” in her words, which also seemed crassly out of step with the occasion — though, in her defense, she’d been in Robin’s purse. Naturally, this didn’t exactly go as planned. The writers and series creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays were admirably consistent in picking up where their relationship left off in season one with Lily’s visit to St. Cloud, in which she offers to make an endive salad only to learn that the Eriksen family recipe calls for mayonnaise, gummy bears, and potato chips (Marvin’s heart problems explained?). When Lily tries to help with the food preparation this time around, Judy snaps: “You think your snobby New York cooking is better than mine. Why don’t you just whip up a batch of your fancy tofu sushi bagels and choke on them!” Lily realizes she can irritate Judy into both sleeping and eating, the two things the woman hasn’t done for days.
Of course, it was Marshall’s struggle to remember his dad’s last words that supplied the episode with the gravity that it needed. Sudden death amplifies moments that would have otherwise been forgettable, and his combing through various memories — first denying his dad a pork chop for the plane, then his father’s very dadlike racial stereotyping of “the Koreans” — was touchingly accurate, though Mr. Eriksen’s puzzling recommendation of “Crocodile Dundee III” (IMDb revealed the actual title to be Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles) got a little overplayed. Not sure why Bays and Thomas chose this franchise to poke fun at other than for its total randomness. Marshall lashes out at his friends for trying to deny the significance of these words — Robin says they’re “overrated,” and Barney once again goes colonial in a quick flashback that debunks Nathan Hale — by asking them to recall their most recent conversations with their own fathers and pretend it was their last. Their answers were comical but the provocation was real (and it gave us a first look at Robin’s replacement dad, Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise).
Outside of the church, Marshall’s meltdown continues when he thinks the voice mail Marvin left him was only a pocket call. “My dad was my hero and he was my best friend.” (Pan to Barney, whose silence was loaded.) “And now he’s just gone. He’ll never get to meet our kids, Lily. How is this fair? An entire human life and it just ends for no reason.” Segel summoned an uncharacteristic somberness for these scenes, though he’s almost upstaged by Alyson Hannigan’s masterly cry-face. But after finding out that, in fact, his dad’s last message to him was “I love you,” Marshall still opts to go with the Dundee story in his eulogy because if there’s one thing Barney and Ted were right about, it was that on a depressing day like this, people need a laugh. And props to Marshall, too, for lightening the gloomy, last-words-vibe later by saying: “I really, really love you guys. Now I’m going to go drop a deuce.” Cue the montage where everyone sneaks off to call their father and Barney tells his mother that he’s ready to meet his.
One final note: Last night’s episode made us think about the one from season two when Robin and Ted have a fight during which several issues are raised, one of them being that Robin thought Field of Dreams was “stupid.” We’ve actually witnessed this very argument unfold in real life and it ended, as it did in the show, with one of the guys emotionally invoking the “Dad, wanna have a catch?” scene. This doesn’t really count as continuity because it’s definitely unintentional, but it speaks to how thoroughly Thomas and Bays have sometimes imagined these characters that it would even occur to us to think: Marshall will have a hard time watching Field of Dreams again without thinking about his father, and so will I.