[Warning: Major spoilers for the complete run of How I Met Your Mother follow.]
Can a bad finale ruin a whole series? The popular (and proper) answer to this is no. Any TV show worth its salt understands that the age of endless Internet chatter about TV series overvalues endings in the grand scheme of things. The pleasure—particularly in a sitcom—is all in the journey. And that should be more than true for How I Met Your Mother, a series that was all about how the journey turns you into the person who is ultimately worthy of love when the right person finally lands in your life.
And yet the show’s series finale is a strange beast, one that tries to serve all masters, both suggesting that life is not fair and has no happy endings and yet grafts a happy ending onto the end of that message, as if the series abruptly remembered it was a sitcom. Though the finale can’t invalidate the pleasures of the show’s run—particularly its first four years and substantial portions of seasons five through seven—it does create the impression that the series’ creators were telling a vastly different story from the one they seemed to be, and it provides the ending for a story that much of the audience wasn’t aware it was even supposed to be watching. Does it ruin the show? No. But it’ll make it play more strangely in syndicated reruns.
The ultimate takeaway from the final season is that series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas were at once too good and not good enough to tell the story they ultimately wanted to tell. In the former category comes the fact that the pair are terrific at casting and can absolutely nail emotional moments, like when series protagonist Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) meets Tracy (Cristin Milioti), the woman he will marry, in the rain at a train platform. Both the introduction of Milioti to the series’ cast—which felt increasingly tiny with every passing season—and the way the scenes between her and Radnor were written gave the show a vital shot of life. Similarly, Bays and Thomas, as well as their writing staff and series director Pamela Fryman, spent almost all of the final two seasons trying to convince the audience that playboy Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) and Ted’s former girlfriend Robin (Cobie Smulders) were right for each other, culminating in a lovely scene of naked emotion from Barney, in which he insists he’s done lying and playing games. He wants Robin and only Robin.
This is all well and good if the story the series is telling is that of the show’s title. But it’s not. The story the series ultimately settled on was that of not just how Ted met Tracy (and told his kids all about not just that but also several seemingly unconnected adventures) but also how his kids told him to get out of his own head and start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time. And this isn’t something Bays and Thomas pulled out of their ass to give a series that ran too long a happy ending! One of the key scenes of the episode is Ted’s kids telling him to run off and pursue Robin, and that scene was filmed early in the show’s run, when the actors were still young enough to believably portray teenagers. (That it plays as a cover version of the end of Definitely Maybe, which came out after this scene was filmed, is all the weirder.)
In short, Bays and Thomas got trapped by a plan that eventually consumed much of the back half of the series whole. Ted’s endless attempts to rekindle his romance with Robin, say, or the creators’ unwillingness to introduce the Mother before the final season (and then their reluctance to use her in this last run of episodes) are re-contextualized not as a series revisiting story material out of desperation, but as the show trying to prime the audience for an ending the creators did a terrible job of laying the groundwork for. Bays and Thomas simply looked like shitty long-term planners, unable to understand that getting the audience so invested in the Barney and Robin coupling or in Tracy as a character would make it all the harder when the series finale abruptly dissolved the former and treated the latter’s death as an aside in the narration. That the show never seemed to suggest Ted mourned her feels like a vital betrayal of his character.
In some ways, it’s easy to sympathize with the way the creators tried to hold onto a speeding train and eventually got thrown off; in others, it becomes all the more baffling that they didn’t find a way to better foreshadow much of this or underline the way the show was apparently meant to be about how people will have many great loves in their lives, not just the one. (Even in that case, the series treats Robin—at least when viewed by Ted—as if both he and the show itself have a bad case of what advice columnist Dr. Nerdlove calls “Oneitis,” the inability to see past a certain person to anyone else who might be an even better fit.) Bays and Thomas try to save this with a climactic monologue about how important love is, but it fits in with the finale’s general sense of being a hodgepodge or scrapbook of moments, rather than having the courage to simply sit back and let the images and dialogue tell the story.
Even stranger is the fact that the season’s overarching structure—taking place almost entirely on Barney and Robin’s wedding weekend—contained some of the most poignant and beautiful moments in the history of the show, poignant and beautiful moments that were summarily undone by the finale’s refusal to stick with what it had done. “Sunrise” put a graceful, impressionistic (for a sitcom episode) period on the Ted/Robin relationship, while “Gary Blauman” suggested endings both good and bad for so many of the show’s ancillary characters. “How Your Mother Met Me” packed far more grief about a character the audience never met into its running time than poor Tracy got from the show, and “Platonish” built Robin and Barney’s relationship up to such epic status that they took on the feeling of a couple that had been fated.
The rushed finale also makes the decision to set the finale over the compressed timeframe of just one weekend much more problematic, since the season’s early episodes devoted to mostly stupid bullshit (like whether Robin’s or Barney’s mom can make better eggs, or whom Ted will hook up with at the wedding) pale in comparison to the heart-wrenching stuff in the last few. To be sure, Bays and Thomas were working with an ungainly 24-episode order. But what might have played like a fun gimmick episode told in rhyme if the finale had been perfect (or even just very good) feels all the more like a waste now.
Yet if the series finale has made much of the season preceding it play slightly worse in retrospect, it’s not enough to overwrite so much of what was one of the best comedies of its era, especially at the start. It’s not enough to erase the slap bets and best burgers in New York and two-minute dates of the show’s run, nor is it enough to eliminate stories that came later in the show’s run, like, say, Marshall losing his dad while Barney is finding his. There was so much beauty and so much wonder at both the passage of time and the seeming inevitability of the way those of us lucky enough to be blessed by love are able to find it that it would be impossible for even a far worse finale to invalidate the series entirely. What’s more, big swing series finales are often remembered more enthusiastically with the passage of time—with the already spoiled watching the show and the ability to consume it all over a few months rather than a decade. It’s entirely possible “Last Forever” will join the last episodes of St. Elsewhere and The Sopranos among the company of divisive finales that eventually won many adherents.
But think back to the wonderful ending of the show’s pilot, to the moment when Ted’s kids realize the woman he met was their Aunt Robin, not their mother, and think about all that has been lost in the quest by Bays and Thomas to write themselves out of that moment, even when several viable alternatives presented themselves. The series finale of How I Met Your Mother insists that life happens to you, like it or not, that the bad things can’t be swept away in a single moment. It’s a pity that the men writing it tried so hard to stick to those guns once it became evident how far the show had trended away from their original plans.
Series grade: B+
Other season grades:
Season 1: A-
Season 2: A
Season 3: A-
Season 4: A
Season 5: B
Season 6: B+
Season 7: B
Season 8: C
Season 9: C+