How I dealt with the end of How I Met Your Mother

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It’s rare that a show can wring nine seasons and over 200 episodes out of a premise that, at first glance, feels like it was found scrawled on the back of a napkin after a power lunch between two network executives. Yet somehow, How I Met Your Mother rose to become the definitive voice of the millennial generation on television. After spending the better part of a decade following the lives of five friends as they fall in and out of love, get married and pregnant (not necessarily in that order) and have a seemingly endless number of legen-wait for it-dary adventures, I don’t blame anyone for feeling more than a little invested in these characters and their happiness. So I can understand that expectations heading into the season finale were unusually high.  After all, this last 40 minutes had to somehow pay off 9 seasons of waiting for Ted to finally meet The One. And as it turns out, The One was…not the one at all.  Or rather, not the one we were expecting.

When I first started watching How I Met Your Mother, back in 2005, I have to admit, I was skeptical. The premise seemed flimsy, and casting Doogie Howser M.D. as a main character appeared to be the epitome of stunt casting. And yet, right from the pilot, I was immediately hooked by this incredibly well written and well-acted show. The comedic beats, accentuated by quick-cut time shifts, and periodic voiceover narrations, was unlike anything I had ever seen before on television. The chemistry between Josh Radnor’s Ted and Cobie Smulders’ Robin was as palpable as Ross and Rachel in their prime. Jason Segal and Allison Hannigan played the loving couple with countless “couple” problems perfectly. And Neil Patrick Harris ended up being the breakout star of the series, spawning myriad catchphrases and multiple books. Co-creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas grabbed my attention from the first episode, and held it for nine seasons.

More personally, HIMYM ended up becoming an amplifier of my own hopes, fears, and twenty-something angst. Being roughly the same age as Ted when the series started, I could relate to Ted reluctantly going to clubs, doing ridiculous things for girls, and waking up the morning after a night out, not remembering how he got home. I could also relate to Ted’s desires to find “The One” and his insistence that each girl he met, might actually be that girl. And as both the show and I grew older, I could relate to seeing these friends slowly drift apart, but still find time to get together for “the big moments.” There was more than one episode that made me think to myself, “Wow, Ted is doing EXACTLY what I would do right now.” So as we finally reached the end, it would have been nice to see a tidy ending that told me that everything was going to be okay, and Ted was going to get his happily ever after.

Unfortunately, as HIMYM has so expertly conveyed over the past nine years, we don’t always get what we want in life. Instead of seeing Ted happily grow old with the mother of his children, he instead gets to spend 10 joyous years with her, before losing her to an unnamed illness. And after six years as a storytelling widower, he finds happiness with Robin, the one he probably wanted all along. The most common complaint I’ve heard about this controversial finale is, “I feel cheated!” Like Bays and Thomas built up this whole show around Ted finding the love of his life, cast a pitch perfect Cristin Milioti to play this love, and then cruelly ripped her away from Ted (and the viewers) before we even had a chance to know her. All that was missing were Bays and Thomas laughing maniacally in the background as they wrote Milioti’s final hospital bed scenes. But I think the truth is far simpler than that.

How I Met Your Mother has never been a sitcom in the traditional sense. Yes, its lessons about the importance of love and friendship remain a tried a true staple in many a network comedy. However, HIMYM also dealt with topics such as the death of Marshall’s dad and Robin’s infertility with a deft comedic touch that perfectly balanced humor with the gravity of these tragedies. And with these lows came the soaring highs of watching these characters have new experiences and find new loves. For all of Ted’s struggles to find true love, those initial moments when he meets a new girl and falls madly in love with her, always put a smile on my face. “Drumroll, Please” the episode where Ted recounts his first meeting with Victoria (aka Buttercup) remains my favorite episode of the entire series. I will always fondly remember the scene in “Oh, Honey,” where he and Zoey both find out they like each other at the same time. And of course, there’s the Two Minute Date.  Even though we knew that none of these girls are the mother (and oh, how I wanted it to be Victoria!), we reveled in the small triumphs of the heart that Ted achieved.

So watching the finale unfold the way it did was, in a sense, exactly how HIMYM should have ended. Life’s not perfect. Life has its ups and downs. Barney and Robin’s marriage was never going to last. (Though, I will admit, undoing the entire ninth season wedding in a single scene in Argentina was probably the most infuriating part of the finale.) And yes, I could see Robin slowly drifting away from the group as her career took off. I could also see Marshall sucking it up in Corporate America for a few more years, before finally achieving his ultimate goal of becoming a judge. And of course, I could absolutely see Ted fall helplessly in love with Tracy (and really, who wouldn’t), and then be forced to deal with an unexpected tragedy that cuts their life together short. I’m not saying I’m happy to see it. But I can understand.

Perhaps the problem is that we’ve grown to expect TV to be our comfort food. Or more precisely, we expect our comedies to be easily digestible. Shows about good looking twenty-somethings looking for love should be straightforward. Yes, there might be some faux-“adversity” thrown in the way, but ultimately, each character gets their happy ending. People are shocked by The Red Wedding, but they still understand it. After all, it happens in a show where the catchphrase is “In the Game of Thrones, You Win or You Die.” But watching pretty young people face real problems with a laugh track in the background just doesn’t make sense. HIMYM was never about always creating a resolution in 22 minutes. Plot threads would span multiple story arcs, or in some cases, multiple seasons. We were crushed that Ted was left at the altar by Stella, but inspired that he could rebound from it to find a new love interest.

When I think about how I was in my twenties, I can relate even more to how HIMYM decided to wrap things up. Yes, the story was about how Ted met “The Mother.” But it never claimed to be about how Ted met “The One.” As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to the realization that there is no such thing as “The One.” In fact, how sad would it be if this idea of “The One” were true? What if, as in the case of Ted, he meets the only person in the world who could make him happy, only to see her life tragically cut short by illness? Is he supposed to spend the rest of his life pining away for this woman, forever “lost in his stories?” Or is he supposed to continue to live life, and find happiness in his friends, his children, and perhaps, an old love? Ted always loved Robin, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t put all of his love into his marriage with Tracy.  And it doesn’t mean he doesn’t treasure every moment that they did have together.

To be clear, this finale absolutely devastated me. But not because I didn’t like it. Rather because it was so real to me. It reminded me that life isn’t always going to be tied up in a neat bow like it so often is on television. But more importantly, it showed me that, even when faced with moments of seemingly insurmountable grief, there will always be something to be happy about; something that will make life worth soldiering on through. Whether it be from spending time with your children retelling stories of your youth, or in rekindling the flame of an old love.

There are some who might say this finale ruined the previous nine seasons for them, or that they wished they hadn’t gotten so invested in this show in the first place, and I can understand that sentiment. But for me, I don’t regret any of the time I spent with Ted, Robin, Marshall, Lily, and Barney over this past decade. And yes, things did not end perfectly for our five friends.  But in a way, that’s what made this finale so perfect.

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