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How I Met Your Mother is mostly about alternate universes in the future of the show's present, if that makes any sense.  As we follow Ted through the late oughts, he points out forks in the road — moments when, if he had done something different, his life would have changed and he never would have met the kids' mother and become Bob Saget.  But tonight's show focuses on alternate selves of Ted's past.  If he had done something different on a blind date seven years ago, would he be having the same blind date now?

Here's what we know about 2002 Ted: He has a goatee that he believes makes him look like Johnny Depp.  He's douchier than 2009 Ted — witness the annoyance disparity in his answers to the question "What do you do?"  2002 Ted proclaims that his architecture will soon redraw the Manhattan skyline.  2009 Ted says that since he teaches architecture, he gets 50% off at the bookstore ("… that's pretty sweet").  And his self-absorption ruined the 2002 date.

Here's what 2009 Ted and 2009 Jen learn about what not to do on a date: Don't point out spelling errors on the menu. (Marshall: "It is a lot cheaper than buying a condom.")  The girl should at least pretend to do the check dance.  Tone down the kitty talk.  If the girl says she's chilly, offer her your jacket.  (2002 Ted: "I'm pretty impervious to stuff like that.")  Don't talk about your action hero ex-boyfriend who bare-knuckle boxes when he's not saving lives as a firefighter.  Don't promise to call and not call.  (2009 Ted: "I have been soooo busy.")

It's the eternal question of all the first dates that went nowhere: If things had gone differently, would things have … gone differently?  Ted and Jen end up deciding that they wouldn't have.  The douche who makes the shellfish joke, critiques menu typos, and wants to make a big show out of paying the check is part of who Ted still is.  He wouldn't have wanted to have tried to be anything different just to get the girl and start a relationship.  What he wants is someone who laughs at the shellfish joke.  (2030 Ted: "You mother laughed.  And it was only 30% pity.")

Meanwhile Barney's still trying to figure out what Barney-in-a-relationship means, which is just another way of saying he's also trying to figure out what he wants.  He's convinced that coupledom means having her woman in her head all the time preventing you from having a good time.  Like in this episode's most uproarious extended gag, the convoluted storylines Marshall has to invent in order to make it okay for him to fantasize about another woman.  Lily has to contract a "rare fatal hiccup disorder that's completely medically legitimate," verified by a doctor ("It says so right here on this doctor clipboard that doctors have").  Then after sparing no expense on her cure, Marshall gets her deathbed blessing to pursue someone else after an appropriate number of years ("Someone like that busty delivery girl from that one time," Lily muses as she hiccups her way toward death).  When the busty delivery girl shows up after said appropriate number of years, Marshall leaves his hobby making miniature furniture, salutes his dead wife smiling in heaven, and tears off his shirt.

Robin's not at all that controlling, Barney asserts.  In fact, the perfect double date, if Lily would ever let him off the leash, would be for the two couples to go to a strip club to see the third doppelganger of the group — Stripper Lily!  Barney purports not to notice that Robin does not approve of the strip club, while Lily is so excited about Stripper Lily that she can't stop spinning fantasies about what Stripper Lily might be getting up to ("Do they have a shower on stage?  Some places have showers.  I bet Stripper Me would get in there with another girl and totally go for it!"

In and out of time, in and out of fantasy — the alternate ways we imagine ourselves, the things we'd like to change about each other and the things we'd like to ignore about ourselves to get where we want to go — it's all fodder for a clever, adroit episode with just the right amount of thematic resonance and plenty of big laughs.  Second one out of the gate, and we're already in the zone.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

- Barney's method of getting his bros away from their women is to brandish tickets to the Origins of Chewbacca exhibit ("Peter Mayhew in the fur!").  Marshall is fooled, but Ted realizes — too late, he's already in the cab with his Chewie head in his lap — "Wait a second, the Origins of Chewbacca exchibit is in Montreal this year, everybody knows that!"

- 2002 Jen is in between jobs because the internet bubble burst.  2009 Jen is in between jobs because of the banking crisis.

- The two doppelgangers already spotted: Lesbian Robin and Mustache Marshall.

- Lily is distressed that Marshall kills her off in his fantasies; Marshall protests, "I even set up a foundation in your name — we're this close to a cure!"

- Jen's ringtone is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in meows.